Radiohead's OK Computer isn't easy to cozy up to. It's a marathon listen, a muddled, self-fulfilling mess of a concept album. But it's also great -- not great in an obvious sense, and definitely not by any known commercial standards. Rather, Radiohead's third full-length release is great because the English quintet, while wracking its collective brain to give us something deep and complex, hardly ever sounds like they're breaking their backs to do so. It's as if this flagrantly nutty stuff actually comes to them with near-autistic ease, like they were programmed at birth to conceive a Dark Side of the Moon for the '90s fraught with pre-millennial tension.
OK Computer's stunning 1995 predecessor, The Bends, had some of the same effortless pretensions, combined with a sense that all its sonically enhanced pomp, guitar-hero histrionics and glam poses were secondary to lead singer Thom Yorke's personal demons, stark symbolism and convulsive whimper/wail. With the help of producer John Leckie (Stone Roses, Posies), those troubling elements fed a flashy, song-oriented package that proved Radiohead was much more than the one-hit-wonder some thought it to be following the success of "Creep."
Unlike The Bends, the self-produced OK Computer is designed to be ingested in chunks closer to the size of the CD's first single, "Paranoid Android," an at once distressing and soothing six-minute-plus suite that pilfers the past without insulting it. In the song's first movement, a treated guitar that mimics Yorke's vocal sounds eerily similar to what pops up in the quieter moments of the Who's Quadrophenia. Other segments hark back to the orchestration of Bowie's "Space Oddity" and his bloated conceptual piece The Man Who Sold the World. And yet "Paranoid Android" manages to retain a contemporary absurdity and (in its heavier moments) a grinding post-punk intensity all its own.
OK Computer also has its simpler moments. "Karma Police," a conventional mid-tempo number with a dainty piano interlude, might have fit nicely on The Bends if its themes weren't locked so firmly in another dimension. And on the disc's blistering opener, "Airbag," the band gets its point across efficiently via guitarist Jonny Greenwood's chiming fret-play, a booming, cut-and-paste percussion track and an echoey hook that burrows into your skull like a cybertick. Meanwhile, Yorke sets the stage for what appears to be the concept linking OK Computer's tracks: the world's not-so-unreal domination by an army of technical gadgets. "I am born again in the neon sign scrolling up and down, I am born again / In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the universe."
That's about as lucid as OK Computer gets. Where some lyrics are open to broad interpretation ("This is what you get when you mess with us"), others are simply unintelligible ("That's it sir, you're leaving / The crackle of pig skin") and still others are little more than searing exhalations of emotion ("You can laugh a spineless laugh / We hope your rules and wisdom choke you"). Still, what matters most is not so much the logic of what's said, but the mood it evokes -- and here, it's primarily one of dread. At the same time, the music -- a convergence of Moog and Mellotron swells, jarring guitar effects, majestic piano interludes and various found sounds -- serves as an oddly uplifting elixir. So don't be scared off by the title; on patient analysis, OK Computer's humanizing beauty reveals itself in a slow, spectacular flourish -- all for your listening pleasure. (****)
-- Hobart Rowland
Arto Lindsay Remixes
Anyone who heard Arto Lindsay's 1996 CD The Subtle Body -- a record of fairly conventional Brazilian bossa-nova pop -- had to be at least a bit surprised. Not surprised by his choice of music: Lindsay grew up in Brazil and has incorporated elements of its music into his own as far back as the mid-'80s, when he was with the Ambitious Lovers, and arguably even earlier, with his skronky no-wave band DNA. And not surprised by his choice of collaborators: He'd worked before with avant-pop godheads such as Brian Eno, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Caetano Veloso, and so it was natural for him to include in The Subtle Body New York downtowners such as Cibo Matto and Blonde Redhead.
What was surprising, though, was that Lindsay could handle his material so lovingly and gently. It was unexpected to hear a man known as the king of the untuned guitar and horrific shriek incorporating samples and synth textures with understated vocals, and mixing programmed drums with Latin percussion. But he did, and The Subtle Body emerged as a disarmingly sultry, thoroughly contemporary and completely accessible creation.
Much the same can be said for Mundo Civilizado, Lindsay's second successful jazz pop foray. The record continues along the path Lindsay began last time out, but delves further into electronic music by setting many of his acoustic compositions to the ambient beats of DJ Spooky and Mutamassik. Though not as tied to bossa nova as was The Subtle Body (this time around he covers Al Green and Prince, though he still occasionally sings in Portuguese), Mundo makes ample use of Brazilian percussion that blends seamlessly with the electronics. Given the rapid-fire intricacies of both, in fact, it's sometimes difficult to tell which is which.
