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Radiohead Offers Challenging Messages

July 28, 1997|ROBERT HILBURN

In the year in which Prodigy seemed firmly established as the next British band to make a spectacular Oasis-like breakthrough in the U.S., keep an eye also on Radiohead.

Don't think of it as an either/or proposition. At a time of creative lethargy in rock, there is plenty of room--and need--for both these stirring bands.

Radiohead--which kicked off a U.S. tour Saturday night at the Wiltern Theatre with the likable though limited Byrds-influenced Teenage Fanclub--is a guitar-rooted group rather than a synthesizer-driven dance-rock one a la Prodigy. The bond: Both make thrilling music and back it with absorbing live shows.

Where Prodigy seeks to liberate its audiences through a visceral sonic attack, Radiohead's Thom Yorke still believes in the Beatles' and U2's notion that ideas can leave a mark.

While Radiohead's music itself is elegantly and powerfully framed in a headphones-filling manner that suggests soulful rather than sterile art rock, singer-songwriter Yorke's themes are equally commanding. The challenging songs explore questions of hope and faith at a time when society's guidelines revolve more around health and fitness mantras than moral principles.

In "Fitter Happier," a track on the band's brilliant new album "OK Computer," there is even a checklist of '90s rules to live by, from regular exercise to a safer car. It's a mind-set that leaves Yorke unfulfilled and, ultimately, looking to the planets for something more nourishing.

His is a lonely yet somehow inspiring quest, one that is in keeping with rock's grand questioning tradition. How fitting that Yorke, in a good-natured nod to Bob Dylan, even titles one song "Subterranean Homesick Alien."

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