*Note – I’m not going to try to rank songs, but I do plan to periodically write a little bit about some songs that I like.
~ ~ ~
I listened to 70s AM Radio music as a child, so I was trained early to enjoy adult contempo-pop. ACP back then typically included catchy melodies, some acoustic guitar and squonky organ, and maybe some orchestral highlights thrown in. Those are key ingredients for – to my ears – a tasty 70s aural recipe. “Hitchin’ a Ride.” “Love Will Keep Us Together.” “Diamond Girl.” “The Night Chicago Died.” “Moonlight Feels Right.” These songs may be the leftover tuna-noodle casseroles of 70s musical cuisine, but I developed a taste early and I can’t shake it now.
I define ACP as hit music that teens are NOT buying, but adults are. (Maybe this is everyone’s definition.) Adult-contempo has changed over the years, but generally the songs sound a bit like the popular (i.e. teen) music of the day, but a bit, say, watered-down in comparison. So in the early 70s Seals & Croft seemed to have a dollop of Dylan, and a smidgeon of Simon. But only if you were in your mid-40s and never really listened to either of them.
“Four Leaf Clover,” by Abra Moore, is an adult contempo-pop gem from the 90s. It has a vaguely alternative feel, with some nice lead guitar splashes over acoustic strumming. Plus, it came out when woman-led bands like Veruca Salt and Luscious Jackson and Hole were all over the airwaves. It’s the type of song that a 40 year old in 1997 might have heard and thought, “I like these Riot-Grrrl songs,” then bought a Sleater-Kinney record and was shocked.
The song starts with some nice acoustic shuffling, and whispers from Moore. Then it goes right into the hook. Her voice is not strong, but it serves the song extremely well. She sounds enthusiastic, like she truly believes in her Four Leaf Clover. The lyrics don’t really explain what she hopes her talisman will do (though it’s clearly about a relationship), but she makes you believe. That lead guitar (perhaps Mitch Watkins?) is always in the background doing cool stuff. Also, Brannen Temple’s drum beat keeps the song moving nicely.
The song progresses by adding backing voices, and they really help the song to build. Each time through the hook the song gets more urgent. After a guitar solo, a distorted guitar enters (2:24) to add a sprinkle of “grunge.” By the end, Moore’s lead voice, the backing vocals, and all those guitar sounds have created a sing-along urgency that’s infectious and thrilling.
“Four Leaf Clover” earned Moore a 1998 Grammy nomination for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance. (The award was won by Fiona Apple‘s “Criminal.”) However, it doesn’t seem to be a song that is still lingering around out there in the cultural consciousness. It’s one of those, “Oh-yeah-I-forgot-about-that-one!” songs. But I’ve always loved it, and I find it quite inspiring when I’m feeling anxious. So, thank you 70s AM Radio, for helping me to not overlook good, flimsy pop!
When I Was Born for the 7th Time. Cornershop.
1997, Warner Bros. Producer: Tjinder Singh, Dan the Automator, Daddy Rappaport.
IN A NUTSHELL: An album that is really hard to categorize, featuring everything from turntablism to country to raga. UK-born Tjinder Singh leads his group through style after style, but keeps the music fun and tethers it to its trance-inducing Hindi roots. It’s music that’s hard for me to adequately describe – my usual “guitar/bass/drums” verbiage doesn’t really work. But I like the way it sounds – it makes me feel young!
In about six months I’ll turn 50 years old.
I was in my first year of college, and my fellow 18 year old, male, heterosexual (I think) friends and I were aghast. “Who would take the date with a 50 year old??” we wondered. It was an age older than most of our mothers. Only one of us claimed we would take the date, and he did so because “I’d want to see if I could [share intimate physical contact with] her.” (He also later spent time in prison, not that it matters. (Although maybe it does.)) The rest of us were further aghast. FIFTY was old.
FIFTY IS OLD. It’s the age you become AARP-eligible, a fact that has been exploited for laughs by American spouses for 30 years, a membership being the ultimate BIG 5-0 gag-gift, as it’s humorous but also useful[ref]Or so I hear. I won’t find out for another few months.[/ref]. Rock-Music-Wise, Roger Daltry sang “I hope I die before I get old” in The Who’s “My Generation,” and he certainly meant well before age 50. FIFTY is even older than Spinal Tap bassist Derek Smalls was when he lamented growing old in rock-n-roll.
