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The Rockologist: Radiohead’s Ice Age Gets A Thaw On Deluxe Reissues

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Talk to most any longtime Radiohead fan, and they will tell you that the band's glory years came in the mid-to-late nineties with albums like The Bends and OK Computer — the latter of which has been hailed by many of those same Radiophiles as one of the greatest records ever made.

Me? I don't buy it. Not to take anything away from OK Computer — it's an amazing record to be sure. OK Computer is dense, complex, and full of really great songs like "Karma Police" and "Paranoid Android."

But it is also more than a little derivative in places, of late seventies prog-bands like King Crimson, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, and even Uriah Heep (something about that mellotron). Not to say that this is a bad thing, but I've still gotta' call it the way that I see it.

Great listening, yes. Innovative and ground-breaking? Not hardly — at least not in the same way that the Pitchfork crowd might lead you to believe. Sorry.

The fact is — for me anyway — Radiohead's most interesting, challenging music in fact came with their post-millennium work. That's right. I am a proud fan of Radiohead's "Ice Age." While there has never been anything even close to a Radiohead backlash on the same level as, say, there was with Coldplay — the albums Kid A and Amnesiac were still the place where more than a few fans got off of the hipsters bus.

Not me.

In fact, it is with these two albums that I thought things first began to get really interesting. With Kid A and Amnesiac, Radiohead more or less rejected the idea of the big arena rock band wrapped in a post-grunge alternative package that they had become, in favor of something far more stripped down to the bone. And it made for some of the most interesting music of their career.

Critics of these records will often point towards the more experimental, ambient noodlings you'll find on each of them, and on the surface at least, I wouldn't entirely disagree. Songs like Kid A's "Idioteque" and "Everything In It's Right Place," and Amnesiac's "Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box" are more like ambient soundscapes than actual songs really.

In that respect, Radiohead's so-called "electronica" records have always reminded me a lot of David Bowie's "Berlin" period with Brian Eno on albums like Low and Heroes. Musically, everything is stripped to nothing but the barest essentials. Lyrically, it isn't that far of a stretch from Bowie's "Lately, I've been, breaking glass in your room again" to Thom Yorke's "Yesterday I woke up feeling like sucking a lemon."

Correct me if I'm wrong here.

But for every cold sounding whirr, beep, and click of those songs, you get something that surprises, and quite often knocks the living shit out of you. On Kid A it's the throbbing bass-runs of "The National Anthem" and Thom Yorke's haunting falsetto vocals on "Optimistic." On Amnesiac it's the droning, jazz-flavored drums and bass of "Dollars And Cents," and the fluid, George Benson meets Duane Allman guitar flourishes of Jonny Greenwood on "Knives Out." Come to think of it, Yorke turned in one hell of a vocal on that one too.

If these albums seem cold in places, many of the songs found there thaw the freeze, and warm things up in a hurry.

The other thing about Radiohead's icy-sounding music from this period is the fact that at exactly the same time they were performing some of the best live shows of any band on earth.

My first Radiohead show — at the Gorge in Eastern Washington in what I want to say was around the summer of 2001 — was one of the greatest live concerts I have ever witnessed. I'd put it on a par with Springsteen shows I attended on the tours behind Born To Run and Darkness On The Edge Of Town in the late seventies. It was that good.

Radiohead were a revelation on that hot summer night in the desert. Despite the experimental albums they were touring in support of, they also rocked like one hard-rocking, quite ferocious sounding 'sumbitch.

A few years later, I saw them on the tour supporting the more "rock-oriented" 2003 release, Hail To The Thief, and it was no less explosive. I had seen Springsteen on The Rising tour at Giants Stadium the night before, and flew across country back to Seattle (nursing a really nasty cold and a case of jet-lag to boot), to catch Radiohead at White River Ampitheatre.

While songs like "There, There" and "2+2=5" from Hail To The Thief clearly established that Radiohead were still a formidable rock band, some of the best moments in the show came during chestnuts from Amnesiac like "You And Whose Army?"

I all but forgot I had just seen my hero Springsteen in Jersey.

Anyway, on those three Radiohead records — Kid A, Amnesiac, and Hail To The Thief — the chasm between hip alternative rock band, and cool ambient experimentation was bridged once and for all, paving the way for the musical freedom heard on 2007's brilliant In Rainbows. Radiohead music could no longer be confined to labels. It was just Radiohead music.

With that same artistic freedom now having been extended to independence from traditional record label distribution, Radiohead's former label EMI has been hard at work scurrying to squeeze the last drop it can from it's former golden boys. We've already seen deluxe editions of Pablo Honey, The Bends, and OK Computer this year, as well as a surprisingly well done Best Of Radiohead CD/DVD compilation. This past week, that cycle was (presumably) completed with double-disc deluxe collectors editions of Kid A, Amnesiac, and Hail To The Thief.

