Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Love Affair With Radiohead: Part 3 - OK Computer


Every important and culturally relevant band/artist has a seminal album in their catalogue that stands above the rest as the most influential, creative, ground-breaking, and/or brilliant.  This is the album that automatically comes to the forefront of most people’s minds when the band/artist is mentioned and it’s hard to find anyone who disagrees.  The Beach Boys have Pet Sounds, The Rolling Stones have Exile on Main Street, Pink Floyd has Dark Side of the Moon, AC/DC has Back in Black, The Clash has London Calling, Prince has Purple Rain, Bob Dylan has Highway 61 Revisited, Miles Davis has Kind of Blue, Springsteen has Born to Run, Nirvana has Nevermind, Run DMC has Rasin’ Hell, the Beastie Boys have Paul’s Boutique, Michael Jackson has Thriller, the Beatles have………well……….the Beatles have whatever album I listened to last. 

Alright.  In all fairness, I’ll play this game.  With a gun to the head, I guess I have to say that the Beatles have Sgt. Pepper.

Now, granted, all of these artists (and the many that I neglected to mention) have several other albums that are amazingly brilliant, important, and influential, but for one reason or another, these albums have found their way to the pinnacle of their respective artists’ careers.  You could argue that you think other albums are better (as I prefer Abbey Road over Pepper), but you would also have to concede that these albums mentioned really are the most important work the artist has ever done.  And Radiohead is no exception, as OK Computer clearly stands out as their crowning achievement.  From the opening track, you could just tell this band had ascended several different levels.

The first memory I have of this album was in the summer of 1997 right after it had been released.  I was in the middle of my second tour of duty as a camp counselor at Keuka College just outside Penn Yan, NY.  During the morning hours, the campers would go to their classes and the counselors who weren’t teaching got to hang around the dorm watching movies, taking naps, playing pool and ping pong, and occasionally planning out the afternoon activities for the campers.  It was on just such a morning when I first saw the video for “Paranoid Android” which was the first single released from this album.  Needless to say, I was confused.  Not just by the video (which while aesthetically pleasing, is quite bizarre), but by the song itself.

It would be a few years before I saw the sheer brilliance of this song and finally one day claim that it is my favorite song of all time.  It starts off with a sort of schizophrenic acoustic guitar part that launches into a spacey and tripped-out guitar loop.  After the second verse and engrossing and infectious blues groove, all of a sudden you’re hit in the face by a frantic and urgent electric guitar chord which launches into a full band entry that holds nothing back and just sets you on fire.  Just when you think you have an idea of what’s going on, everything slows down and you are sent to a place that provides you with the greatest two minutes ever recorded.  And then you are returned to the very same chaotic band entry that confused you in the first place and when you just begin to gather your thoughts again, it abruptly stops.  It's an absolutely stellar song.  Game over.  

But the first time I heard it, I was nowhere near that epiphany.  Remember, at this time in my life I was not a Radiohead fanatic.  I liked their first two albums, Pablo Honey, and The Bends just fine.  But as far as I was concerned, the best band out there was Oasis.  So when I saw this video with my fellow camp counselors in the lounge of Davis Hall, it was more background noise than it was one of my favorite songs of all time.  I did not feel some urge to go out and buy it.  For some reason, it just went over my head and I didn’t think much about it.  That is, until the most influential person in my life (musically speaking) came along and started telling me how amazingly awesome the entire album was.   

While my older brother Mike has usually steered me down the right path with introducing me to some phenomenal music, his greatest achievement was getting me into OK Computer.  He talked about it frequently and to the point where I had to start to pay attention.  Finally, he bought me a copy of it for Christmas (which for the life of me I can't remember if it was in 1997 or in 1998) along with a copy of the 1976 Genesis album A Trick of the Tail which was one of the first Genesis albums made after the departure of Peter Gabriel.  Oddly enough, old school, prog-rock, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis might be my brother’s second biggest influence to my musical tastes, but that is a story for a different blog post. Suffice it to say, Christmas that year ruled.