But big whoop. Who cares? The fact is, I’ve felt old at every “Big X-0” birthday since I turned 10. (Although at 10, “old” was a good thing.) Time moves in one direction, and such markers whiz past like telephone poles viewed from the bed of a speeding pick-up truck. When I turned 20, I hadn’t yet performed comedy, but I knew Eddie Murphy was a star by that age, so it seemed too late for me. When I turned forty, my kids were still so young and it seemed like it would be years before I’d get a little free time for my own – and by the time it arrived I assumed I’d be too old to enjoy it.
[captionpix imgsrc=”https://www.100favealbums.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/10th-255×300.jpg” captiontext=”The author’s 10th birthday was the last time in his life that a birthday ending in ‘0’ brought contentment rather than anxiety.”]
Now I’m turning 50, and I actually don’t feel as old as I thought I would. Sure, physically, I’m a little more achey than I used to be, and a nice long walk now substitutes for an hour’s worth of pick-up basketball, but emotionally I’m not experiencing anywhere near the level of concern I felt when I turned 30. Of all the X-0 birthdays, 30 hit me the hardest. That was the one that grabbed my lapels, slapped me in the face, spun me around with a kick in the pants and said, “Get on with it, boy! You can’t goof off forever!”
I’ve never forgiven 30 for telling me that.
I was living in San Francisco with my cool girlfriend[ref]A girlfriend so cool that I now realize she was already my wife by the time I turned 30![/ref], in our cool neighborhood, with one cool cat and one mentally disabled stray cat we called “Lenny,” after the big sad character in Of Mice and Men. But even Lenny was cool! I was in a theater group, writing and acting in plays, I was performing improv – and getting paid for it[ref]Obviously not a lot, but still …[/ref], and I was doing some stand up comedy. I was having a blast – but the BIG 3-0 hung over my head ominously.
All of my artistic pursuits were fun and important to me, however I was still earning my living as a chemist in the pharmaceutical industry. I thought of myself as an actor/performer, but I had a series of W-2s going back 6 years that told a different story. The time had come to either ditch the well-paying job and dive headfirst into performance, or quietly admit to myself that despite my pursuits’ fun and importance, I really enjoyed having a comfortable lifestyle with an income I could count on. I quietly admitted to myself that performance – improv, standup, acting – was an AVOCATION.
This was all happening in the mid-90s. In a different era, there may have been music on the radio to help soothe my anxiety and stress. But not in the mid-90s, which was an era of some of the worst music imaginable: pseudo-alt-rock – a ripped-off, corporate-hijacked, style-over-substance form whose ridiculousness was perhaps topped only by the spiraling absurdity of the late 80s hair-band phenomenon. Pseudo-Alt-Rock was similar to the follies of the late-80s hair-bands in that a once-inspired musical style (in the case of hair-bands, Heavy Metal; in the case of pseudo-alt, College Rock/Grunge) had been fed through the record label Xerox machine so many times that only the faintest outline remained of the original form. All the subtle intricacy of true expression and unique character was lost, and a bunch of nondescript blobs were spat out and called “alternative rock,” in the hope that listeners wouldn’t notice the difference. And it was all over the radio.
As my 30th birthday approached, I felt my carefree youth slipping away, and I decided to make a last-ditch attempt to hang on by renewing my interest in what was new on the musical map. I decided that 1997 would be the year I would resume buying good, new music – a favorite pastime of mine that had peaked in the early 90s, but had waned some by 1997. It was a dubious era in which to claw back into the musical stew.