The good news here is, that while these deluxe reissues don't represent anything spectacular, they do provide a pretty damn fine upgrade. In each case, the bonuses found on the second disc — a mixture of live cuts, outtakes, and the like — is mostly stuff hardcore fans will already own. Regardless, it's nice to see it assembled individually on each disc where it really belongs.

For those of you who are new to the band, each of these discs also represent a better, more complete introductory point. Most of the essential stuff is included here, so there's no longer any need to seek out all those pricey B-sides and bootlegs.

On a cursory listening, I wasn't able to detect a whole lot of difference between the original recordings and the remastering job done here — if in fact any was done at all. The cover art is also mostly the same, although these packages come in eco-correct, fold-out, double-disc versions.

Still, having live versions of songs like "Optimistic," "Knives Out," and "Dollars And Cents" plays nicely back to back with the original versions. For newbies, this is the place to start. For hardcores, call it a nice little upgrade.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • zingzing

    i’d have to say that “pyramid song” is my favorite. there’s a youtube video of them at the canal+ studio in paris of them doing the song… those strings are created on an instrument that i’ve never quite imagined. it’s like a keyboard connected to a theramin. (the whole show is worth watching, so keep clicking.)

    i’d have to say that kid a/amnesiac are two of my favorite albums of the decade… and i wonder what would have happened if they had put out the whole session that produced them as a double album.

    i know you probably dislike pitchfork (it’s the cool thing to do), but you should really read their reviews of these two albums. they’re ruminations on the death of the album (in the mp3 era), with kid a being one of the last full album experiences and amnesiac leaking track by track before its actual release. good stuff.

    what a great band.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Thanks Zing. It’s not so much that I dislike the writing on Pitchfork — some of it is quite insightful.

    What I dislike is the whole attitude that “obscure” and “hip” equals good, and nothing else does. Sometimes I think the folks over there fall all over themselves trying to find anything that no one has heard of in order to make themselves look so much cooler than the rest of us — to me, it’s just a stupid approach to music.

    The criteria should be the quality of the music: period.

    That said, I’ll definitely check out those reviews because based on what you say, I’d likely find myself in agreement with them. I just don’t happen to share the view that rock music began with Nirvana, and anything that came before them is irrelevant. I have to call bullshit on that.

    -Glen

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Oh, and by the way, I love “Pyramid Song” too. Just a beautiful piece of melancholic music.

    -Glen

  • zingzing

    “What I dislike is the whole attitude that “obscure” and “hip” equals good, and nothing else does.”

    that’s not quite what’s going on there. sure, they have their own taste, but it doesn’t equate to hip or obscure. it may be obscure to you, but there are a lot more “obscure” places to go. look at their “album of the year” articles. they pick pop albums more often than not. and they review thousands of albums every year, so some of them are going to be obscure.

    “Sometimes I think the folks over there fall all over themselves trying to find anything that no one has heard of in order to make themselves look so much cooler than the rest of us — to me, it’s just a stupid approach to music.”

    for the most part, they stick to fairly easily-found stuff. it’s not especially obscure. they review springsteen, the cure, justin timberlake, jay-z, anything that will appeal to their audience, without taking needless pot-shots at crap like nickelback or whatever your (not yours) modern rock flavor of the moment is. they cover the pop world pretty well… but they know their audience as well. so it’s definitely not top-40, but top-40 is such a small portion of the music industry that someone needs to cover it, and thank god that they do. rolling stone won’t. spin won’t. nme won’t. those three cover the 10% at the top, pitchfork covers that same 10% and another 20% below it. (these numbers are rather arbitrary.) then there’s the other 70% below it. that’s the obscure stuff.

    “I just don’t happen to share the view that rock music began with Nirvana, and anything that came before them is irrelevant. I have to call bullshit on that.”

    woah. you need to go and read the “best songs of the 60s,” “best albums of the 70s,” “ditto 80s,” etc. if anyone thinks that rock music began with nirvana, they’re deaf (and dumb)… and pitchfork doesn’t think music began with nirvana. no offense, but you’re showing your ignorance of their content with that statement.

    i’m not the biggest pitchfork fan, but they are a good source for music news and album releases. i learn a lot from them. if there was one music site that i liked more than any other, it was stylusmagazine[dot]com, but they quit at the end of 2008, i believe. maybe 2007. the site’s still up, and it’s wonderfully readable and they have excellent columns, like “playing god,” where they take apart albums and resequence them, adding in b-sides, etc, to make the album they want. fucking great. i also like the onion’s avclub site. (and not just for their music reviews.)