Hyper Civilizado -- a companion remix album featuring Spooky and Mutamassik as well as Sub Dub, Brazilian DJ Soul Slinger and others -- takes the electronica component to the extreme. Featuring three reworkings of Mundo's "Complicity" (plus two remixes each of the title track and "Q Samba"), Hyper offers everything from SPIT's "Lyrical Mix," which replaces much of the music but keeps the vocal melody, to Mutamassik's "M28 Mix," which retains only one word and one drum from "Complicity" while infusing the track with a Middle Eastern rhythm. While Hyper's compositions are all the better because they're rooted in song (rather than being frameless constructions), the record is still best heard in the context of -- and as a complement to -- Lindsay's Mundo original. Mundo Civilizado (PPP 1/2); Hyper Civilizado (***)
-- Roni Sarig
The Will to Live
Jimi Hendrix. John Lee Hooker. Bob Marley. Although it's a given that an attempted sum of these influences couldn't equal the soul of any one of its parts, the list above has, nonetheless, become the easy way to explain -- or perhaps dismiss -- Ben Harper. It's also the cheap way, because Harper's far more than a mere idolater, and reducing him to such denies the progress of The Will to Live, his third and most cohesive CD.
After two attempts to harness the soul and spirit of the Hendrix/Hooker/Marley trinity acoustically -- 1994's stunning Welcome to the Cruel World and the uneven follow-up Fight for Your Mind -- Harper has come around to the theory that sometimes it takes an electric guitar to make a point. Indeed, the rugged fuzz of "Faded," The Will to Live's opener, is startling. Plain old Hendrix revisionism? Pearl Jam with soul? Lenny Kravitz's best day? It's a little of all of that and more. But even with the extra wattage, the song remains the same: a simple, but vigorous, rage against ignorance and intolerance. Moreover, the bulk of Harper's power is still derived from his voice, an instrument with which he can express sensitivity and anger, often within the same sentence.
As "Faded" unfurls to reveal an ironic acoustic passage, the 11-song collection of eclecticism that follows begins to make sense, as does the reasoning behind the risky electric makeover. For the first time, a Harper effort overflows with contrasts, with glimpses of higher peaks and lower valleys. In Harper's hands, the jittery porch blues of "Homeless Child" and the wailing raga of "Jah Work" are of equal, if different, intensity. In fact, while there's a half-dozen songs separating the sultry balladry of "Roses from My Friends" and the proto-funk of "Mama's Trippin'," the polarity of the pair -- or any other set of random tracks -- makes sonic sense side-by-side.
It's just that type of organic experimentation that makes for The Will to Live's boldest statement: that piercing volume and careful whispers can be two tools, but never an entire tool box. Ultimately, that's the kind of compelling self-discovery that deserves better than a three-influence roll call -- no matter how righteous those names might be. (*** 1/2)
-- Andy Langer
Straight Outta Boone County
Straight Outta Boone County is Bloodshot Records' fourth anthology of artists playing Insurgent Country (the label's own name for the '90s version of country rock that elsewhere is being hailed as No Depression or Alternative Country), and it is hands down Bloodshot's best collection yet. The idea this time out was to honor the old Boone County Jamboree and Midwestern Hayride radio shows -- both featured on Cincinnati radio station WLW, roughly from World War II to Vietnam -- by collecting 20 contemporary versions of some of the songs routinely performed on the programs by such C&W legends as Merle Travis, Moon Mullican, Hawkshaw Hawkins and the Delmore Brothers. The results, as on the three earlier Insurgent Country collections, are hit and miss, but on Straight Outta Boone County, the hits outdistance the misses by a country mile.
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Even as the previous discs disappointed, they were still fulfilling the important job of cataloging a significant musical trend. And on the new release, when the boom-chuckin', cow-punkin' Scroatbelly needlessly changes tempos all the way through the excruciating "Why Don' t You Haul off and Love Me," to give the worst example, the disc is valuable only for documenting an all too typical sound. Boone County also captures alt-country's often infuriating attraction to the novelty side of the country tradition, a tendency that, if examined too closely, can leave you convinced that some of these bands are as interested in playing dress-up as they are in making music. Still, when the music is as fine as the Volebeats' lascivious "Hamtramck Mama," Robbie Fulks's "Wedding of the Bugs," One Riot One Ranger's "Southern Moon" or the Lucky Stars' charming "No More Nuthin'," the only reasonable reaction is to grin big and sing right along.
I prefer, though, the contributions from those bands that merely borrow country touches along the way toward creating unique and sincere country-rock sounds of their own. Hazeldine's sweet and blue "I'm So Lonesome Without You" and Slobberbone's heavy and suffocating "Dark as a Dungeon" both stand out in this vein, but three cuts here shine most brightly of all. "Bottom of the Glass," by Whiskeytown, stares deep into that glass and does not blink. Mike Ireland and Holler's "No Vacancy" uses a little rock and roll mandolin to tell an old tale of homelessness that's more relevant now than ever. And Waycross turns the slight and silly "I Wanna Be Hugged to Death by You" into a creepy, clingy classic of country-rock torch. These cuts truly deserve the title Insurgent Country, and if you've been curious as to what this whole alternative country deal is about, then Straight Outta Boone County is an awfully good place to start finding out. (*** 1/2)
-- David Cantwell
CDs rated on a one to five star scale.