For every Yo La Tengo or Radiohead, there was a The Prodigy or a Creed. It wasn’t hard to enjoy Sleater-Kinney, and then be tricked by Veruca Salt. It was the era of the Trapdoor of the Catchy Alternative Pop Song, a phenomenon in which a tuneful song that immediately grabs your ear by a random Smashmouth or New Radicals, or even – shockingly enough – a Hanson[ref]Hanson wasn’t properly “Alternative,” but their hit had a certain guitar/drumbeat/production sound that gained it a couple spins on SF’s Live105, apparently to see just how far the suits could push this whole alternative-genre thing. This type of push also got Jewel some “modern rock” play.[/ref], could, if you didn’t give the song a second and third go-around to really listen, cause you to consider buying an album, and in doing so plummet, screaming, clutching in your hands a virtually unlistenable and un-re-sellable piece of shiny, plastic trash.
I did a pretty good job of avoiding the really lousy albums from the really shitty bands of the day[ref]Which isn’t to say I am to be trusted as the arbiter of what is lousy or not. I have had plenty of lousy albums on my list, and I expect some more will show up as well![/ref]. I didn’t buy anything from Matchbox 20 or Bush or Third Eye Blind. I wasn’t tricked by a catchy single into buying albums from Luscious Jackson or White Town or OMC.
But I did purchase one album that summer on the basis of one catchy song that turned out to indeed be a one-hit wonder … in the UK. And after re-mixing. In the summer of 1997, Alt-Rock Radio – that foister of tepidry[ref]To coin two words and a phrase.[/ref] – was playing a Catchy Alternative Pop Song that could have been a trap door. The song was “Brimful of Asha,” by Cornershop, sung in a definitely-noticeable Hindi accent. It was part of Corporate Modern Rock Radio’s apparent push towards some bit of multi-cultural awareness, a song churned onto the playlist via some strange algorithm that also allowed a Los Lobos song to be played once a month, but still couldn’t spit out any hip-hop songs onto the playlist by any bands other than The Beastie Boys[ref]That is until the fucking Bloodhound Gang came along. 90s Modern Rock radio skipped all those other (black) hip-hop artists, but okayed the bloodhound gang??? Zoinks.[/ref]. It caught my ear, and I read good things about the album (probably in Spin magazine) so I went out and got it. I wasn’t disappointed.
“Brimful of Asha” is a terrific guitar pop song, with great drums and a great beat. It starts quietly and simply: an easy electric guitar riff and basic drums. The song builds with each verse, adding organ and strings. By the time of the “Everybody needs a bosom for a pillow” chorus, it’s got a full sound. The song’s lyrics are a salute to Bollywood playback singer[ref]A playback singer is the person who sings the songs that are lip-synched in a Bollywood film.[/ref] Asha Bhosle, and the band’s love of 45s. This is probably as good a time as any to mention the band’s Indian-UK heritage. Singer/Songwriter Tjinder Singh’s music incorporates his Hindi background into 90s-style UK funk, and the result is unlike anything else. For example, in “Brimful of Asha,” the repetitive guitar riff functions somewhat like a “drone” in Indian classical music, setting the table onto which the rest of the song is placed – including a pumped up bass drum, hand claps, and samples of orchestra strings.
That Indian drone technique is used throughout the album, and there’s something compelling about it. Sometimes I will find it repetitive, but most often it draws me in and keeps me hooked. A good example is the first track on the album, “Sleep On the Left Side.”
There’s not a lot happening in this song, but there’s an awful lot happening, too! What I mean is, the five notes that make up the drone are unchanging and run through the whole song. But throughout, the electronic squawks and accordion riffs and orchestral wiggles and flute trills and Singh’s laconic vocals provide the listener with much to consider. The lyrics seem to be a reflection on life in, and pride for, an Indian neighborhood in the U.K. (The name “Cornershop” is a reclamation of a UK slur for Indians and Pakistanis, so-called because of the many who owned convenience stores (aka cornershops) in the U.K.[ref]Which just goes to show how ridiculous bigotry is – the fact that diligence, entrepreneurialism and hard work could be turned into a supposed slur![/ref]) It’s got a trance-inducing groove, but in a good way.
The band’s Indian roots are on full display in one of the most Hindi-sounding pop songs I’ve heard since The Beatles’ “Love You To.” The song is “We’re In Yr Corner,” and the sitar starts flying immediately.
