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Don't settle in -- this music demands attention

June 08, 2003|Richard Cromelin

Radiohead

"Hail to the Thief" (Capitol)

****

It's now come to the point where Radiohead seems constitutionally incapable of making a conventional album, even one as eccentric and rigorous as "OK Computer," the 1997 opus that positioned it as mega-band-to-be, before it jumped overboard and went experimental for a couple of years.

Even as it paddles back toward a semblance of traditional song structure and instrumentation, the English group seems transformed by its journey, like returning pilgrims who look familiar but are somehow deeply changed.

In any case, a conventional album would be the wrong tool for the band members' job, which is not to be rock stars but to give musical shape to the world they see.

"You have not been paying attention!" Thom Yorke screams, suddenly switching to full Johnny Rotten rant mode halfway through the first song, alerting and berating in the same flaming breath.

It's an unsettled, sinister world they see, disorienting and increasingly ominous. Radiohead's probes are plunged deep into its skin, and its readings are appropriately hectic and portentous.

The title, of course, invites interpretation as a comment on U.S. and world politics, and on one level it can be read as a ripped-from-the-headlines broadside ("Don't question my authority or put me in the dock" ... "Maybe you'll be president, but I know right from wrong").

But overall, the sense of threat is more generalized (and not everything is necessarily social allegory -- "A Punchup at a Wedding" might be just that).

Still, lines such as "something big is gonna happen" set the agenda. As if consolidating forces in defense, the band starts reassembling the sonic fragments it deployed in "Kid A" and "Amnesiac," and tools them into these cyborg songs, flesh and blood laced with digital DNA. They look normal -- old fans will welcome back the patented Radiohead celestial ballad -- but behave unpredictably.

So grand guitar and piano are shouldered aside by some squawking thing, or a nice verse-chorus pattern will abruptly break into a manic clatter. So it goes in a relentlessly invigorating stretch of music that never lets you get comfortable. It's way too late for that.

-- Richard Cromelin

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