  • zingzing

    and i think that pyramid song is just about one of the most beautiful songs ever written. those piano notes make no rhythmic sense. they’re all off time and jerky. the drums don’t make any sense, either. they roll and stumble, but never really make a steady beat, it just lurches about. the build up is too slow, the strings are too woozy, everything is off time, but when it all comes together, it’s just majestic, and it all suddenly makes sense.

    there’s some compositional alchemy going on in that song that i’m totally in awe of. and it’s beautiful the whole while. it’s the entire radiohead package: wonderful singing, experimental structures, new textures, an incredible drum line and beautiful results.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    To be perfectly honest, I haven’t taken a look over there in awhile, and am basing my opinions just on what I remember from the last time that I did. I may just need to give them another chance.

    But I do have a distinct memory of snobbery and elitism the last time I did check them out — and it definitely had a slant towards both the modern and the obscure.

    Obscure is fine, as is modern. Just don’t tell me that Springsteen or the Beatles suck, and that I’m some kind of fossil for thinking otherwise.

    Based on what you’ve said though, I will make a point to give them another chance.

    -Glen

  • zingzing

    ok, well. then look here for your springsteen love. and i think if you look at the “best songs of the 60s list,” you’ll notice a lot of beatles.

    they break a lot of albums that might have remained obscure had they not written about them. they do get a little snobby now and again, but that’s just the way it is. all music critics are snobby. if you’re not snobby, you’re just trying not to be snobby, but you really want to, don’t you? you’re going to break out that van dyke parks album any day now, i can tell.

  • zingzing

    also check out their review of the seeger sessions, which was the last (latest) truly fucking great album that springsteen put out.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Anybody who calls himself “The Rockologist” certainly has to have a little snob in them, no?

    I’m with you on Pyramid Song too…it has this really “regal” sounding undertone to it, almost like it could be a state funeral march, were it not for the fact that it rises with such gorgeous waves of sound towards the end. Just beautiful sounding stuff.

    Another favorite of mine from those albums that I didn’t mention in the article is “Morning Bell.” I prefer the Kid A version, but I like the one on Amnesiac too, because it has this trippy-ass Sgt. Pepper sort of vibe to it (speaking of those damn Beatles). But the keyboard on the Kid A version kills me every time…just some really haunting shit.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go pull out some appropriately snobbish sounding Tom Waits album…

    -Glen

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    I liked Seeger Sessions though it took awhile to grow on me. But Magic was the last truly great one. And the tour behind it was unbelievable.

    -Glen

  • zingzing

    “I prefer the Kid A version, but I like the one on Amnesiac too, because it has this trippy-ass Sgt. Pepper sort of vibe to it (speaking of those damn Beatles).”

    that’s exactly why i like the amnesiac version more. it sounds like ’67 beatles. specifically, like “strawberry fields,” that woozy synthphonic stuff.

    and fuck tom waits. go listen to some captain beefheart if that’s what you want.

    i’ve yet to see springsteen in concert. his shows are usually too expensive, even if he puts controls on the prices, and around here (nyc), they sell out within 20 minutes. it’s a fucking shame.

    i actually bought the springsteen discogrophy (at least up to tunnel of love) back when i was in high school for about $8. vinyl is the shit. i think i paid $2 for nebraska, but everything else was a buck. well, i think the live box set was a little more, and maybe i bought that later, but in any way, i got his shit cheap and fast. i had a good 3 or 4 month period where he’s all i listened to, and every now and again, i go crazy for him again.

    born in the usa
    nebraska
    born to run
    darkness on the edge of town
    tunnel of love
    live 75-85
    the wild, the innocent
    greetings from asbury park
    (fuck the river, that album’s awful)

    all are classics, and in that order. (yes, i love born in the usa, and not for any nostalgic reasons, just because it’s his best songwriting and some of his best production and arranging.)

    and have you heard bowie’s version of “it’s hard to be a saint in the city?” fucking classic.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Fuck the River? You’ve got to be kidding me!

    I can forgive the Tom Waits diss, but the River is one of Bruce’s best Zing. Not only does it include “The Price You Pay” (my all-time favorite Springsteen song, and also the one song he has refused to play live for like 30 years now) — it also has “Ramrod” “Drive All Night” “Stolen Car” “Fade Away” — need I go on?

    It’s easily his most diverse record. Even the clunkers like “I’m A Rocker” are great fun because of their frat-rock sort of vibe.

    Fuck The River? I don’t think so.

    -Glen

  • zingzing

    but the production is dead, the songwriting is sloppy, everything seems rushed… i just don’t like that album. then again, i haven’t listened to it in years. i believe i still have it. maybe i’ll give it another shot. it’s his only album that i seriously don’t like. i was so caught up in the idea of a springsteen double album, but it disappointed me. all his worst instincts caught up in each other, i thought.

  • zingzing

    and ramrod was one of the ones i absolutely moaned disdain at. ugh. but i will give it another go, i promise. things could have changed in 5 years.