In addition to the sitar, the song is sung in Punjabi (apparently, from what I’ve read). I couldn’t find any English translations for the lyrics, but the song is catchy and melodic. At about 1:45 there is some spoken dialogue that sounds terrific. As with the first two songs I mentioned, there’s a repetitive drone aspect to the song which a) I love, but b) makes it hard for me to write about. I’m used to saying, “I like the guitar in the chorus,” and “How about those drums in the bridge,” but many of the songs on When I Was Born for the 7th Time have no guitar, chorus or bridge. However, the drums always sound great – whether drum kit, tabla, bongoes, or some other type with which I’m unfamiliar! But the sounds move me. And Western aspects are tossed in, such as the breaks around 2:50, or the false ending or the “IBM and Coca-Cola, motherfucker!” lyrics. The band has a knack for taking the unfamiliar and making it sound familiar.
So the band flies its Indian flag in all its songs, however, as I’ve said in many of my album write-ups, I love variety! Nothing makes me tire of an album quicker than a repetition of sound, and Cornershop is fluent in many styles. My favorite song on the album almost sounds like a Beck song: “Funky Days are Back Again.”
Drummer Nick Simms shines on the track, propelling it forward with tight rolls and syncopation. The typical Cornershop beeps and blips supplement the song, as Singh celebrates the 1990s good life, in lyrics that are clever and fun.
The album also contains a sort of turntable jazz song, “Butter the Soul,” that features a really cool-sounding turntable riff broken up by solos on Indian instruments, complete with bursts of applause from the “audience.” Also impressive is a country song, sung as a duet between Singh and American singer Paula Frazer. The song is “Good to Be on the Road Back Home.” It’s got typical country lyrics – how the road wreaks havoc on the traveler. It’s also got that Indian drone – with few chord changes and a constant chugging acoustic guitar. The band is just very creative.
This creativity, the desire to expand in sound and genre, leads to several songs that – for me – really miss the mark. “When the Light Appears Boy,” with lyrics by Beat Generation hero Allen Ginsburg, who also speaks the lyrics, is much better in theory than in execution. “What Is Happening” sounds like supermarket announcements read over raga drumming. Others are just fragments, really. But some of the experiments succeed wildly – like “Candyman,” another trance-inducing groove that sounds great!
To me, this song is what the album is all about: taking the old (old songs, old styles, old languages) adding a bit of yourself (Anglo-Indian roots, love of rock and hip-hop) and creating something new and wonderful. In fact, this is probably what life is all about – take what’s come before you, add a bit of yourself, and make things better for those coming behind you. It’s why I probably shouldn’t get too worried about getting older – life was here before me, life will go on after me. I’m just here to improve things a little bit. I’ll let Cornershop have the last word, with another song I love for its song structure and beat; but most of all for its great message. Because as I approach 50, and I sometimes worry or fret, it helps to keep in mind: Good Shit’s All Around[ref]This song was a hit in the UK under the alternative title, “Good Ships.”[/ref].
“Sleep on the Left Side”
“Brimful of Asha”
“Butter the Soul”
“We’re in Yr Corner”
“Funky Days Are Back Again”
“What Is Happening?”
“When the Light Appears Boy”
“Good to Be on the Road Back Home”
“It’s Indian Tobacco My Friend”
“Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)”
OK Computer. Radiohead.
1997, Capitol. Producer: Radiohead and Nigel Godrich.
IN A NUTSHELL: One of the strongest, most interesting 2/3 of an album I’ve ever heard! The sounds are cool, and the songs range from soaring epics to soft lullabies. Singer Thom Yorke has a knack for melodies, the rhythm section is top-notch, and multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood is one of the most creative minds in rock. Halfway into this album, I’m sure it’s destined for top-10, but the last few songs don’t deliver on the promise.
The people who today know me as the debonair, charming, some-would-say-George-Clooney-esquebon-vivant and social butterfly, might find it hard to believe I didn’t have a lot of dates in high school. But it’s true – I didn’t. Believe it or not, I was awkward as a teen-ager, both in looks and actions. Chubby, with bad hair and little knowledge of style, my unease among people and lack of self-esteem didn’t provide the necessary components for a personality that could easily overcome my appearance. However, mine was a classic “ugly-duckling” story: I am now a beautiful swan.