The first song that really got my attention on this album was the fourth track, “Exit Music (For a Film)”, which encapsulates not only what I love about Radiohead, but about music in general.  Essentially, if a well written song can build to a rousing crescendo from a mere appearance of nothingness, it’s pretty much going to earn its spot amongst my favorite tracks of all time.  This is particularly true for me if it takes the song a long time to build and throws in a variety of different parts, but sometimes, as is the case with “Exit Music” it works just as well if the crescendo is relatively brief.  The icing on the cake here is the final eerie last lyric that simply states “We hope that you choke”, repeated a few times over.  How does it not just sink into your brain?  I distinctly remember really hearing this song for the first time in my brother’s apartment in Philadelphia and it just struck a chord with me.  The clouds lifted, I rubbed my eyes, arouse from my six year slumber and realized that this moment could quite possibly mark the turning point of my appreciation and affinity for Radiohead.  There was no turning back.

I became consumed by this album.  I listened to it incessantly at college.  And when I put the headphones on and paid it the full attention that it was due, I heard even more in it.  I heard parts that I never had before and then I challenged myself to listen for those little parts hidden away in a sea of sounds and instruments, and when I did discover a new ditty that I had previously missed, it was like discovering my own small pot of gold.  And the album was loaded with these moments.  What helped me appreciate and love them even more was the fact that I started associating myself with people at college who shared the same feelings I had and I started listening to their albums with groups of friends.  It was like our own small cult and I suppose you could say that this was the official beginning of my musical snobbery.  Yes, I admit it.  I am a music snob.  And while there were several moments, experiences, and bands that played critical roles in this progression, OK Computer sealed the deal.  And the way I approached music would never be the same.

It wasn’t long before OK Computer became one of my all time favorite albums and it has remained so to this day.  It’s almost unfair to any album that will come out from now until the day I die because the bias I have towards this album is palpable and downright unfair.  But then again, I suppose that’s just how it goes in such a subjective medium.  I mentioned in my post about The Bends that it is the album I would recommend to any newcomer and the album that I would have trouble understanding why anyone would not like it.  I still feel that way, but for the music fan that can branch out just a little bit and be open-minded enough to allow OK Computer to seep into one’s being, this album is so much more satisfying.  Yes, it is strange and creepy.  It’s not an album you could necessarily put on at any time, and it challenges the listener in some parts.  But in its essence, it is flooded with melodic, infectious, and powerful songs that become more and more addicting as the listener gives it the time to do so.  

 I realize there are many music listeners out there who do not approach the format in that way and giving even a little effort to allow an album to soak in would be too wearying, but for the fan who can give even a little bit of time, this album will not disappoint.  I can’t say that about any of their subsequent albums, so for those out there who are a little bit squeamish, so to speak, your train gets off at this station.  But don’t worry.  For those out there who can't go any further, this stop is so worth it.

Not surprisingly, this was the album that really started to blow up Radiohead’s proverbial spot.  The game changed and the band found themselves swarmed in a sea of media frenzy and coverage that made them uncomfortable at best and clinically neurotic and depressed at worst.  They did not enjoy the spotlight by any means and the media hype that followed just didn’t mesh with what they desired.  There is no greater account of this feeling than the documentary Meeting People is Easy which chronicled the world tour that followed the release of this album.  I didn’t see it for many years, and when I finally did, I couldn’t believe how uneasy it made me.  It is not something for the faint of heart as the style is extraordinarily chaotic and nerve-wracking.  Just watching Thom Yorke and the band try to answer such generic and mundane question as the mainstream media asks is painful in itself.   

