KARMA KOMMANDERS Radiohead

Their early career gets the deluxe reissue treatment.

 

BY A. WATT

 

It still seems strange that any band could get from Pablo Honey to OK Computer in less than five years time, from being written off as post-Nirvana one-hit wonders – thanks, “Creep” — to their current standing as the Most Important Rock Band on the Planet. Even after 12 amazing years of adding challenging new chapters to that legacy, OK Computer remains the album people tend to speak in tongues about when the talk turns to Radiohead and the genius thereof. But as this new series of Special Collectors Editions arrives to remind us, they’ve been brilliant all along.

 

 

Even Pablo Honey (8 out of 10 stars) has held up surprisingly well. While clearly not the “major work of art” every subsequent Radiohead release put so much effort into being, it’s a great guitar-rock album, just “alternative” enough to grab you by the flannel in the post-Nirvana marketplace while clearly shooting for a grandeur more in keeping with the best of U2.

 

 

And while Thom Yorke hadn’t really found his voice yet (that eerie falsetto that haunts OK Computer, but which rarely shows its face here), Jonny Greenwood’s lead guitar work is truly amazing, bringing the feedback with savage intensity. This has to be the album people think of when they piss and moan about how under-represented Greenwood’s lead guitar is on their later, more experimental records. And I almost get that after hearing this again. At times, the music strives too hard to be U2 (“Stop Whispering” could be a Coldplay song, it wants so desperately to be U2). But “Creep” is genius. Really. Yorke may beg to differ, but he’s still too close to have a vote here. It’s haunting, it rocks, the self-loathing alienation of the words is total Yorke and even after all these years, I still get chills when Greenwood whacks those deadened strings going into the chorus.

 

 

The acoustic “Creep” included on the 22-song bonus disc just reinforces how much Greenwood added to the song’s appeal. But plenty of the other bonus tracks are made of more essential stuff, including the early recording of “You” originally featured on the Drill EP, an intense live rendition of “Ripchord” and explosive post-punk outbursts “Million Dollar Question” and “Inside My Head.” The bonus DVD features four early videos (including a truly bizarre one of Yorke in a coffin and vampire makeup singing “Pop is Dead”), a Top of the Pops performance of “Creep” and nine songs captured live at The Astoria in London a year after the album hit the streets, by which point tracks like “You” and “Anyone Can Play Guitar” had only gotten more electrifying while “Creep” had definitely gotten creepier.

 

 

The Bends (9 out of 10 stars) holds up as both the logical next step from Pablo Honey and the gateway drug to the headier sonic experimentation of OK Computer – a moody masterpiece that places Greenwood’s slashing lead guitar work front and center in its more explosive moments, from the darkness of the title track to the electrifying, Steve Albini-does-Nirvana climax of “My Iron Lung,” a song that seeps in on a psychedelic riff John Lennon might have written the same day as “Strawberry Fields Forever.” At the opposite end of the musical spectrum, The Bends also features a pair of their prettiest pop songs – the impossibly majestic “High and Dry” and “Fake Plastic Trees,” two largely acoustic-guitar-driven ballads whose bittersweet pop sensibilities make the most of Yorke’s falsetto. If “High and Dry” has the prettier melody, “Fake Plastic Trees” packs the harder emotional punch, in part because they play it so damn slow as it builds to a Beatlesque climax of anthemic chamber-pop grandeur.

 

 

The bonus disc starts with “The Trickster,” a track that could pass for an outtake from OK Computer when, in fact, it was released before The Bends, on the My Iron Lung EP, their first session with OK Computer producer Nigel Godrich. The only tracks that don’t turn up from that amazing eight-song effort are the title track and an unplugged rendition of “Creep.” Other highlights of the bonus disc range from a rocker called “Lewis (Mistreated),” their bid for greatest one-song mod revival of the ‘90s, to the anthemic power-chord bombast of “Maquiladora,” a “High and Dry” B-side. But the real essentials here are four tracks from a ’94 BBC Session, including a sneering, explosive rendition of “Just” that features some of Greenwood’s most inspired work. Two bonus DVDs feature the relevant videos (including two for “High and Dry”), appearances on Later With Jools Holland and Top of the Pops, and eight different songs from the same 1994 concert featured on the Pablo Honey DVD.

 

 

It’s a tribute to just how futuristic the music on OK Computer (10 out of 10 stars) must have sounded back in 1997 that it still feels like it’s drifting in from outer space today, from the opening seconds of “Airbag” through the operatic drama of “Paranoid Android” and “Karma Police” to the album-closing space-rock lullaby, “The Tourist.” It’s the quintessential headphone album, even after all these years, and listening that way only underscores the feelings of alienation and dread that course through nearly every song. The lyrics are as dark as Roger Waters’ bleakest moments, maybe darker, but the melodies are gorgeous. And beneath all those cutting-edge textures and digital hijinks (check out the Orwellian robot-voice narrative of “Fitter Happier”), the songs themselves betray an innate love and understanding of the future’s distant past, even lifting a piano part from “Sexy Sadie” on the achingly Lennonesque “Karma Police,” where Yorke asks the Karma Police to arrest a girl whose Hitler hairdo is making him ill.

 

 

The bonus disc features plenty of outtakes that turned up on singles for “Paranoid Android,” “Karma Police” and “No Surprises.” And at least one outtake, the dramatic rocker “Pearly*,” could have fit in nicely on the proper album, which I don’t say lightly. Other standouts range from “Polyethylene (Parts 1 & 2),” whose parts are more like separate songs without the seamless transitions of “Paranoid Android,” to “Airbag,” caught live in Berlin. But once again, the highlight of the bonus disc is a BBC Session, including gorgeous live renditions of “Exit Music (For A Film)” and “No Surprises.” The DVD, sadly, is skimpier, offering videos for all three singles (one of which, “Paranoid Android,” only undermines the essence of the song with darkly comic animation) and three songs done live on Later with Jools Holland, including a much truer representation of “Paranoid Android”).

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