[captionpix imgsrc=”https://www.100favealbums.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/handsom-eric.jpg” captiontext=”As this recent photo demonstrates, given the proper angle, the term ‘George-Clooney-esque’ describes the author perfectly. ‘Beautiful Swan’ is also apt.”]
Because of my lack of success with girls, including multiple failed attempts across many years of teen-ager-dom at trying to get girls to like me[ref]I am tempted to go into these right now, but I’m sure I have about 6 or 7 Favorite Albums’ worth of stories, and I have 57 more of these to write, so I won’t reveal them at this time. But they can all be lumped into two categories: 1) embarrassingly desperate; and 2) embarrassingly clueless.[/ref], I don’t think I was ever happier in my first 18 years of life than when I got my first real girlfriend. I say “real girlfriend” to rule out a brief romance with, and planned marriage to, a girl, “Debbie,” in kindergarten; I don’t mean to imply that I had a series of fake girlfriends, or even one fake girlfriend. I didn’t even know how to get the fake girls to like me.
When I say “like me,” I mean “like me-like me,” the first-person version of “Of course she likes you! But she doesn’t really like you-like you.” I was generally well-liked by boys and girls through Middle School and High School – a nerd, sure, but not so strange that I endured beatings or significant bullying. But this likability kept me within the “Friend Zone” with basically every single girl I ever liked[ref]A situation which even stretched into early adulthood.[/ref]. I was a perpetual Duckie.
But in the late summer before my senior year of high school, my three years of toiling in the marching band remarkably and unexpectedly paid ACTUAL social status dividends when, during rehearsals for our football halftime show, a cute baton-twirler in my grade named Jenny called me over and introduced me to another cute baton-twirler, a sophomore (not) named Bonnie. Jenny said, “You stand near Bonnie when you play your solo, so I thought I should introduce you to her.” Now, my lack of success with girls during high school was in part due to my inability to recognize when a girl liked me. But in this case, Jenny practically slapped me across the face and shouted, “Hey!! This girl likes you! I MEAN LIKES YOU-LIKES YOU, DUMMY!” This time I got the message.
Bonnie was cute and funny and smart, and best of all, she seemed to think the same of me. At first we would talk at band practice, and then I got her phone number. This meant I could call and offer her a ride to band practice. This meant I’d have an opportunity to say goodnight when I dropped her off. This meant I would have to a) figure out if I should kiss her goodnight, and then, depending on the outcome, b) ACTUALLY DO IT! This meant the first time I drove her home from band practice I was sweating and woozy and fearing how I might screw things up when we got to her driveway. When I stopped the car, she said thank you and leaned over and gave me a long kiss on the lips!!! This meant I drove home happier than I had ever been.
I don’t remember any declaration of going steady, nothing formal like the “pinning” I’d seen on Happy Days and other shows about the 50s. In the 80s, we just sort of started walking in the halls together and holding hands and answering “yes” when asked, “Are you going with Bonnie?” It was understood that we’d go to the Homecoming Dance together, that we’d go meet at The Mall on weekends, that we’d make arrangements to go to movies or to each others’ homes.
We made out some, which was fun, although rather stressful. So many questions: “Should I do something different with my hands?” “Should I tell her my neck hurts and ask to switch seats?” “This has been fun, but would it ruin things to say I want to go back to watching the movie now?” We didn’t do anything physical besides kiss, which was fine by me. After we broke up, Bonnie called me in tears because some girl I didn’t know told her that she heard we’d broken up because Bonnie didn’t “put out.” I told her it wasn’t true, but I didn’t admit that I had been terrified the whole time that she’d WANT TO do more than kiss. I mean, I’d think about it, sure, but it was sort of like thinking about driving on the PA Turnpike: I’d only recently learned how to start a car; I’d need to learn way more about its buttons and dials, not to mention yielding and merging, before I even considered heading up an on-ramp.
