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Music Review: Radiohead – Pablo Honey (Collector’s Edition – 2 CDs)

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Hearing Radiohead in 1993 was, to many, a little like hearing the “British Nirvana.” This bitter grunge stuff was withering on the vine, with the American kids on their way out of the Seattle haze.

‘93 was the year of In Utero, the year before we lost Kurt, the year of Pearl Jam’s Ten, and STP’s Core. Yet the influence of grunge was already slipping: Whitney Houston topped the chart with a bleedin’ soundtrack, for one, and Dr. Dre introduced us to The Chronic.

But here was this group of Oxford gents with this Pablo Honey and this song called “Creep.”

Pablo Honey didn’t stand out in ’93, at least to the best of my recollection. It was a record I had but a record I didn’t particularly need. “Creep” kept making the rounds, though, no matter where I went. In fact, that fucking song overshadowed everything else on Radiohead’s debut.

I dunno, maybe it was all of that 90s self-loathing we were all so comfortable with.

Not that the rest of the album was sunny-side-up: “I’m better off dead,” Thom sang on “Lose Yourself.”

Hearing Pablo Honey in 2009, c/o this jealousy-magnet Collector’s Edition, is not at all like hearing the “British Nirvana.” It’s like hearing a masterful band entering the fray for the first time with a guitar-tinged, melodic, stripped-down rock record.

Things have changed since 1993, that’s for damn sure. Radiohead has changed and a listen back to Pablo Honey exposes the dazzling building blocks of OK Computer, Kid A, and In Rainbows. From Yorke’s grand falsetto to Jonny Greenwood’s guitar wizardry, everything you need to know about why Radiohead went where they went is woven into every track.

“Creep” really is “so fucking special.” It may well have driven Yorke and Co. to scorn the stupid thing for a while, what with all those boneheads showing up just to hear it and then bugger off, but it really is a gorgeous song. Word was that Greenwood didn’t like how soft it was, so he jammed his guitar as noisily and spitefully as possible to throw it all out the window. It sounds like someone cocking a gun.

Written as a tribute to the Pixies, “Stop Whispering” shows off Thom’s range. To see the promotional video is to step into a time warp. “Anyone Can Play Guitar” oozes with Colin Greenwood’s groove and the band’s tempo changes. The melody is almost punkish and Greenwood’s guitar is unrefined and tough.

The Pablo Honey Collector’s Edition features a second CD loaded with almost everything from the 1992-1993 era of Radiohead.

The Drill EP is included, offering dramatic insight into the band as a very young creature. Drill features the demo versions of “Prove Yourself,” “Stupid Car,” “You,” and “Thinking About You.” The distinction between the refined album versions and the crude EP recordings is undeniable. Of special note is the vivacious “Thinking About You” demo version.

A collection of B-sides fill out the second disc, merrily featuring a mound of rarities and live performances alongside them. Yorke scowls all over the Nirvana-tinged “Inside My Head,” while the tempo shifts and mischievous Greenwood bass of “Million Dollar Question” captivate. The U.S. version of “Stop Whispering,” acoustic versions of “Creep,” “Vegetable,” and “Banana Co.” are also included. And it’s hard not to salivate over the screeching guitar solo on “Yes I Am.”

The 1992 BBC Radio One Session, featuring performances of “Prove Yourself,” “Creep,” “I Can’t,” and “Nothing Touches Me,” makes for tremendous listening.

The Pablo Honey Collector’s Edition is one of three Radiohead Collector’s Edition sets released. The Bends and OK Computer have also been issued and I’ll be taking a look at those soon. This particular set is available in 2 CD Collector’s Edition or a Special Collector’s Edition featuring the 2 CDs and a DVD. The DVD features a selection of promo videos and live performances.

Back in 1993, Pablo Honey might have been discarded as just another grunge rock record. But in 2009, the record stands as a lucid clue of what is to come. It is raw, often dazzling, brooding, and unpredictably fun. This Collector’s Edition serves as a wonderful memento of the roots of one of the world’s best rock bands and of a time when self-loathing was taken to imaginative new heights.

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