Maybe punk didn't rescue us completely from prog-rock, but what makes Radiohead think prog-rock is going to save us from anything? Based on OK Computer, this Oxford quintet is convinced that the future lies in the astral hippie past, where six-minute "suites" are twice as good as three-minute singles.
It's true that Radiohead began and nearly ended its career with the latter. "Creep" was an instant hit in 1993 at a time when self-hatred seemed like a prerequisite for stardom. But unlike Kurt Cobain, whose loathing was genuine, or Beck, whose "Loser" was ironic, Thom Yorke simply whined, spelling out each huffed-up chorus ("'Cause I'm a creep!") in case anyone missed it the last time. As Odelay did for Beck, Radiohead's follow-up album, The Bends, obliterated the taint of novelty, with "Fake Plastic Trees" and "My Iron Lung" proving that the group was more than just a one-trick pony.
Which makes OK Computer doubly disappointing. The album has the sound of a band trying to pass off self-indulgence as ambitious experimentation. It's an old trick, of course, and the guys in Radiohead are too self-aware not to poke fun at themselves for becoming the new Pink Floyd. They should be so lucky, because at least Floyd recorded a few good albums before collapsing into this sort of self-important glop. The problems begin with the album opener, "Airbag": Having survived a metaphorical car crash, Yorke returns to Earth with a messianic zeal. "In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the universe!" he boasts, but there's not a hint of humor in his voice. David Bowie could barely pull off a line like this in 1972, but there's no hope of redeeming it in 1997.
OK Computer leans heavily toward the pretty pickings of second guitarist Ed O'Brien more than the sadistic thrash of Johnny Greenwood, and Yorke adds keyboard textures that beg to be called dreamy. Nothing wrong with this, except that Radiohead piles on the melodrama by adding strings and swelling choruses. Every song drags on at least a minute too long, with silly statements like "Paranoid Android" being delivered, God help us, in three "movements." And perfectly pleasant songs such as "Karma Police" and "Subterranean Homesick Alien" are ruined by Yorke's naive word play. Irony is a poor substitute for true emotion, but I'll take it any day over the tale of a guy who wants to be abducted by the family-oriented aliens hovering above, "making home movies for the folks back home."
There's a sad, seductive undertow to "Climbing Up the Walls" and "No Surprises," but there's simply no excuse for a song such as "Fitter, Happier." It's little more than a computer voice reeling off the "rules" to a healthy, productive life, ending with the stinging acknowledgment that we're all pigs "in a cage on antibiotics." Sorry, but Floyd didn't succeed with Animals, and OK Computer is even less compelling. It's especially tough to listen to a young band nostalgic for a time that wasn't that great to begin with.
Lester Bangs once described an Otis Rush album as "better than suicide," but I've always thought the line was much more appropriate to the genre known as "mope rock." Not the weak, watery, pretentious-poet stuff like American Music Club or such silly goth/gloom nonsense as the Cure and Smashing Pumpkins. I mean the real deal: albums in which you can hear the artists slit their wrists open and let the blood pour out on 24 tracks because it's the only alternative to embracing the deep sleep. I mean Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen, the third albums by Big Star and the Velvet Underground, Nirvana unplugged, and Tonight's the Night by Neil Young. And I mean just about anything by Tindersticks.
This mysterious English combo hasn't altered the formula much over four full studio albums. Curtains once again features the core sextet fleshing out Stuart Staples' somber tone poems with beautiful layers of violin, keyboards, accordion, clarinet, brushed drums and the occasional borrowed orchestral instrument. The surprises here are "Fast One," which features a pretty good imitation of the Velvets' noisy masterpiece, "I Heard Her Call My Name" and "Marriage Made in Heaven," a bonus track with guest vocals by Isabella Rossellini. (She's no diva, but I'm with David Letterman: I melt just when she says her name.)
As for the basic Tindersticks recipe, it's not really an acquired taste; like sushi or snails, you either love it right off the bat or it makes you want to puke. The biggest obstacles are the tempos (they're slower than Strom Thurmond's pulse rate) and Staples' voice (Nick Cave imitating Bryan Ferry on a 45 slowed down to 33). Although I have a limited tolerance for mope rock--the aforementioned list of greats is all I've ever had time for--I'm willing to follow Staples and crew on their particular funeral marches every time out, because few of their peers have ever plumbed depths so deep and because the beauty of their arrangements always suggests there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Neil Young and Crazy Horse
Year of the Horse
These represent Neil Young's fourth and fifth live discs of the '90s (following Weld, Arc and Unplugged)--throw in Lucky Thirteen, and he has six discs of recycled material this decade, in addition to six CDs of new material. As such, they may not exactly be irrelevant, but they do pose a niggling question for fans: Why is it okay to release this and keep so much other material locked away on the shelf? Young has to be the biggest major rock artist with the most significant chunks of back catalogue unavailable on CD. Great swatches of his agonized '70s output are nowhere in sight (where the hell are such underrated efforts as On the Beach? American Stars and Bars? Hawks & Doves?), while the Geffen "Trilogy of Terror" from the '80s (Trans, Everybody's Rockin' and Old Ways) are available only as overpriced imports (given some of that material, make that waaaaaay overpriced). And there's the small matter of this long-delayed sequel to Decade, an opus that promises another pile (up to 10 discs, depending on who's spreading the rumors) of material both new and recycled, though by the time it sees a record-store shelf, it'll probably have to be titled Millennium.
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Noodling around on less-than-essential toss-offs such as this one certainly isn't a crime, but it does seem like creative wheel-spinning that keeps fans from what will be an epic release from all accounts. Oh, well--at least this isn't the same old same old. Young throws together an eccentric batch of songs, resurrecting a couple of long-neglected tunes from Zuma ("Barstool Blues" and "Danger Bird") and Rust Never Sleeps ("Sedan Delivery" and "Pocahontas"). Compared with the original album, which was endlessly fascinating since it sounded like Young was this close to dropping right into the abyss, the versions of the Zuma tunes are workmanlike and go down with an incongruous smoothness. Still, Young does shake things up a bit: The beautiful "Pocahontas" receives an amped-up electric crunch, while chestnuts "Mr. Soul" and "Human Highway" are rendered in an acoustic fashion (though "Mr. Soul" got the same treatment on Unplugged--is Neil even paying attention to what he's putting out these days?).
The only really pointless inclusions are three tunes from Young's last album, Broken Arrow, which get extended jams. This wouldn't be that bad a thing except that they were extended jams on the studio album. (If Young wanted to include something from Broken Arrow, why didn't he throw in "Music Arcade," the sole acoustic number amid that album's electric rumble, an elliptically resonant tune with the potential to become as popular as "Sugar Mountain"?)
Consumer alert: This represents 85 minutes spread out over two discs; junk one song--say, the 11-minute version of "Slip Away"--and you could've fit it all on one CD and saved a coupla bucks. Young right now might be advised to back off the feverish pace at which he has been releasing product, lest he fritter away all the goodwill he garnered with his amazing comeback a decade back.