  • zingzing

    sending you the bowie version of “hard to be a saint.” check it. it’s strange to begin with, but then the ending gets its velvet underground on, with strings. gotta love bowie. best artist of the 70s. (including springsteen, bitch.) hope you enjoy.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Love Bowie already so no need to sell me there. But back to The River for a sec…

    The sloppy feel of the throwaway rockers was absolutely intentional. They were trying to capture a party-rock sort of vibe as well as the feel of their live shows. It was almost like the anti-Born To Run — they really wanted an under-produced record with The River I think.

    As for the songwriting? Some of Bruce’s absolute best songs are on that record. The characters from Born To Run are mostly grown up and facing things like marriage, morgages, and their own mortality.

    From The Price You Pay:

    So when the game is done,
    you better run you little wild heart,
    you can run through all the night and all the day,
    but just across the county line,
    stranger passing through put up a sign,
    that counts the men who’ve fallen away,
    to the price you pay, and girl before the end of the day,
    I’m gonna tear it down and throw it away.

    Man! That lyric just kills me every time.

    -Glen

  • zingzing

    yeah, yeah. gimme a chance to listen to it for myself.

    what did you think of the bowie track? you listened to it, right?

  • http://everythingisamess.wordpress.com Tom Johnson

    Glen, have you seen Meeting People Is Easy? If not, get on that, stat! It really fills in a vital piece of the Radiohead story at what we now know is a major turning point for them.

    As a major fan of the band as well as King Crimson, etc., I do have to disagree with saying that OK Computer is derivative. OKC really is one of the most fantastic albums I’ve ever heard, period, and nothing derivative can rise to that level. “Inspired by,” maybe? But derivative, absolutely not. That word was thrown around a lot when Kid A came out as many argued it aped a LOT of the Warp Records canon and said it would sound dated and ridiculous very quickly. The funny thing is, of course, we all know that Kid A sounds as incredible today as it did nearly 10 years ago while much of the Warp stuff sounds, well, dated and ridiculous. (To be fair, the Warp material that Thom Yorke cited as influences for Kid A remains solid – Autechre and Aphex Twin, mainly.)

    Despite having most of the b-sides, I still remain excited about these reissues (there are a few I’m missing, and it’s cool to have everything in one place.) What’s great about the “late period” EMI Radiohead b-sides is that they complete the picture much more than the earlier b-sides did. While those are great songs, they are “just” songs. These b-sides point to a process going on.

    I’ve been along for the ride since The Bends and it’s been fascinating. The fact that nearly 15 years later they continue to fascinate me in exactly the same way proves they’re a pretty amazing band.

  • zingzing

    “airbag” off of ok computer certainly does sound like king crimson, but it has much more of a pop sense behind it, i figure. actually, early king crimson (pre-’75) sounds a bit ridiculous to me, but i hate prog rock.

    i’ll agree that a lot of the warp cannon, including early autechre and aphex twin (pre tri repeatae++, saw II, respectively), does sound dated. but i find a lot of their stuff, even if dated, to be remarkably charming.

    in fact, i’m going to the warp 20 concert today in new york. battles, !!! and flying lotus are playing. art rock, disco punk and fucked up hip hop… they’ve branched out quite a bit over the last few years.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    I don’t know, maybe derivative is too strong a word — but like it or not there are definitely spots on OK Computer where you can hear the “influences” I mention, especially Crimson. Pink Floyd too. That doesn’t mean I love OKC any less (and I do love that album). But it also doesn’t make it any less true.

    Speaking of Floyd and bands influenced by them though…

    Tom, do you notice how “Time Flies” off the new Porcupine Tree album is basically a sped up rewrite of Pink Floyd’s “Dogs”….listen to it and tell me I’m wrong! It’s practically note for note. Like on OKC though, it doesn’t make me love it any less. Actually I think its a rather obvious, and quite clever homage to an obvious influence.

    -Glen

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Zing,

    I was pretty sure I’d heard Bowie’s verion of “Saint” before, but yeah I checked to make sure…and I was right. Great, as I remember. I do also know that Bowie at one point was thinking about a “Pin-Ups” type album of Springsteen covers (before Born To Run made Bruce famous), so I’m sure there has to be more of this stuff out there somewhere.

    But yeah, great stuff.

    -Glen

  • zingzing

    i’d have to say that, judging by the late 80s reissues on ryko (and the sound + vision box set), that bowie didn’t have all that many gems languishing in the vaults. and, supposedly, bruce actually came around while bowie was recording “saint,” (he was in philly, i believe… maybe new york…) and was mighty confused at what he heard.

  • http://everythingisamess.wordpress.com Tom Johnson

    Just stumbled back on this, Glen, and wanted to pass on this video where Steven Wilson explains why “Time Flies” pays such heavy homage to Pink Floyd, in case you haven’t seen it by now.