But when I think about it again, I suppose creating this film in any other way would do a grave injustice to the band in terms of truly understanding where they were at this time.  And I suppose it was at this point and for these reasons, that Thom Yorke and co. decided that they owed nobody anything.  From this moment on, they were going to do whatever they wanted.  Now sometimes this backfires and the artist in question becomes obsolete and mediocre.  But Radiohead is so good, so talented, so creative, so innovative, and so intelligent that their risk ended up defining a ground-breaking band that might have alienated previous fans, but kept enough of us around to truly appreciate what they were trying to do. 

I’d also like to point out, that while it was my brother who broke down the wall and showed me the way and brilliance of Radiohead, he has since fallen off…….way off.  He has not been much of a fan since this album and now says that he just doesn’t get them.  It’s kinda sad really, but also understandable.  For the direction they went in after OK Computer was one that would change the nature and fabric of the band for every album to follow.   

What came afterwards was very controversial and divided fans left and right.  The guitars pretty much went away and the band opted for a more electronic approach.  And while I understand why many fans became confused and upset by this change and started to lose interest, I would argue that this was just the beginning of their brilliance.  I suppose people like my brother and people like me will just have to agree to disagree.  But for now, let us all just take a moment and bask in the universal feeling that OK Computer truly encapsulated how amazingly brilliant an album can be. 


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

R.I.P. Elizabeth Taylor

February 27, 1932-March 23, 2011

                                                               (composed by John Barry!)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Battlestar Galactica

(SPOILERS AHEAD if you haven't seen the show and want to. You've been warned)
I realize that Sci-Fi's Battlestar Galactica ended it's run about two years ago. After much prompting from people, one of which was our very own Matt, and because it was available on Netflix's Watch Instantly service, I finally delved into the series. I realize it being two years finished that might as well be a thousand years pop culturally speaking, as fast as these things tend to fly by. For the most part I enjoyed the show, and besides some minor quibbling, I really didn't mind the finale that much. And, during the run of the show, there were moments (the reveal of the 4 of the 5 final cylons, that leap ahead a year on New Caprica, the midseason cliffhanger in the middle of Season 4 when they found the "original" Earth, the return of Starbuck etc.) Sure, in the end, some of the mythology got convoluted, and ultimately some of the conclusions the finale came too were sort of....odd. But that hasn't stopped me from liking a series before. Heck, I love Lost, one of my top ten favorite shows of the aughts, and it it can be said was rife with these sorts of problems (And to be honest, I definitely was a bigger Lost fan but this was mostly really good and compelling stuff).

That being said, here are two different ways I came up with that they could have ended the show. I realize that they have their own problems, but the writers, in some ways, wrote themselves into a corner with some of the plot points.

1) So, in the midseason's amazing cliffhanger when they found the original Earth only to discover 1) The 13th tribe were a tribe of Cylons and 2) that Earth was uninhabitable because of a nuclear war between cylons that had devastated the planet....I think in some ways that maybe they could have stayed with this Earth and created an alternate history to the Earth, and eventually have themselves be the first humans to reach this place and populate. Have some scientist come up with some Deus Ex Machina machine that would clean up the atmosphere, sort of like the machine Aaron Eckhardt and Rob Lowe suggest they could come up with in the future to allow people to smoke in space. That's only part of it: I would have still had the cylons lead by Dean Stockwell (brother Cavil-who was awesome, as usual, by the way) still have them track down Galactica and the fleet, still have them kidnap Hera and hold her for ransom (for the key to Resurection?) ...decide this is going to be humanity's last stand for their homeland, and have a battle on two fronts, one in space, and then one on land, but Road Warrior style with homemade battle vehicles and what not. Personally, I think it would be cool if mostly it was on the planet...but anyhow, The ending would be much the same, but the Galactica would have its crew ship down to the surface with as much as they could carry, and they would destroy the Cylons by arming the nuclear warheads and slamming into the baseship, and they would have to learn to live on Earth and start anew for the human race. This would have gone a long way to stopping the cycle they all seemed so worried about.

2) My other idea was to go on like they did, but when Starbuck made that final jump, instead of finding a prehistoric Earth, they found Earth in 2009. I mean the finale already had that whole thing where apparently humans also evolved similarly to the ones on the colonies millions of light years away, why not just put them in a different timeframe? So here, I would make their ship appear to throngs like in modern day Los Angeles and/or New York and have them, after some suspicion, be welcomed. But instead of having the Cylons all be defeated when they jumped have a basestar or something follow them intent on revenge and the all the humans would have to work to defeat them, thus uniting the humans and the cylons and helping them learn from eachother and again, through that knowledge hopefully stopping this cycle they were all so worried about.

I know I am forgetting bits and pieces, and things would have to be worked around again, but I think both might have been pretty satisfying in the end. But then again, no finale ever really satisfies everyone. Unless of course, its the finale of The Wire.

Friday, March 4, 2011

A Love Affair With Radiohead: Part 2 - The Bends

Few albums in my collection are as comprehensive a rock album as The Bends.  Though it represents the second and final true “rock” album Radiohead produced and that its structure and nature resemble that of Pablo Honey, it still marks a huge step forward for the band.  True, this leap was not as big as the ones they would take later on in their career, but with a true and honest listen, one can hear a band that was clearly going above and beyond the traditional alternative rock sounds of the mid-90’s.  And unlike many of those types of bands and albums, The Bends does not sound dated.
I don’t remember exactly when I bought this album, but I do remember where I was.  I was with my family on a visit to my uncle’s house in Long Island and I made a trip to the nearby Tower Records which for me at the time was truly an amazing sprawl of a record store.  I do not recall why I bought the album to begin with.  I wasn’t a huge fan by any means and as I mentioned in my previous post, I only really liked the first half of their debut album.  I do remember hearing the single “High and Dry” on the radio and like many of my friends at the time; I was just interested in keeping up with the new songs and bands that were popular on MTV.  Radiohead was getting more radio play and I liked them well-enough to buy this album.  

I also don’t remember being all that impressed with the album the first few times I heard it.  In fact, my memory of those times is fairly non-descript and the only song I really remember listening to that first time was the opener “Planet Telex” and my reaction was lukewarm at best.  As the years went by, I learned to love different parts of the album that probably took a full five years to come to fruition.  I don’t think I can say that about many albums but The Bends is certainly unique in regards to how it came to the forefront of my musical obsessions.

The first song that I can remember really getting my attention was their seminal power ballad, “Fake Plastic Trees”.  In my latter years in high school, my friends and I decided to start our own DJing business which essentially meant that we were hired to play a few junior high dances.  My brother and his friends did this many times over while they were in high school and it was actually very easy for them to do so since one of the guys had a ton of equipment that was more than adequate for these types of dances.  So all they had to do was make sure they had a collection of some of the worst popular music at the time (C&C Music Factory, Vanilla Ice, Snap, etc) and keep it in regular rotation.  Our career didn’t last as long as it was difficult for us to regularly secure equipment (we seemed to split it between borrowing school equipment and my friend Trevor’s parents’ equipment from their church) and also since my buddy Bryan explicitly went against school protocol and played Dr. Dre’s “Nothin' But a G-Thang” uncensored because, according to him, some 8th grade girl asked for it and she “wanted” him. 

But before we were banned for life from all jr. high dances, I remember a different gig that wasn’t that populated.  And I remember my buddy Josh putting on “Fake Plastic Trees” which just blew me away.  Sometimes music hits us at strange moments and songs and albums you first hear don’t make much sense.  But then, at some point down the road, you hear a song again, but for some reason it really starts to resonate with you.  And the first time “Fake Plastic Trees” really struck a chord with me was at that dance where if my memory serves me correctly I danced to it with Josh’s girlfriend.  And no, there’s no story of any infidelity or anything here.  Far from it.  I just remember thinking how great that song was and wondered why I had never heard it like that before.  To this day it stands out as one of their greatest accomplishments and lucky for us fans, is a song they still play at live shows.  I’m all for differing opinions with musical taste and everything, but if you don’t like this song (not necessarily the bizarre Clockwork Orange-ish video, but the song) something is seriously wrong with you. 

