Radiohead Stays Alive

When Radiohead warped forward to the far reaches of the music universe thanks to dual engines of Kid A and Amnesiac, most fans and critics were surprisingly willing to take the trip with them. There were, inevitably, those who dragged their feet, complaining about the albums' obtuse difficulties, dismissing their challenges as pseudo-electronic proggery. I Might Be Wrong, a collection of live recordings of songs taken almost entirely from those two albums, shows that those who accused the band of artistic abstraction were perhaps too lazy or stubborn to give the music the attention it deserved.

To lump the breadth of musical experience in Kid A/Amnesiac under the category of studio-confined electronic gimmickry denigrates it; the only thing Radiohead really has in common with the cutting edge of electronica is its primary emphasis on mood and texture. The heavy-handed lyrical angst and volatile guitar of The Bends and OK Computer have been restrained, bottled up in essence into opaque soundscapes, but not diminished in power. So in the only moment here when Johnny Greenwood's riff explodes out of and above the haze, on Kid A's "Morning Bell," it's a tight, cathartic burst that rivals all the tortured pyrotechnic excess of "Paranoid Android."

Radiohead is still very much a rock band--it's just that rock has never sounded like this before. The rumbling fuzz of "National Anthem" and the slick bluesy groove of the title track open up the set by crushing any contrary argument like a bug in the ground. What is lost of the albums' panicky, cacophonous claustrophobia is made up with kinetic live energy. That balance more or less sets a pattern for all the selections here--the immediacy of the studio wizardry fades into live dynamics that are just as tenable.

Still, a live album is really supposed to offer more: different interpretations of songs, elaborated displays of talent, unrecorded material. Of the latter there is only one: the plaintive Bends-era Yorke-solo ballad "True Love Waits," which nevertheless feels somewhat out of place. I Might Be Wrong's existence is justified simply because Radiohead is the best band of our time, but with a running time shorter than either of its parent albums (eight songs at 40 minutes), it weighs in as the only nonessential title in their catalogue.

There's one exception worth singling out, though. "Like Spinning Plates" appears here as a haunting piano dirge in which Yorke's mournfully wavering voice soars with a melody as beautiful as anything his clear influence Michael Stipe has ever penned. Its original incarnation is one of their few truly electronic experiments--and a wonder in its own right--but when stripped down to this essence, it reveals all the honest and moving glory that makes this band great.


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