Crate-Digging: Radiohead – Amnesiac

I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.

(Capitol, 2001)

Radiohead’s Amnesiac in seven easy steps.

1. What you all should know.

Radiohead’s Amnesiac followed the groundbreaking Kid A eight months after the latter’s release. It was received well critically, though was not held in quite as high regard as its predecessor, even though most of the songs were recorded during the Kid A sessions. (“Life in a Glasshouse” was recorded after the release of Kid A.) Still, it’s a pretty good album which fares best when the band goes the experimental route.

2. It begins on a high note.

“Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box” clangs out of the gate with all the paranoia modern London can muster, and it’s not hard to guess the metaphor; after spending several rush hours shoehorned into the tube, surrounded by businesspeople and various urbanites, I, too, felt like a nasty, salty fish with no room to breathe. Thom Yorke rants at one point in the song, likely perturbed by unwanted social contact in transit, “I’m a reasonable man, get off my case.” He repeats this, but instead of getting agitated, he retreats into dejection. Urban ennui indeed. With “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors,” Radiohead borrows an Aphex Twin naming convention by deliberately misspelling a word and oddly arranging the title. The song also sounds closest in style to Richard D. James on the album, and it really succeeds with its pitchshifted vocals, treated rhythms that drop out at will, and piano and static bursts.

3. “Pyramid Song.”

“Pyramid Song” is possibly my favorite Radiohead tune, its 5/4 piano opening the song with a plaintive Yorke vocal, then leading the full band into an aquatic rush (thanks to the song’s video for the otherworldly oceanic visual). Johnny Greenwood’s harmonic string arrangements are gorgeous. But I warn you: this is not a song about the villainous Pyramid Head, the monstrous strongman, head encased in a giant steel pyramid, who appears in Silent Hill 2 wielding a giant sword – a one-hit killer. Use a ranged weapon like the pistol, shotgun, or rifle to dispatch him. The song is more pleasant.

4. I rock the ondes Martenot.

Johnny Greenwood brought the strange instrument to the attention of the popular culture masses. It’s a goofy instrument, almost like a glorified theremin, with eerie, wavering tones its distinction. Maurice Montenot invented it in 1928, hence the name. Greenwood’s high-profile use of it on Kid A carried over to Amnesiac (remember: same sessions). Its unsettling sound adheres flawlessly to Radiohead’s odes to modern paranoia, making it difficult to mention the instrument these days without conjuring the band. I, too, rock the ondes Martenot – in fact, I smash one in ecstatic abandon at the end of every show my band plays. Oh, hold on – no, those are drumsticks. I throw drumsticks into the crowd. That’s it. The ondes Martenot was discontinued in 1988 – that would be an expensive stage show…. Plus I don’t play drums. Nor am I in a band anymore.

5. The middle sags.

I hate to admit it, but the record sags in all the wrong places – the unseemly middle. It could be worse, of course, but I find myself zoning out a bit. “You and Whose Army” starts slow and mopily, and it’s tough for the band kicking in halfway through to dig it out. I almost gave “I Might Be Wrong” a pass, as its central guitar and band interplay hold your attention, but the song doesn’t change all that much throughout. I can’t even remember what “Knives Out” sounds like right now, and it was the second single. “Morning Bell/Amnesiac” sounds too close to Kid A’s version – although the variation is there, it’s subtle – too subtle. And “Dollars and Cents” wants to build and release, but it fizzles instead of soars, and slumps into the paranoia the rest of the album’s steeped in. My arguments feel halfhearted, and they kind of are, but perhaps this is why I don’t listen to this album more often than I do.

6. You’ll probably disown me for this, but…

I find it difficult to pick out these songs in a live setting, particularly that middle slog. This happens with a bunch of Hail to the Thief songs too, so it’s not an isolated anomaly. I’ve got a bunch of bootlegs, and “Knives Out,” “You and Whose Army,” “Dollars and Cents,” and even “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” blend into the discography. Happens every time – one of these songs comes on and I’m like, “I know I’ve heard this song before – what IS it? Must be on Amnesiac.” It doesn’t matter, because Radiohead’s discography is so unbelievably deep that I’ll inevitably be placated by whatever song comes next. Just sayin’ is all. Same thing happened when I saw Radiohead in Philly on the Hail to the Thief tour. Although I may have been a little woozy by the end – I drank a big plastic guitar full of margarita on a hot summer evening, then stupidly smoked a clove cigarette or two. Two-thirds of the way through the set I got so dizzy I left the main area and threw up. My brother-in-law had to pay some maintenance dude 10 bucks to clean it up and not kick us out. Not my proudest moment.

7. Great beginning, meh middle, great ending.

I always think “Hunting Bears” is part of another song. But that spare minute and a half of minimal atmospheric riffage sets off “Dollars and Cents” beautifully from the end of the record, as well as conjures some great nature-doc-footage visuals. “Like Spinning Plates” follows with a swirling and barely discernable rhythm, almost an ambience, punctuated by synthesizers and Yorke’s vocals, the latter soaring as he sings the song’s title. Much of the track sounds as if its recorded in reverse, and in fact there’s a rare French pressing that includes a bonus track of the inverted song. And “Life in a Glasshouse” is the hidden gem at the end, recorded with a jazz band in the style of a New Orleans dirge. It starts at a funereal pace with the horns serving as ambience to Yorke’s vocal, but the mood, while not lightening, eventually bursts in a horn and woodwind squall. Yorke’s lyrics are at odds with the obvious frustration in his voice: “Well of course I’d like to sit around and chat. / Of course I’d like to stay and chew the fat.” He sounds as if he’d rather be doing anything but that. And of course, that’s why the ending is so great – he’s given in, while throughout the whole album he’s looking for a way out of the psychic malaise. The funeral’s for him, for the last vestiges of control he may have over his life. It’s sick, but it’s gleeful for the rest of us – we can pretend we’re not in his shoes. Right?

RIYL: Radiohead. Radiohead, Radiohead, Radiohead.

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3 responses to “Crate-Digging: Radiohead – Amnesiac

  1. Hmm, okay. One note. For the vocals on ‘Like Spinning Plates’ (which may well be my favorite Radiohead song ever) Thom did indeed record the vocals then played the tape backwards, learned the backwards sounds and re-recorded them forwards, Black Lodge-style. ‘This is a formica table, green is its color.’

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  2. This always sounded like a b-sides album to me. A really good b-sides album with some tracks that deserved to be a-sides, but a b-sides collection nonetheless. And that they were recorded during the same sessions as Kid A just reinforces that feeling for me. I love some of the songs, but Kid A is the artistic well-constructed album and Amnesiac is what didn’t fit. That’s the way it feels to me

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