Thursday, March 27, 2008

No. 428: Kid A

Band: Radiohead
Album: Kid A
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Radiohead's change from "atmospheric British rock band" to "modern day Pink Floyd with computers" Extending the moves in "OK Computer," "Kid A" is a polarizing record that set Radiohead's track for years since its release.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: A lot of the chances the band takes do not succeeds. While there are great tracks, the bad ones are pretty awful.
Best song: "The National Anthem" and "Idioteque" are great.
Worst song: The title track stinks.
Is it awesome?: Yes.

I've expressed my affections for Radiohead on this site before. Despite Johnny Greenwood's reluctance, the band is the closest modern equivalent to Pink Floyd that we have. The band combines electronic equipment and conventional instrumentation to make music about the disconnect humans feel towards one another. The increasingly reach of technology both sustains and hurts the band, and Radiohead is happy to meet this head on. Floyd did the same thing.

But, boy, did I hate "Kid A" when it came out.

During my time as our college station's program director, anything our DJs overplayed became a hated record to me (save for Cat Power's "You Are Free," I think). Much of my disdain was drawn by the sheeplike nature of many of our DJs; They simply wanted to jump on the hot band bandwagon. There was, I imagine, also some resentment that our DJs didn't always love the same things I did -- specifically when The Sea and Cake wouldn't get as many plays as I expected. Sadly, I came late to the party on a lot of bands (Radiohead and the Strokes being the operative ones), though in other cases -- The White Stripes, Rufus Wainwright, etc. -- the bands were not as great as our DJs claimed.

I'd always liked Radiohead, but "Kid A" struck me as self-indulgent. It is self-indulgent and echoes the type of records Björk makes. They have soaring production, small pieces of piano/voice sections and robust themes. In the case of "Kid A," my complaint always fell in the disaffection for the robot voice. While I love the vocoder, Thom Yorke apparently fell in love with the effect at some point and peppered the album with it.

Again, in some cases, I come back to a band to appreciate them. It only took me about a year to fully appreciate Radiohead ("Amnesiac" and the band's live album did it for me). But, those are other albums. In the case of "Kid A," I don't think I was wrong.

Save for a few songs, the album is too slow and meandering for me to really appreciate it. It lacks coherence and the album's sound is too sparse even for me. Hooks aren't the do-all and end-all of a band like Radiohead, but tis is a band that rose out of a scene where hooks were treasured. More importantly, Radiohead is a band that has shown a serious skill at writing hooks.

Radiohead is great, but the band is often overpraised. In one of its very rare 10/10 reviews, Pitchfork used this analogy to describe the album:

The experience and emotions tied to listening to "Kid A" are like witnessing the stillborn birth of a child while simultaneously having the opportunity to see her play in the afterlife on Imax.

While I'm a fan of the site, I think this is the reason people hate Pitchfork. For one, "Kid A" is not a perfect album; The list of perfect albums is short and probably only includes "Revolver." Moreover, an analogy like that makes little to no sense. The only people who understand it are probably high on mushrooms.

There's no doubt about it, "Kid A" is polarizing. It's a wonderful record in a lot of ways. It's challenging (I love challenging) and it's slow. It's painful and it's tender. I love those things.

But in experimenting, one has to succeed in one's experiment more often than not. Many of the chances the band takes on "Kid A" -- the tempo of the title track, the production on "Treefingers," the instruments on "Motion Picture Soundtrack" -- just don't succeed.

That's not to say the album is terrible. "The National Anthem" is one of the only songs with saxophone that remains awesome and doesn't delve into Clarence Clemons territory. "Idioteque" is an experiment in electronic music that hits the bullseye both musically and lyrically (it's a political song on the coming climate apocalypse). "Morning Bell" is pretty and tender, despite having Charles Bronson-level violence in the lyrics.


Though I've lumped them in this group, Radiohead is a different brand of band than the superfan fandom bands. Radiohead's biggest fans are often critics and pretentious fuckheads in golf shirts as opposed to mouth-breathing, pushy morons.

Many thoughtful, intelligent music listeners don't like Radiohead. It's not because they don't get Radiohead, they just don't like them. I like the band, but no one should feel guilty for not liking them. As Carrie Brownstein says, Radiohead fans are often so to show off "evidence of their sophisticated taste in music."

That's annoying, but it's no reason to not enjoy the band. I think that was my first aversion to "Kid A." It's got highlights and it's a good record, but it's not as good as the band's previous work.

1 comment:

fft said...

This album would definitely be in my Top 100, if not my Top 50.

My experience was like yours. I bought it and had a lot of trouble with it. It was hard to follow, with nothing for the mind to grab onto. I put it down for 6-12 months and when I picked it up again, it started to make more sense. Its my favorite Radiohead album.