I also remember seeing the video for “Just” later on and still feel to this day that it’s one of the greatest videos I’ve ever seen.  It’s one of the few songs I can recall that I liked so much more after seeing the video.  I can’t describe why this is, other than the fact that I was nearly speechless after seeing it for the first time.  The song resonated and seemed so much more powerful than I had originally given it credit for and my opinion of it turned around rapidly.  Words cannot describe how cool (and amazingly creepy) the video is, so you’ll just have to see for yourself.

Time went by and though I did like the album, I don’t I think I really started seeing how brilliant it was until my junior/senior year in college.  By that time I had really gotten into OK Computer and was hanging out with more Radiohead fans.  My buddy Pat was someone I particularly remember having some bootlegs and I credit him with getting me into Radiohead so much more than I had before.  I particularly remember him playing “Killer Cars” over and over again which was a song that was never released on any of their albums.  For the life of me I can’t understand why this was so since it’s such a great song and it would have fit perfectly on The Bends.  I think that’s one of the great paradoxes of being a music fan; you like a song so much and find it particularly cool that it has not been released on an album but you somehow have access to it.  Then on the other hand, you can’t understand how a band could let such an amazing song fall by the wayside as the majority of the masses never hear it.  I suppose the most important thing is that you as the real fan somehow find a way to add it to your collection and the fact that most other people never hear it is somewhat sad, but ultimately irrelevant.  Plus, it also allows you to be the one to expose your friends to it when you make a dope mix.  

The three other songs that really stand out for me on this album are “Black Star”, “Bullet Proof (I Wish I Was)”, and “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”.  They provide a nice representation of the variety of rock songs heard on this album: the pop/rock song with a crazy good hook, a beautiful and somber acoustical track, and an eerie and haunting finale that lingers in your mind long after the album ends.  Which brings me back to my original statement that this album represents one of the most comprehensive rock albums in my collection.  I find everything that I’m looking for in a great rock record.  It’s all together heavy (“Bones”, “Just”, “My Iron Lung”), somber (“High and Dry”, “Fake Plastic Trees”, “Nice Dream”), and poppy (“The Bends”, “Black Star”, “Sulk”).  It reminds me of how a particular genre can be simple while at the same time being unique, interesting, and timeless. This album also represents the beginning of the band's onslaught of videos that would soon be rendered non-existent.  They made more videos when OK Computer was released, but they pretty much stopped after that.  Which is really a shame because while they are an incredibly talented band in terms of the music they produce, but they also thrive in regards to the artistic nature of their videos, which really puts the icing on the cake.

My sister is not a big Radiohead fan at all.  Somehow she managed to get a copy of The Bends into her CD collection through no influence of my own.  Despite the number of times I’ve told her how amazing the album is and how it’s the best album she has that she doesn’t listen to, I never got around to asking her how she ended up with a copy.  Maybe I'll never know.  Whenever we talk about the album (which isn’t often) she usually says one of two things: 1) Thom Yorke only sings in vowels (which is true, but then again, doesn’t everyone?  Who holds out a note with a consonant sound?).  Or 2) it makes her want to kill herself.  I really hope this last statement is true.  Besides the obvious reason (‘cause ya’ know, I love my sister and all) I feel saddened by this statement.  For while it would make sense with just about any of their other records, The Bends is the one album that I would recommend to any non-Radiohead fan.  To me, it is their most palatable effort and the one I would suggest any newcomer to start off with.  Yes, I agree that their crowing achievement is OK Computer, but for most people, I could see that as being too complex, too artsy, and would require too much patience to fully appreciate.  The Bends is their only album that I think the masses could get down to almost immediately.  It has enough familiar sounds and variety to appease just about any lover of rock or pop music, including my sister.  Why she doesn’t get it is beyond me.  Maybe it’s just out of spite or some sort of sibling rivalry thing because she feels that her admitting she likes it means that she'll also have to admit I’m right or something.  Or maybe I just think too much about what is ultimately a rather trivial subject.  But I honestly don't see how most rock/pop fans can't like this album.  