If it sounds like it was boring … well, it was – after a while. It was amazing at first, the kissing, the hanging out, the knowledge that someone liked you. Those happy feelings carried on for several weeks, maybe a few months. But after a while, I got bored. A good example of why were our phone conversations. It was apparent to both of us that, as part of “going with” each other, we should talk on the phone regularly. But what to discuss was really unclear. After a quick rundown of the day (“I have math homework.”), the friends (“Josh made a joke in American Lit.”), and the possible future plans (“Lori is having a party on Saturday.”) we both were at a loss. It was awkward – we’d sit there and just sort of breathe at each other, both of us with nothing to say, and unable to figure an appropriately conversational and gentle version of “Look, I like you and all, but this call is really boring now so I’m hanging up.[ref]I was stunned when I first started dating my wife, and she’d suddenly say during our phone calls, “Okay, I don’t want to talk to you anymore, so I’m hanging up.” It was jarring, at first, but it really saved a lot of time.[/ref]” Then, when a decision to hang up did arrive, the insipid, nauseating exchanges of “You hang up, no you hang up” were excruciating. The phone calls began to feel pointless, much like the entire “going with” experience.
Of course, being 17 and having very little experience relating with other humans apart from my two best friends, I had no idea what to do. My friends weren’t good comparators: I had never (and still haven’t) made out with either of them, and we’d never stayed on the phone breathing at each other. I was at a loss. I thought Bonnie was nice and I really liked her, but I just didn’t want to spend my time with her anymore. I finally called her up and said some version of “It’s not you, it’s me.” In retrospect, I should have told her in person, and I shouldn’t have told her an hour before the Big Game – a basketball game against our rival high school that was one of the social highlights of the year. I rationalize it by thinking, “Well, I was clueless, and there’s never a good way to break up with someone,” but it was a really lousy way to do it.
Some experiences in life start off amazing, and the fact that they don’t maintain that ability to amaze shouldn’t diminish one’s appreciation for the entirety of the experience. I look back fondly at my time with Bonnie; I can still feel the excitement of that first kiss, (and all those kisses); the happiness that someone was waiting by the cafeteria stairway just for me; the joy in sharing private laughs; the fantasy of driving on the turnpike … Some things fizzle out, and it’s just the way it goes.
And this brings me to Radiohead’s album OK Computer.
Then sometime around the summer of 1997, I was home sick from work. I was on the couch flipping through TV stations, and figured I’d check MTV to see if “Pop Up Video” was on. It wasn’t. But I did see one of the weirdest, coolest videos for one of the oddest, coolest songs I’d ever seen: Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android.” I couldn’t believe this song was by the “Creep” creeps.
I’ve often heard one song from a record, then rushed out to buy it and found myself greatly disappointed by most everything else on it. (I’m looking at you, New Miserable Experience.) But OK Computer grabbed me right from the first twenty seconds of the album opener, “Airbag.”
Phil Selway’s drum beat is funky and odd and propels the song, and when Colin Greenwood’s bass pops in about 32 seconds in, a unique rhythmic table is set for the rest of the song to build on. Singer Thom Yorke’s simple melody draws in the listener, and the guitar lines and assorted noises create a spooky and powerful backdrop for his sneering vocals and inscrutable lyrics to swim through. I love how Ed O’Brien and Jonny Greenwood’s guitars work together, and also Jonny’s solo at 2:25. But what makes the song extra-cool to me is the false ending at 3:28. Strange squeaks arise, and Selway and Colin fit tightly played rhythms into them, but then at around four minutes the band re-enters and runs out the song, revising the main guitar riff. Clearly, as a Beatles fan, I can’t say this is the most mind-blowing song I’ve ever heard, but it left an immediate, long-lasting impression. This song is like that first kiss by a first girl/boyfriend, those first moments when you realize, “Wow. This may be the best thing ever.”
