Wednesday, August 20, 2008

8/18/08 - On Radiohead

I saw Radiohead at the Outside Lands Festival in SF, and, much like the previous time that I saw Radiohead (on the Amnesiac tour at Madison Square Garden), was left with an inescapable conclustion - Radiohead in the last five years have established themselves as peerless large-scale rock performers.

This is, in some ways, exceedingly strange. Radiohead is very different from artists like The Killers, or Kid Rock, or other bands whose stock in trade is pump-the-fist-toward-the-sky anthems. The last time Radiohead put out an album of fist-pump anthems it was 1996 and they called it The Bends. In fact, you could even argue that The Bends, though exceedingly guitar centric, is almost an anti-anthem album, seing as how it's shot through with the alienation of a band attempting to reject the hell out the success of "Creep". Which really means that you have to go back to 1993 and Pablo Honey to find a Radiohead album that finds the album consciously reaching for the rafters. It's hard to remember now, especially since the band has lapped Pablo Honey artistically again and again, but go back and listen to a song like "Anyone Can Play Guitar" and it makes sense why critics kept citing U2 as such an influence on early Radiohead.

The major chord chorus in that song is the "Beautiful Day" move, basically - after the grungy noodling of the verse, Yorke & the gang deploy that chorus like a set of afterburners: Pablo Honey Radiohead was looking for 60,000 strong singalongs.

But then they got it with "Creep" and took a left turn that just kept on going. "Black Star" and "Street Spirit" on The Bends are fairly anthemic, but the rest of the songs on that album, while definitely guitar-based rock, are not really stadium anthems, and then with each successive album the music got steadily more moody and introverted. Yorke's vocals reached more towards drone, and the electronic textures that were such dynamic accents on OK Computer were brought more and more to the fore. By the time of In Rainbows, the lead single was a moody ballad couched no longer in acoustic guitars and Yorke's falsetto choruses, but in electronic synth textures and a kind of meandering mantra-like chorus.

Which doesn't mean that it's not good - on the contrary, late-period Radiohead turned out to be way more interesting than anyone predicted when Yorke was rocking a dyed blond ponytale playing the MTV Beach house in the mid-nineties. But what the recorded discography suggests is a band that increasingly skews internal and moody and away from external and anthemic. This would seem to logically suggest that as a live band, Radiohead should have gone from better at performing large shows to being much, much worse. The Smashing Pumpkins are an obvious corrollary here - who in their right mind would prefer to see the Pumpkins on the Adore tour as opposed to the one for Gish or Siamese Dream?

Fascinatingly, however, the move toward greater introversion in their recorded output was matched by the sculpting of a ferociously dynamic live performance aesthetic, so that listening to Radiohead in the headphones is almost a completely different musical experience from listening to them rock a crowd. Live, they let the guitars drive the songs, just as they did on Pablo Honey and The Bends, but Johnny Greenwood uses the electronic accents developed through the latter albums to drench the songs in an otherworldly haze of sonic effects that make them harder, stronger, and more compelling.

"I Might Be Wrong" live is a towering, walloping beast of a song, complete with audience clap-along and tambourine. Similarly, the introverted anthems of late-period Radiohead are turned inside out, and Yorke expertly brings intimate dynamics into play at large-scale shows. This, I theorize, is the secret of Radiohead's success as a live band - they expertly scale up the dyanism of their songs, such that the quiet desparation of "Exit Music (For a Film)" is exquisitely balanced by the guitar explosions of a "Paranoid Android". I only wish that they would bring to bear all of this firepower for the next album; it seems strangely miserly to keep it only in the ephemeral realm of live performance. Although quite possibly it just keeps it special.

No comments: