Tuesday, March 23, 2004

OK Computer

One of the few album reviews I ever enjoyed reading, as most of them are barely disguised bids for coolness in a popularity contest that was over on high school graduation day, was for Los Lobos' first big album, "Will the Wolf Survive." The reviewer said something like: "There had been a pressing error, so what I thought was going to be an Al Jarreau album was really the new Los Lobos. I turned to get myself a drink and this nasty rock and roll snorted out of the speakers. 'Gee,' I thought to myself as I pulled my socks back up, 'that rocks.'" In a spasm of synchronistic irony, that same week one of the roommates returned home with what he thought was the new Rickie Lee Jones album, "Pirates." In a printing mixup, it was really the new Al Jarreau. That reviewer had no idea how lucky he was that it was Los Lobos emerged from his speakers and not Al. We had gotten really high in anticipation of new Rickie, all big fans, and when Al's voice greased out of the stereo, you'd've thought someone had teargassed us.

Anyway, I had the pleasure of that reviewers experience last week. I had picked up a bunch of CDs from the library, and wasn't paying much attention to what I was previewing, and suddenly this gorgeous soundscape burst from my speakers. I think my jaw literally swung open. I pawed through the stack to find what it was, and it ended up being Radiohead's "OK Computer." My Cliff Claven font of knowledge reached back into the time when the CD was first out, and emerged with all the rave reviews that it received and it's hanging on the charts for a long time. At the time they had a video out for "Paranoid Android," a purposely badly animated grossout about some guy in a stocking cap. It was even blurred in places because they had drawn nipples on the guy, and evidently cartoon guy nipples were just too beneath the standards of MTV, once again displaying their consistent striving for the high road. The vocalist had a reedy voice that whined along underneath the underwhelming music. I sat through it once, wondering what the big deal was.

Well, I had made two mistakes. I let the video influence my own perception of the song. Watch the video for Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" if you want to experience that kind of a conceptual gap. The song is about screwing, the video is, well, not that. Second, I had previewed a song over TV speakers. Many of your basic throwaway pop hits are compressed and equalized so they sound great on a little paper speaker, but some music is just too big for that. "OK Computer" sounds like an ocean. I'm still perplexed on how they got that expansive feel to the mix. This is definitely something you play on a full range stereo system cranked to the nuts. The singer's reedy voice still floats under the sound, but it's floating in so much sound, it works.

When a big album like this gets past me, I have to retrace my steps, find out what happened, make amends, resample my experience at the time as though I were a character in a Philip K. Dick story. So I went out to Amazon to read the reviews, looking for clues.

Every other review compares "OK Computer" to either "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" or "Dark Side of the Moon" or both. Here's an example:

One of the greats!, February 26, 1998
Reviewer: An Amazon.com Customer
I place this album on a pedestal with Sgt. Pepper's and Dark Side of the Moon. Never have I been so transfixed by a CD. It gives me great hope in the future of music. (I was a little bit worried for a while that music was dead.) Though it requires numerous hearings to do it justice, I found it instantly inspirational. It is good to know that someone in the music world understands modern life. No more of all this ridiculous bubble gum music that trivializes our existence. Life is difficult and often futile, and it's time we acknowledged it. END

I have to agree that the comparison is apt. However, saying that bubblegum music somehow trivializes our life leads me to think this guy could use a Gallagher show or two. Lighten up, mang. Music means only what you let it mean, grasshopper. Still, he's not as bad as this guy:

Could have been the next Sgt. Pepper, May 7, 1998
Reviewer: An Amazon.com Customer
I'd say this is one of the best albums of the decade. I think it says a lot about the "religion of youth" in the United States, what hope (or lack of hope) we have for the future, and how paranoid we all are or would be if we saw how flimsy our social structures actually are. "I'll take a quiet life a handshake of carbon monoxide.. no alarms and no surprises.." There is a dry humor to this that is frightening. We rely on the humdrum of our daily lives and the noise of television, radio, commercialism, and now world wide web (instead of wasting time in front of the tv, I now waste plenty of time in front of a computer screen sifting through meaningless content for the occasional good stuff) to block out our fears and unhappiness, instead of striving to do something more with our lives. Meanwhile, the world falls apart.

Whoa. Have you seen those commercials with the little hopping oval creatures with cowlicks and mood problems? Well, you are they. Call your doctor.

One well-adjusted guy incredulously decodes the major reference/influence of the piece:

Douglas Adams anyone?, March 14, 2004
Reviewer: likethedove from warwick ny
People wonder where Radiohead concieved of there strange album names and song titles. Ive never heard anyone mention this but it is so blatently obvious that i had to put it out there. In the series "The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy" by Douglas Adams there is an annoying computer that people always respond to sarcastically "Ok Computer" there is a character named Marvin the Paranoid Android and there is a homesick alien character and there are innumerable references to these books in Radioheads material. If you are a diehard Radiohead fan or just looking for an amazing quirky read of british humor check out Douglas Adams's "The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy".

Being a huge Adams fan, I kinda slapped my forehead and said "Well, Doi!" at myownself. I can be kinda thick at times, but this was embarrassing. After that connection was make for me in big, black indelible ink, it occurred to me that portions of some of the songs are reminiscent of the theme music from the BBC "Hitchhikers" show.

And, of course, we always have our contrarians:

I have to be honest, June 24, 2002
Reviewer: Martin Lawrence from Here, there, everywhere
I know I'm virtually alone in my opinion, but I have to come right out and be honest, this CD is not good at all. Radiohead disappoint me with each release. The songs they release to radio are enjoyable, but once you delve deeper into their music catalog, there just isn't anything there. I know everyone in the world is supposed to just LOVE this album, critics have been telling us we like it for so long, and you may think "Oh, that reviewer is just musically unintelligent, he can't appreciate such complexity." Well, one of my favorite bands happens to be the band Radiohead are often compared to: Pink Floyd. I love concept albums, when they are done right! But what's the point of non-musical music? Is OK Computer supposed to be some sort of "art?" Sorry, but music isn't just an abstract painting where you can just throw random things together and get a meaning out of it. Plain and simple, Radiohead lack the ability to write songs and they have fooled you and the entire world into thinking that they are musically competent. This CD is bad! Pretentious! Plain! Dull! This is not music.

My favorite remark of all is this one (culled from the middle of his actual review):

Reviewer: goodmuzak (see more about me) from Littleton, CO United States

If you don't already own this album, you are just the kind of person who should own this album.

I can't wait to use that one at a party.

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