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Main Category: Art Rock
Also applicable: Mope Rock, Punk/Grunge, Electronica
Starting Period: From Grunge To The Present Day
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Year Of Release: 1993
Overall rating =

Transatlantic Pearl Jam with a knack for melodies that are... umm, melodic?

Best song: STOP WHISPERING, although I'm really not too sure.

Track listing: 1) You; 2) Creep; 3) How Do You?; 4) Stop Whispering; 5) Thinking About You; 6) Anyone Can Play Guitar; 7) Ripcord; 8) Vegetable; 9) Prove Yourself; 10) I Can't; 11) Lurgee; 12) Blow Out.

The Original Mixed-Up Kid stands at the very centre of the big unadorned hall, with a faraway, deadly serious expression on his face reading "I've fuckin' seen what you'll never fuckin' see" and a microphone stand swaying in his hands, symbolizing The Flaming Sword that's about to fall down on all the oppressors, exploiters, and slave-drivers. The Close Friends of the Original Mixed-Up Kid stand to the right and the left of him, all dressed in black or at least in something that ain't too bright (and too clean), one holding a bass guitar, one with something that has a few more strings. (The Original Mixed-Up Kid may have one himself, it doesn't really matter much). The Powerhouse Drummer is the God Almighty of this place, sitting in the background and emanating lightning out of his drumsticks - it's your problem if you can't see it, asshole. The chords aren't many; the psychologism is abundant. Art and soul history is being made. Don't mess with the Original Mixed-Up Kid - he's either on medication or is soon gonna be. "Daddy didn't have no toys", and you sure can empathize if you're the last one in your neighbourhood to be still lacking that latest Siemens model.

Fortunately - and I'm relieved to say that - this pattern doesn't quite apply to Radiohead's debut. Everyone has to take a start somewhere, and for a guitar band in the early Nineties not to take a start by idolizing Nirvana and its breed would be a feat akin to hearing an XVIIIth century composer incorporating Zulu tribal music into his latest oratorio. After all, the greatness of Nirvana was never in the very fact that Nirvana were among the first "grungers"; it was in the fact that they could take these few chords and shape them into something that would be more than mere aggressive noise. Those who lacked ears never noticed it, and eventually earned grunge its bad reputation. As for Radiohead, they were among those few who could boast several well-working pairs of tympanic membranes.

Now, that was hardly enough to shape Pablo Honey into anything grander than an eventually forgettable introduction into the world of the Great and the Terrible. But it was certainly enough to make those who are willing to look beyond the generic surface to come around and realize that some of these songs are, in fact, thoughtfully written and cleverly recorded. One thing I would never dare to speak of with certainty is the album's sincerity; to me, it looks like a relatively hollow genre exercise. The album's one "well-remembered" (due to its being a hit single) song, 'Creep', just begs to be called 'manneristic': the generic transition from 'we're quiet and sensitive' to 'we're loud and desperate', the song's self-deprecating (I'd even say 'self-defecating'!) lyrical matter, and the obligatory use of the F-word in a context where it is absolutely not required (is it even possible to say 'I wish I were so fuckin' special'?) all look like they were taken from that old instruction book, "Alt Rock For Dummies". (For that matter, my CD edition tacks on a special unannounced bonus track which turns out to be... a clean, radio-oriented version of 'Creep', with the F-word replaced by 'very'; a trick taken from that other old instruction book, "Alt Rock For Mummies").

On the positive side, the falsetto pieces on 'Creep' are a clever addition that Thom E. Yorke (sang and played guitar) couldn't have stolen from no instruction book, and that is what makes him so fuckin' special (and he knows it, the creep). And that is more or less the way it goes with most other songs on here. Their skeleton is generic grunge (alt rock, pop punk, call it what you want as long as you leave Michael Jackson out of it); but the little "guitar extras" and Yorke's proficiency as lead singer make them attractive. When I listen to 'Stop Whispering', for instance, it's not the main melody that I'm following and not the furious guitar crescendo towards the end - there's way too many guitar crescendos on the album for me to bother, anyway - but the way Yorke intones 'stop whispering, start shouting', in such a way that you never know whether the song is supposed to be complaintive, aggressive, or uplifting/anthemic. The effect is somewhat close to U2 in their prime, not as powerful, mayhaps, but also not as faraway, because in 1993, at least, Yorke was still not quite ready to play God.

It's only natural, then, that the subtler the piece in question is, the more time it spends in my playlist. I have little use for songs like 'You', which look like uncertain imitations of stereotypical Pearl Jam album openers; but I'm far more particular towards nice acoustic mood pieces like 'Thinking About You', whose vibe owes as much to Blood On The Tracks as it does to the old alt-rock scene, if not more, actually. Alas, that's practically the only "ballad" on the entire album; everything else may start out in ballad mood (or in "midtempo upbeat jazzy" mood, like 'Blow Out'), but eventually shifts gears, and then it's up to Jon Greenwood to decide whether he wants to end the song with a boring barrage of power chords or something more enticing - said 'Blow Out', for instance, has a pretty cool guitar thunderstorm for a conclusion, no longer particularly innovative after everything that's been done with the guitar, but still spine-tingling in a way of its own.

Speaking of clever pop hooks, not every song on here has got one, and the ones that do have them share the usual problem of burying everything under the solid mass of traditional guitar tones and effects, but I can overlook that with songs like 'Anyone Can Play Guitar' (indeed!) and 'Ripcord', with its clever use of descending scales, anti-musical-industry-allegories and suchlike. Somewhat less prominent is 'Prove Yourself', which seems to have been written with the sole intent of having a good sing-along tune, but considering that you'd not only have to sing along to the title but also to lines like 'I'm better off dead', maybe that wasn't such a hot idea. (Not that the exhortation to 'prove yourself' should necessarily refer to suicide - might be quite the contrary. But you can never tell with clever lads like these, can you? They were lucky not to have shared the spotlight with Ozzy, anyway).

There's actually been some talk about the Pixies being one of the major influences behind Radiohead's early sound, but I don't believe this. The Pixies had a sense of humour and light, non-annihilative irony; Pablo Honey takes itself way too seriously to go after Black Francis. On the other hand, Radiohead were never quite as heavy as the quintessential grunge sound is supposed to be, and, unlike Kurt Cobain, weren't really fans of Black Sabbath or any other metal band. Balancing over all these edges, you could say that, when pressed hard, interrogated, and submitted to Spanish torture, Pablo Honey really sounds different from everything else, and this betrays per-fuckin'-sonality. But even if it does, heck, who's really gonna bother when you have so many truly different things coming right up? Pack it under your saddle and move on to all those other musical realms.



Year Of Release: 1995
Overall rating =

Guess I'm not one of those Nineties kids after all.

Best song: HIGH AND DRY

Track listing: 1) Planet Telex; 2) The Bends; 3) High And Dry; 4) Fake Plastic Trees; 5) Bones; 6) (Nice Dream); 7) Just; 8) My Iron Lung; 9) Bulletproof... I Wish I Was; 10) Black Star; 11) Sulk; 12) Street Spirit (Fade Out).

Once OK Computer had made its triumphant grade, the awestruck Thom Yorke generation found itself running back to explore the sources. One of the sources was Pablo Honey, which said generation sort of condemned - the other one was The Bends, which said generation sort of deified. Apparently, some time in between 1993 and 1995 Yorke and Co. had acquired supernatural powers, allowing them to become the band of the Nineties par excellence, with no competition for miles around. Personally, I suspect the Dalai-lama must have been involved - or how else would you explain the band's involvement in the entire Tibetan Freedom Concerts farce?

Joking aside (for the moment), The Bends is certainly not a revolutionary departure from Pablo Honey, as some would like it to be. Rather, it is a consistent, but not flawless, transition from the roughness and straightforwardness of its predecessor to the sophisticated artsiness and subtlety of its successor. It is a definite advance over the 1993 record in practically every possible way, but it's not the kind of advance that sends you roaming in search of the band members' medical histories, to check whether, by any chance, any of them had a piece of superior alien brain implanted in between albums. It's the kind of advance that merely shows you that here's a band that is well aware of its limitations, and that is exactly why it is never happy to stay in one place. It's always time to move on. And there's nothing wrong with that. It's the Beatles attitude, and it's a good thing these guys have it.