But things get even better by song two! Just like your new, first Significant Other will randomly spring a flower on you, or unexpectedly put an arm around you, and make you fall even harder, “Paranoid Android” pops up to surprise and amaze the listener. The video, above, can be distracting because it’s so weird – but the song is epic. It opens with a quiet acoustic guitar surrounded by wiggly electric guitars, haunting electric noises[ref]Including an artificial voice around 1:00 and 1:45 that claims to not be an android, and that will rear its ugly head again later.[/ref], and Yorke’s unique vocal style again singing hard-to-grasp lyrics about modern life’s futile pursuits. At 1:57, the second part begins, and by 2:09 the song quickly moves into a 7/8 time signature for a few bars, then back to 4/4, proof that Selway and Colin G. are a top-notch rhythm section. The song gets aggressive quickly, starting with Yorke’s increasing venom and a cacophony of rock starting at 2:42. The next minute is a frenzy, as Jonny screeches one of my favorite guitar solos ever starting at 3:00, and by 3:17 is back in 7/8 time. It all ends suddenly when Part 3 begins, around 3:27. It’s a choral section, really, with multiple voices – soft and gentle, yet building to a splatter of further aggression at 5:37, and a reintroduction of the main theme, with another excellent solo. The entire song is brilliant.
So here you sit, young lover. A week or two into your first real relationship, and I’ll tell you what will happen: it will stay excellent, and maybe even get a bit better. Something will happen – maybe you’ll find out that like you, he also has an older sister in college, or that both of your moms go to the same hair salon and probably know each other. Somehow, by some small token, your belief that this is “for real” will be cemented in the same way “Subterranean Homesick Alien” cements OK Computer as a record for the ages.
This may be my favorite Radiohead song ever. It’s moving – one of their few songs in which the lyrics actually resonate with me. As a kid who usually felt out of place in his small hometown, the idea of getting away was always on my mind – even when I didn’t realize it. Selway’s drumming is once again remarkable, but its the guitar that makes this song – Jonny’s leads throughout and the atmospheric touches. He’s not afraid of pedals and computers and anything he can find to make a cool sound, and even though I tend to favor straight-ahead, blues/rock guitar, I love Jonny Greenwood. But what I love most about the song is simply the feeling of it. It gives me chills. It’s unexplainable – much like first love.
And the next experience to plunge you deeper into love that first time around, now that you’ve been dating for 3 weeks, will be something breathtaking and deep that gives a clear indication that you were meant to be together. He admits he cried when the team lost that playoff game; she reveals she cheated on that math test, and you’re the only one who knows. Something will happen to tell you “It’s really real now – not kid stuff.” It will feel much like the breathtaking power of “Exit Music (For a Film)”
It’s a cinematic song, obviously, given the title, the lyrics telling the hopeful end of what appears to have been a sad story. It’s just Yorke and an acoustic guitar, with keyboards that sound like human voices. Sounds of children playing add to the feeling, and the band breaks in at 2:48 and – as with most songs on the album – builds to an emotional release at 3:20, a powerful, rolling synth bass carrying the weight behind Yorke’s belting. It subsides to quiet guitar and voice, leaving a memory behind. It’s not that every song is getting better, but with every song the album is building a case for being one of the all-time greats in my book.
In a first love, the unexpected will happen, and sometimes it will be wonderful. It doesn’t have to be huge – for me, I always remember Bonnie’s house as the first place I ever had microwave popcorn. That sounds unimportant and funny, but my family had only recently bought a microwave by 1984 when I was going with Bonnie – they still seemed sort of fancy to me, and I was skeptical of them. But Bonnie’s popcorn changed my views. A little thing, but a lasting memory. To this point in OK Computer, Radiohead has been mostly about power and weirdness, so the lovely song “Let Down” is a bit of a surprise. It again has really cool guitar work, this time dueling guitars of Ed O’Brien and Jonny Greenwood – subtle, intricate figures that at times sound like they’re playing a different song than the rest of the band. Yorke weaves a nice melody throughout, and in a gentler voice sings a song that again speaks to frustrations with the modern world.
Once again, Radiohead pulls their trick of seeming to end a song, around 2:31 this time. But once again they build it up, this time to a thrilling last verse, from 3:40, with great harmony vocals. If this album is your first girl/boyfriend, at this point in the relationship you are feeling quite certain that you will be married for life. And the next song, “Karma Police,” does nothing to diminish the good feelings.
This is the “hit” from the album, hitting #14 on the US “Hot Modern Rock Tracks” list[ref]Whatever the fuck that is.[/ref]. I don’t think it’s a great song, but it is a fine addition to such an outstanding album. Piano-driven, with wry lyrics about how annoying others around us can be, it also has a pretty great guitar part – as most all the songs have so far.
