Radiohead Kid A

[Capitol; 2000]

Rating: 5/5

Styles: experimental rock
Others: Björk, Sigur Rós, Autechre, Aphex

Whether we shop at small independent music stores or big corporate chains, we music lovers share a commonality: expectations. We expect the bands that we love to get better and better, and not just linearly, but exponentially. It's unfair, it's stupid, it's puerile, and the worst part is that we are all guilty of such ridiculous preconceptions. It's an arcane phenomenon in rock music that is especially common with such behemoth groups like Radiohead. The longer we had to wait for the follow-up to the acclaimed OK Computer (1997), the higher our expectations elevated. Because of the subjective superiority of OK Computer over The Bends (1995) and likewise The Bends over Pablo Honey (1993), fans — either hardcore or casual — naturally expected an album that would surpass the paranoid schizophrenia of OK Computer and the organic beauty of The Bends. And with the rise of the Internet (chat groups, message boards, web pages galore), the hype for Kid A grew to an unprecedented level, further nurturing any initial expectation. However, what the fans actually received was an album so different from its predecessors that it had little to actually compare — at least in the musical sense. And this is what makes Kid A so damn successful.

A constant battle between digital versus organic plays throughout Kid A, like an organism trying to reach homeostasis but is instead suspended in a state between entropy and equilibrium. The result: a continuous tug and war that ends only after the album reaches its 40 minute mark. But mentioning the battle on Kid A is not complete without mentioning the balance, and the balance is one of the key aspects of the album acting like the human blood through the wires in a robot. Who says there is no guitar on this album? Who says there are no real drums? There are plenty of organic instruments, and although most are electronically manipulated, the notion that Radiohead has strictly transfigured into electronica artists is a premature conclusion derived from poor listening skills and lazy journalism. Kid A is beyond genres and styles. It is a morphing of a wide gamut of diverse elements that trying to pigeonhole the album is like trying to figure out what to put in your AIM away message: it's trivial.

But while listening to the album, one begins to wonder how much control Thom Yorke had in the making of the album; there is little doubt in my mind that Thom ultimately guided the group where he wanted. This theory is evident on opening track, "Everything in Its Right Place." Warm, dreamy keyboards, a pulsating 10/4 metered beat, electronically manipulated vocals — Kid A could not ask for a better opening song. Because the instruments are primarily digital in nature, there is little room to dynamically fluctuate; the life of the song relies on the intricate layering of sounds and Thom's powerful vocals. Thom starts the song with a soft but strong falsetto, but as soon as the second verse comes, he transforms his vocal infliction into a driving bellow, sustaining the energy throughout the rest of the song. There are only four lines in the song ("Everything in it's right place / Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon / There are two colors in my head / What is that you tried to say?"), but Thom stretches them out like saran wrap over last night's Thai food. It emanates a mood that is neither melancholy nor exuberant; it is a detached, insular mood yet still bears as much raw emotion as a solo acoustic guitarist playing to a capacity of ten.

But where is the rest of the group? Apparently, the only two who worked on the song was Thom and producer Nigel Godrich. In fact, much of the recording process was done by one of the five in isolation, and a lot of the times, the other bandmates had no idea what the person was recording at the time. This isolated recording leaves Kid A with plenty of open space, opposed to 70% of OK Computer being recorded live. At best, the space provides a unique sound, and each sonic idea from any given member receives a fair chance; it's not cluttered and you can discern the leftfield experimental noise from the organic sounds with ease. At worst, some may accuse the band of relying too heavily on the computer, trading the heart for the hard drive. But I think the warm tones and unyielding amounts of emotion more than make up for the unorthodox recording techniques. And on the other side of the coin, after Thom recorded the raw tracks (acoustic/vocals) on "How to Dissapear Completely," the rest of the recording process was relegated to the band.

The only song that does not immediately conjure Radiohead of past is "Treefingers." By far the most visionary, and the most unique, and the most aurally difficult to accept with open ears; the song requires full attention. But it succeeds on so many levels. The watery synth-like sounds are actually made entirely of sampled guitars; thus, Radiohead, possibly inadvertently, created a new way to hear the guitar, which is plenty more than you can ask than another acoustic ballad a la "Fake Plastic Trees." It is quite possibly the closest the band could get to sounding like Brian Eno (circa Music for Airports). Other influences are evident throughout the entire album: Aphex Twin, Bjork, Miles Davis, Autechre, and Can. Yet with all these influences, the music sounds unmistakably Radiohead. Rather than originality in a specific sense, originality for Radiohead is the culmination of these styles injected into something that is so profound and creative that any rubbed-off influence is nothing less than MSG on Chinese food.

In short, Kid A sticks out whether they like it or not; it's an album that reserved six months until its lackluster follow-up, Amnesiac. But during that transient moment of pure musical bliss, we experienced one of the most exhilarating moments in recent rock history. In retrospect, I have come to realize that I took that perfect moment in music for granted. Though I loved the album, I had no idea that its lasting ability was so strong, and I still approach the album at varying degrees in order to hear it from every possible angle. But there's plenty of time left in the future to catch up, and as soon as I leave this multi-complex TinyMixtapes building, I will listen to the album in its entirety-- in the dark-- with headphones, sporting my Radiohead shirt and my British-looking slacks, and most importantly, with no expectations.

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