What these guys do not have is the Beatles' decade. The Bends is a good album, for sure, but it screams "Nineties!" at you at the very top of its bulletproof iron lung. And this, perhaps, is my biggest problem with the record. Upon first glance, it simply can't fail, as Radiohead offer a talented concoction with enough ingredients to please everyone. As usual, there's the Nirvana influence, with big, heavy riffs, angry, pissed-off screaming, and plenty of crunchy ass-kicking. As usual, there's the U2 influence, with much of this stuff being loud, highly emotional, anthemic rock. But by now, there's also a far more slim and subtle artsy influence, of the Pink Floyd type, the one type of influence that's tailor-made to please us intellectually-bent nerds, and is also a great blessing for the critics - who can now, provided they really gave the album at least one listen, actually find something to write about rather than jumble about.

Upon my second glance, though, I am finding out something that really bugs me. And that something is that The Bends has this very, very specific, very tight and limited target audience. And that target audience is young people - preferably male, preferably aged from 14 to 19, preferably having personal problems of their own, preferably not getting laid as often as they should, and preferably not too knowledgeable about the history of popular music before the year 1995. Once all these "preferably" come together, we have ignition and this is a perfect 15 out of 15. Aw, what the heck - in the year 1995, I was 19, had personal problems of my own, was not getting laid at all, and did not really know my Pink Floyd from my Cure. Unfortunately, back in 1995, I couldn't tell a Radiohead from a pokemon either. Ten years later, I'm 29, my personal and sexual problems have sort of settled down, and a little knowledge goes a long way, too. And?...

The Bends - for me - is boring. Now I'm ready to confess that it just might be my personal problem. But I also have the advantage of a clear slate - and judging from the point of view of that clear slate, I am saying loud and clear that The Bends is not even the best record from a relatively young rock act in the year 1995 (both Blur's The Great Escape and the Flaming Lips' Clouds Taste Metallic, in particular, are, in my humble opinion, much better), let alone the entire decade. So Radiohead write depressed anthems. So what. Everybody and their West German grandma have written depressed anthems, one of the most popular styles in "intelligent" pop music ever since Jim Morrison whipped that dick out. So in 1995, these depressed anthems, written by young, freshly energized people, were THE thing for young, freshly energized audiences. SO FUCKIN' WHAT? Ten years later, nobody's all that fresh and energized anymore. The real question is - do these depressed anthems really stand out among their brethren, tall, proud, independent, and idiosyncratic? Today? Do they have, whatchamacallit, transcendent value?

Hmm, well, guess I can't really answer that last question. But then there's no harm in trying. According to my suitably humble opinion, the melodies on here are OKAY. These are not great songs, nor are they really bad ones. In fact, lack of consistency is something I really can't accuse these guys of, much as the little horned guy in my left ear would like to convince me otherwise. Every song out of twelve has at least one distinct and acceptable hook. That's a pro. Few of the songs have more than one distinct and acceptable hook. That's a con. Granted, there's been a fair share of absolute classics in this world of ours that never even needed more than one hook - a grand tradition dating from the age of 'Louie Louie'. That sure is a pro. But then Radiohead are clearly aiming at something seriously higher than "unpretentious, straightforward entertainment", and these noble aims require far more sophistication and individuality than I sense has been displayed. Ain't that a con?

Two more nasty nibblin' accusations I'd like to throw their way before I finally get to the nice and flowery part of the review. First: slowly, but steadily I am growing more and more annoyed with the sound of a picked guitar string lasting for more than half a second upon being picked, if you get my meaning. The power chord was great when it was being invented, but so many bands not destined for power chords have abused and ridiculed its power by the mid-Nineties that it's just fucking tragic. I would figuratively bet my entire collection of illegal MP3s that all of the "heavy" songs on The Bends would, to me at least, sound far more impressive had they been less heavy.

