Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Love Affair with Radiohead: Part 5 - Amnesiac

Man, time really seems to go faster and faster the older you get.  This past June represented the ten year anniversary of the release of Radiohead's fifth album, when in actuality, it feels more like its fifth anniversary.  I anticipate this will only get worse as the years go on.  By the time Amnesiac was released in the spring of 2001, I was totally hooked on Radiohead.  I probably listened to Kid A fifty times already (or at least it felt like I did) and I waited in anticipation for the so-called second installment to that classic record.  I was very much looking forward to a more guitar-driven album that had been promised through several reviews and word of mouth conversations.  I was still living in California during this time and continued to have virtually zero disposable income but unlike my previous experience, I was not hesitant to buy this album.  I made sure I had enough cash scraped together and the day it was released I walked to Amoeba Records in Berkeley after work (which to this day remains the greatest record store I have ever been to) and picked up a copy.  I can remember devouring the plastic wrapping to get to the CD so I could pop it in my Discman and listen to it immediately.  Say what you will about the benefits of digital media and MP3s and the future of the music industry, but few experiences and feelings will match those of actually purchasing a physical copy of a much anticipated album and tearing through it to give it that first listen.  I’m starting to feel like and old man, but screw it, it’s true.  When I was younger, buying music was much better than the way you kids do it these days, blah, blah, blah,………

I specifically remember the opening of “Pack Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box”.  It was electronic, but much more palatable than “Everything in its Right Place” the first time I heard it.  As I listened I was surprised to find zero guitars in the first few songs.  It wasn’t until a few listens that the “more guitars” promise I was given was understood to include only a few songs that were much more guitar-driven than any song on Kid A.  Though this was true and many songs were electronically driven, I still found this album easier to digest than its predecessor.  I remember seeing the video for “Pyramid Song” which also represents the last time I saw a new Radiohead video on MTV (or pretty much any video on MTV for that matter.  They gave that up years ago in favor of quality television programming).  The band was not pictured at all and the viewer was simply treated to a colorful display of a silhouetted figure swimming through a vast ocean as an eerie and syncopated piano part played in the background.  It was still weird, but more familiar.

Amnesiac also includes the only time the band ever released a different version of a previously recorded song.  “Morning Bell” is one of the last tracks on Kid A which was a song I liked very much, and despite the fact that Amnesiac is a much more user-friendly album than Kid A, its take on this song which is entitled “Morning Bell/Amnesiac” is more bizarre than the original.  Instead of the infectious and tempered drum beat and soothing electronic synths of the original, this new spin was much stranger and avant-garde.  And for some reason I was able to understand the lyrics better and realized that this song about divorce included the previously indecipherable lyric that was much clearer (and therefore also disturbing) in the new version: “Cut the kids in half”.   How cold can you get?

I’d probably have to say that my favorite track of this album is “You and Whose Army” which does a great job of taking a somber and slow-paced intro with a creepy combination of Yorke’s lead vocals and a background chorus of ooohs all put together by a slow strumming of non-distorted electric guitar.  All of a sudden a strong and urgent piano part comes in and takes you into a crescendo of a chorus that lasts a little over a minute but could go on for about five and you still wouldn’t want it to end.  I read a review somewhere in which the critic stated it was like “Hey Jude” in that he wished it kept going and going and I immediately understood what he was saying.

 I think it’s worth mentioning that the last song on the album “Life in a Glass House”, which is just another example of how creative and original this band had become, includes a crazy and jarring horn section that features a clarinet part that the band hired jazz great Humphrey Lyttelton to play on.  While Amnesiac wasn’t as groundbreaking or met with as much critical praise as Kid A, I think it is better in terms of how expansive it is.  There are still elements of the liquid and electronic type sounds of its predecessor, but there are more pop/rock/jazz oriented sounds as well.  In an interview, Yorke described the two albums and the differences between them: "Something traumatic is happening in Kid A… this is looking back at it, trying to piece together what has happened."  I still think trying to pick apart any meaning for Radiohead albums in general is difficult and fairly pointless for me, but I do like this explanation and can make some sense out of it.  Having said that, I don’t feel by listening to Amnesiac I therefore understand Kid A any better, but it is nice to juxtapose them against each other, particularly since they were recorded at the same time.

It would be several years before the band would release another album, but it was nice to have a live album released shortly after Amnesiac entitled I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings which was named after one of the tracks off Amnesiac, to tide us over.  While there are only eight songs on that album and seven of them are off Kid A and Amnesiac, the highlights include a previously unreleased and acoustic guitar-driven track “True Love Waits” (which remains for me one of their most beautiful songs) and a haunting live version of “Like Spinning Plates” driven by a walking piano part as opposed to the backwards electronic looping of the original version off of Amnesiac.  It makes you see the song in a total different light which is something the band became very good at doing and is one of the reasons I like them so much.

Overall, I don’t have as many specific memories with this album as I had with their previous recordings.  I will always associate it with that time in my life when I lived in California and started to become consumed and obsessed with the band.  It was also a very exciting time for me because I was treated to two new albums in less than a year which was a very common practice back in the 60’s but is essentially non-existent today.  Most importantly though, is that it gave me a glimmer of hope for their future.  I had read several articles and interviews about them that touched on the possibility of the band’s breakup or how difficult it had been to put these two albums together.  And while Kid A was a very depressing and disturbing album, Amnesiac acted more as a pick-me-up record with its more accessible sounds.  Lucky for me (and all of us, really) this glimmer of hope proved to be warranted as it would only take two years for their next album to be released.  The band had gone through a very trying time in the wake of the tour for OK Computer, and created two albums which highlighted their feelings of isolation, depression, and anxiety in the dawning of the new century.  I think they got some of those negative feelings out of their systems and they became more focused and comfortable continuing on as a band.  This would result in them releasing an album that truly solidified their determination and desire to move forward in the years to come which was very good news for all of us.


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