Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Amnesiac by Radiohead (2001)

With the tenth anniversary of Kid A occurring this month, a lot of reflection is happening around the web, analysing what has been voted the best album of the last decade in several critics’ lists. Kid A was a drastic departure for Radiohead, coming three years after OK Computer, then already their definitive album and one of the best of the 1990s. It stripped away the band’s three-guitar sound, and took the experimental electronics that merely provided garnish on OKC and put them center stage. Kid A’s sound was as bleak as the icy landscape on its cover; a barren, minimalist electronic exercise with very little in the way of actual songs. It was hailed as a post-rock, deconstructionist record, which largely abandoned traditional song structures and took rock to its limits through electronica.

Kid A was released in October 2000, some four months after the band had started touring the material that it had recorded all through 1999. When the album was finally released, many of the more memorable of the new songs were conspicuously absent from that record. Kid A also spawned no singles, so these songs remained unreleased. A mere eight months later, Amnesiac was released, containing many of the “lost” songs from the 2000 tour. Originally intended to be released as a series of singles, or EPs, the songs from the Kid A sessions that did not make its parent album were spun into a second album. The songs on Amnesiac say more about what Kid A is not, than what Amnesiac is. Far from being a collection of b-material, Amnesiac has a distinct character, and a paradoxically disjointed cohesion of its own.

True, it lacks the (admittedly very loose) concept of its older brother, and the songs form less of a suite, but the strength of each song, as well as the notion of being an anti-Kid A gives Amnesiac a lot of clout by comparison. The range of genres tackled by the band on this album is a fascinating peak into the sessions for Kid A, as the band strained to distance itself from its rock roots and recent commercial success. On Amnesiac, cacophonous minimalist electro (Pulk/Pull) sits next to rootsy, jazzy piano-led songs. The warmth of the latter songs goes a long way to announcing the direction the band would take some seven years later on In Rainbows.

“Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box” might open with the same synthesizers that defined Kid A, but the tone is immediately more upbeat. That’s more than can be said about the paranoid lyrics [“After years of waiting/nothing came […] I’m a reasonable man/get off my case”]. Struggling to tour the Kid Amnesiac material as a live five-piece band, many songs received “rockier” makeovers to translate to the live scene. This is especially the case with “Crushd”, which is almost unrecognisably transformed by ways of a fuzzy bass riff.

Unrecognisably transformed: "Crushd" in its live incarnation, 2001

Next, “Pyramid Song” is without doubt one of Radiohead’s single greatest achievements as a band. It was the lead single, known during the 2000 tour by its working title “Egyptian Song”, and this piano-driven ballad is indescribably beautiful. Its odd time signature is accentuated once the shuffled drum beat kicks in, and the Ondes Martinot start adding their haunted, swaying lines. The orchestra swells to take the song to a cathartic climax, a feature lacking on the deconstructed, post-rock songs on Kid A, but a classic Radiohead trait. There are certain sonic similarities between “Pyramid Song” and “How To Disappear Completely”, from the earlier album, but the latter is much more sparse. Both songs received their orchestral dubbing in the same session.

Note the intricate duet of the Ondes Martinot. "Pyramid Song", 2001

The use of an upright bass, undistorted piano and a distinctly “live” drum is a clean break from Kid A, and is the first instance of a new genre appearing on Amnesiac. “Pyramid Song” shows’s Radiohead’s post-OK Computer forays into jazz, and it wouldn’t be the last song on this album to do so.

“Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” is an almost unlistenable anticlimax after the glorious majesty of “Pyramid Song”, showing strong shades of Aphex Twin. In its final seconds, it is revealed that a sample of the final few seconds of “Pyramid Song” actually forms the basis of this “experiment”.

Thankfully, it soon transitions to “You And Whose Army?”, which is almost “Pyramid Song” pt. II. Ostensibly a dig at the Blair administration, it references the Holy Roman Empire (some sort of first for mainstream rock) and shows even more of a rootsy influence in its olde time distorted croon. The “rootsy”, black musical tradition is continued in the almost blues song “I Might Be Wrong”. Yours truly finds it a bit of a grating, repetitive yarn (bar its breakdown in the last minute), but it remains a fan favourite.

“Knives Out” is vintage Radiohead, and could sonically be a The Bends (1995) outtake. It is one of the oldest songs on the album, possibly stretching back to the OK Computer tour as documented on Meeting People is Easy (1998). The lush, layered guitars make it stand out among its turn-of-the-century peers, and is easily one of the most commercial songs from these sessions. The remarkable Michel Gondry video redeems it somewhat, making it a fine single. The next track is “Morning Bell/Amnesiac”, a different take of a song previously released on Kid A. Its inclusion does add weight to the assumption that Amnesiac is little more than a collection of outtakes, but it could also be interpreted as a way of illustrating its irrevocable conceptual ties to its predecessor. The Amnesiac version was actually recorded before the Kid A version, and initially dismissed only to be embraced after the latter’s release. “Dollars and Cents” is majestic in its own right, but not remarkable as a song, and neither is “Hunting Bears”, the following brief instrumental guitar piece.

“Like Spinning Plates” is one of the most interesting songs on Amnesiac, both sonically and through its back-story. It is very closely related to “I Will”, a song that would surface on Hail to the Thief (2003), but was already demoed as early as 1998. By the time of the Kid Amnesiac sessions, in 1999 and 2000, “I Will” had mutated into the haunting electronic version that forms the basis of “Spinning Plates”. Dissatisfied with “I Will” in this guise, the song was presumably played backwards, and this formed the music for a new track, “Spinning Plates”. The words were partly sung backwards and then flipped to create the backwards-sounding regular lyrics. This process is demonstrated and further clarified on the excellent and exhaustive website Citizen Insane. “Spinning Plates/I Will” would receive yet another makeover when it was played live. Like “Sardines”, the electronic arrangement had to be adapted for the live band. In this case, it became a piano ballad that was also released on the live EP I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings (2001).

Another transformation: "Like Spinning Plates" live, 2003

From the peak of unconventional songwriting to the most “organic” of all the songs on the album, “Life in a Glass House” also finds its origins in the OK Computer era. However, this final version was actually recorded after Kid A was released, making it one of the few songs on Amnesiac not to be mere “leftovers” from that album.

The only live performance of "Life in a Glass House", 2001

Probably the most outright “jazz” song the band would release, its inclusion on Amnesiac is crucial to showing the great variety in the material the band was contemplating in its follow-up to OK Computer.

The fact that Amnesiac was the first album in four years to generate singles meant that some real B-sides were included as well. This is yet another opportunity to look at the wealth of material the band was sitting on. Many of these tracks, compiled on the re-released “Deluxe” editions of the EMI albums in 2009 are outstanding, and could have conceivably improved Amnesiac upon inclusion. “Fog” and “Cuttooth” are as good as anything from these sessions, and could have easily taken the place of “Pulk/Pull” or “Morning Bell”. With these tracks on board, Amnesiac might have rivalled Kid A or any other Radiohead album to date. But it wouldn’t have been as interesting as it is now. Amnesiac is essential Radiohead, an unmissable companion piece to Kid A.