Second: obvious, yeah, and predictable, but isn't Thom Yorke just a tad too young to have earned the right to re-write the rules on musical depression? It took Robert Smith almost a decade to reach the heights of Disintegration, and it took Jim Morrison a couple square meters on Pere Lachaise to be taken seriously by millions of devotees (although up to this day there's still plenty of people sneering at Morrison's naivete and unintentional banality, and not entirely without reason either). Okay, so it doesn't take a lot of years to earn the right to be depressed, but when you're expressing your depression with lines like 'Everything is broken/Everyone is broken/Why can't you forget?' or 'Who are my real friends?/Have they all got the bends?/Am I really sinking that low?', well, not in my world at least you can't count on gaining the privilege of being worshipped for your sublime artistic sentiment. And it's not just the lyrics I am meaning, either.

Okay, now that I've got that off my chest, let's talk a little bit about the songs. They're nothing new, but they're good, all of them. Slow, depressed "alternative rock" with hooks and moods. And Thom can sing pretty good. Especially when he gets around to that falsetto - I dearly love these moments because that's when you really get to feel that this is something more than just slow, depressed "alternative rock". (Like the 'If I could BEEE...' trick on 'Fake Plastic Trees'). Remarkably, some of the best hooks actually shine through on ballads - such as the unforgettable chorus of 'High And Dry', simplistic perhaps even in the face of the generally not-too-complex material, but boasting a genial kind of simplicity, actually. With just a few teeny-weeny vocal twists, Yorke transforms what could have been a stupid, lameass chorus into a beautiful McCartney-esque creation.

Count me in, as well, each time that '(Nice Dream)' comes along, my unquestionable second favourite. Not sure what the message is, exactly, but I really like to interpret it as a "nice dream" abruptly shifting to a nightmare, then coming out again to perfect bliss and tranquility. Not only is this practically the only song on the album that seriously breaks out of the general "depression / anger" paradigm, but I don't think the whole somnambulic subgenre in music had been treated so well ever since the second side of Kate Bush's Hounds Of Love - and, unlike Kate, Yorke is able to make his point within a mere four minutes - hell of an Ockam's razor, if you ask me.

And then there's the rest, I guess. Solidly composed, but still forgettable "where do we go from here" rave-ups of the title track and 'Black Star'. The big hit 'Fake Plastic Trees', very U2-ish in nature, with slightly less predictable lyrics for a change, but still sort of in between: too big and pompous for an intimate ballad, too restrained and held back for an all-out Anthem. (Now that's the kind of song that, I'm not afraid to say, would have been super-cool in a Bono version on The Joshua Tree). Terrific guitar soloing on 'Just', with Greenwood trying out everything from Edge-derived "rhythmic lead" to all-out grunge chaos to thrilling high-pitched notes - although the song itself looks like Radiohead desperately trying to out-Cobain the shit out of 'In Bloom' (not the melody I'm referring to, but rather the shifts in dynamics and the overall pissed mood and sarcastic message). Cool astral effects on 'Planet Telex', apparently recorded by a stone drunk band in a fit of odd inspiration (hey, maybe that's why, out of all the tunes on here, it's that first song that seems the most sincere?).

And so on and on, with every song having its good sides, moments, ideas, and effects, but only the vocals of 'High And Dry', the mood shifts of '(Nice Dream)' and the guitar wizardry of 'Just' convincing me that there is sufficient reason for relistening to the album some time in the future. (Okay, I might probably add the impressive polyphony of the closing 'Street Spirit' - although I would also like to remind that this kind of sad folkish beauty was just as marvelously, and maybe even more marvelously, accomplished by the Cranberries on their debut album two years earlier). None of which, of course, takes away from the well-established fact that The Bends, socially speaking, has won its big lottery of prize of being one of the most "important" releases of the last decade of the XXth century. Hey, who am I to argue with facts? I'm much better at ignoring them, believe me.


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