In many relationships, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where everything goes wrong; in others, there is no doubt. Maybe you find your new boyfriend going through your purse, and he plays it off cool, like “I really needed a paper clip, and I thought you might have one,” … but still, you have no idea how long he was rooting around in there, and wonder why he didn’t just ask. Maybe you find a note in your car that fell out of your girlfriend’s backpack, in which a friend asks “does he know anything?” and references a party that you didn’t attend. Or maybe you have a huge fight about some random detail, and what’s revealed in that fight – whether words or actions – causes you to rethink your entire appreciation of what has come before.
The song is just a stream of words from a voice synthesizer[ref]People thought it was Stephen Hawking, but it wasn’t.[/ref]. The Beatles surrounded “Revolution 9,” John Lennon’s avant garde sound collage, with 29 other songs on “The White Album,” and even with all that cover people still question the band’s decision to release it. On OK Computer, even with 6 amazing tracks preceding it, “Fitter, Happier” makes me feel angry, cheated; annoyed that I have to skip over it every time I listen. It makes me think the band thinks I’m a chump.
But then – song 8. “Electioneering.” We are rocking again, and I can try to put the previous song out of my mind.
“Electioneering” has a raucous guitar, and a ramshackle feel (accented by a cowbell!) that allows me to grant forgiveness to the band for the previous song. It’s as straightforward a rock song as I’ve heard from the band. It’s a protest song of sorts, lyrically challenging the idea that democratic elections can actually work in individuals’ best interests. Relationship-wise, it’s like a small gift after the big fight: it doesn’t make everything all right, but at least there’s an acknowledgment of the difficulty. There is hope that the ship can be righted.
“Climbing Up the Walls” fails to right the ship.
It’s a slow dirge, with customary squiggles and beeps and a pretty great guitar solo. But there’s a lack of urgency, a certain somberness with a tinge of drudgery – which is far different than what has come before. Many of the previous songs were mid-tempo, or slow, but they just felt different than this. It’s the type of song that makes me reflect on how great all the previous songs were; except for that one. For the first time in this relationship, you are questioning whether your initial instincts were accurate.
“No Surprises” simply raises further questions. It’s a lovely song, reminiscent of an old Claudine Longet Christmas song called “Snow” that my parents used to play. But as pretty as it is, it sounds repetitive, and when the band tries to do a customary “Radiohead build up,” at around 3 minutes, it just feels flat. In relationship terms, you’re now starting to wonder if you were duped earlier: maybe it was all a lie, and THIS is the real person.
How did it all go so wrong? You are hurt, angry. The little things that used to mean so much – there’s a false ending in the next song, “Lucky,” which once again morphs into a terrific guitar solo restating the main theme, the type of thing I used to rave about – now just seem tiresome, like imitations of the good that came before. Those quirks you put up with that used to say “unique” – like incomprehensible lyrics – now simply say “weirdo,” calling into question your own ability to make good decisions. Has the other person changed? Have you? At this point, does it matter?
Fitting, then, that the album’s closing track, “The Tourist,” sounds so much like a breakup set to music. Sad, repetitive, almost funereal, the fact that it has some beautiful harmony vocals simply makes it more poignant. I listen to the song and imagine a slideshow of happier times: me, excitedly listening to “Airbag;” me and “Paranoid Android” being weird and goofy together; “Subterranean Homesick Alien” picking me up off my feet and spinning me around … “The Tourist” ends with a single tone struck on a bell, leaving a sense of cold finality. “Yep,” it seems to say, “that really happened. And now you’ll spend the rest of your life wondering what it all meant.”
But try and remember: the good was very, very good. The bad wasn’t awful, and could have been worse. Life is strange and we never know where events will take us. But if we can move through life and try to focus on the positive, and try to forgive ourselves and those around us for the negative, we’ll be happier with the memories we’ve made. On the whole, OK Computer makes me very, VERY happy!! I don’t regret the relationship at all. Despite its ups and downs, it was exactly as it should have been. And I’m a better person for having gone through it.
“Subterranean Homesick Alien”
“Exit Music (For A Film)”
“Climbing Up The Walls”