In the end, The Bends ranks towards the top of my favorite Radiohead recordings.  While their subsequent efforts would prove to be much more expansive, experimental, and ground-breaking, The Bends remains a testament that this band has what it takes to create a seminal rock-based album that can be basic and simple while maintaining artistic integrity and creativity.  It is with this latter idea that Radiohead was able to take about ten steps forward with their third and greatest album.  For me, it's just extraordinarily special that they gave us access to the thoughts and ideas that would eventually make that album a reality.


Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Terms Of Endearment (1983)

Yup, I had never seen this before.  Not for any reason, I just never, I don't know, thought about it. But then in the past couple weeks I have been listening to an interview on Marc Maron's WTF Podcast, a two parter done back in August with Judd Apatow. In it they delved into Apatow's youth, and the comedy he was brought up on, and, of course, at some point they got to talking about him delving into movies. It was really fascinating for him to trace his sort of lineage that would eventual lead to what people, I think, refer to as an "Apatowian" comedy.  He talks about movies that have inspired his style, which he himself made honed and made his own. He mentioned Annie Hall, but he also mentioned Terms Of Endearment. It being "Oscar Month", they had it on On Demand, and with nothing much going on last night I decided to finally watch it. There's a few things here: I can see how this might have influenced Apatow in some ways, the funny scenes, particularly with Jack Nicholson, in a Supporting Actor Oscar-winning role as the next door neighbor/former astronaut trying to seduce Shirley MacLaine's widow. Seriously, I could have watched them courting them forever. This is before Jack Nicholson would fall completely into self-parody. I could see what Apatow was talking about, he has honed his skills enough to balance comedy and real emotion, but I don't think any of his stuff yet has tipped the scales into outright tragedy and drama that Terms of Endearment eventually becomes. But in the context, it worked, and I can see why this was such a big hit back in the day. James L. Brooks really had the magic touch, and, seeing this, I can see how he could be included in the comedy/dramatic lineage that would eventual inspire Apatow to produce his comedies. After all, James L. Brooks also brought us The Simpsons, which most certainly is a part of the evolution of that very certain type of comedy, which has become more prominent in about the past ten years. Overall, I would say I was pleasantly surprised. (And I might, MIGHT, who could tell for sure, shed a few tears towards the end there.)


Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Other Oscar Snub

I'm quite sure everyone is not tired about talking about the Oscars, at all. I'll sum up: they sucked. And it's not like I am not kind of disappointed every year, but this was truly a low mark for this show. Like the great Roger Ebert said, "The worst Oscar show I've seen, and I go back a way. Some great winners, a nice distribution of awards, but the show was Dead. In. The. Water.". 

But everyone's talking about the Corey Haim snub during the In Memoriam montage during the show. But let us not forget the other snub, I mean Len Lesser had just passed away a week or two before but I am sure they could have shoehorned him in there. The technology is definitely there. Of course most people will remember Len Lesser as Uncle Leo from Seinfeld.

And, I am sure he will get his due at the Emmy's. But like I was telling Tina when I noticed the snub, he was a star of both screens, big and small. He was in such films as Patton  and

The Outlaw Josey Wales

But he was also in one my personal favorites:

The great World War II movie, Kelly's Heroes.

Of course, I am using the term "star" loosely, but Clint Eastwood seemed to like him.


Added Later;
Not that I care at all about the Grammy's (go figure), but you want know what a real snub is? Not having Guru from Gang Starr as a part of their In Memoriam montage.