Muzak for the Masses?

Radiohead and Steely Dan reach the limits of their experimentation

By Bret McCabe
Baltimore City Paper

First off, forget everything you already think you know about Radiohead. Yeah, it’s a big task. The band has spent the past six years either being the biggest band on the planet or acting like it: fleeing the limelight of “OK Computer’s” conceptual ennui to drown itself in electronics and modern composition, name-dropping Faust and Penderecki along the way; shirking traditional pop practices of releasing singles and videos to promote albums; pulling Pearl Jam-esque tilts against the corporate Leviathan that put the band on its pedestal. And every step of the way, the loyal stood by their men, paying their retail- and ticket-price tithe, happily downloading when opportunity clicked, and waiting for the band to return to its birthright purpose and flat-out rock as it does onstage.

Thing is, the guitars were never that big a part of Radiohead; despite the so-called radical experimentation that concocted “Kid A” and “Amnesiac,” what the band does viscerally hasn’t changed at all. Ever. Sure, Pablo Honey’s “Creep” was built on a tidal-wave guitar surge that browbeat vocalist Thom Yorke’s self-loathing, yet “Creep” works because that blast folds into a rhythmic push and pull, texture collisions washing over you like a tide coming in. Radiohead has always taken rock’s building blocks — the guitar thrust and driving beat — and treated them as textures, eased them into the comforting numb of the dirge, turning headbang into body sway, anthem into lullaby.

And here comes its sixth album, “Hail to the Thief,” sounding like it’s splitting the difference between what Radiohead once was and what it has become, only the band’s borrowings are starting to peek through. “There There” is built on a percolating razzmatazz of layered timbres wed to an emotive vocal that the early Smiths nailed. The gentle ebb and flow of “Where I End and You Begin” rises and falls on a synthscape river flow, Yorke using reverb to fill out his narrow tenor, yet the track’s one world-music element away from being Peter Gabriel. The bass-belch stutter stepping into Yorke’s lackadaisical growl that opens “Myxomatosis” sounds a little too Stone Temple Pilot’s “Vaseline.” Even when Radiohead delves into the plangent piano ballad that gave Coldplay a reason to exist (“Sail to the Moon,” “We Suck Young Blood”), it sounds less like itself and more like any late-’90s Brit-pop hanger-on. Through it all, Yorke sings oblique tales of fear and trembling, sounding like he’s the last man standing with a brain and the heart to match.

Thief’s best songs own up to Radiohead’s Platonic ideal of forging melody out of percussive collisions. The roiling sinusoidal waves rippling through “Backdrifts” toss Yorke’s falsetto around like a dinghy in a storm. And the haunting “A Wolf at the Door” paints its spine out of subtle guitar and organ gestures over a stately march for Yorke at his most enunciating, a regal tapestry swath that sounds like a more modern riff on the medieval pomp and circumstance that is Dead Can Dance.

What’s always been most off-putting about Radiohead is how insular it all feels. For a band that resonates with such a large audience, only onstage does it open up into something resembling rock’s cathartic embrace, swinging in the whirlwind of its mixed tempos. On album, it feels more tightly controlled and calculated than J.Lo’s career. Everything’s in its right place, vacuum-sealed in a hermetic package to be admired and adored.

Another band of postmodern sonic architecture and earthly toil has been making such Faberge-egg songs since the decade that Radiohead feels most suited to, the prog-happy 1970s. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker’s Steely Dan is the ne plus ultra of production perfectionism. Disappearing into the Reagan years’ ether after 1980’s “Gaucho,” Fagen and Becker returned with 2000’s “Two Against Nature” sounding like they never left the studio. Still interweaving complex jazzy breaks and riffs into traditional-feeling R&B, Fagen and Becker rekindled their interest in older guys trying to score with younger — in some cases too young — women, and won their first Grammy.

Arguably out to prove “Nature” wasn’t a one-off, Fagen and Becker are already back with “Everything Must Go,” by which they must mean everything that made them entertaining. The songs remain so ascetically smooth and clean you could operate in them, but the hooks don’t swing quite as nice, and for some reason the lad-mag cleverness and obtuse sarcasm of their lyrics is gone. Creepy as it may be, a middle-aged Fagen singing about an out-of-work musician having naughty thoughts about his cousin “in those little tops and tight Capris,” or a painter invigorated by his runaway Lolita and hoping to sweet talk her into a three-way with her friend, is deliciously risqué — especially when they occur in music that recalls the jingles to every laundry detergent commercial ever made.

“Go” sounds like successful, middle-aged businessmen having a midlife crisis and cashing in while they’re ahead. The lead track informs all metaphorical shoppers that they better get the “Sunset Special/ on all the standard stuff” now because it’s last call at “The Last Mall.” “Things I Miss Most” captures a recently divorced man’s laments, checking off his yearnings — the Audi TT, the house on the Vineyard, the comfy Eames chair, the ’54 Strat. And the title song chronicles a company owner having a going out of business sale, calling to “dissolve the corporation/ in a pool of margaritas.”

Given the recent spate of corporate malfeasance, “Go’s” song snapshots may be Fagen and Becker’s typically wry examination of men’s foibles, but that doesn’t explain the unbridled glee with which they do it. Fagen has always sounded like the perpetual 40-year-old, hovering on middle age but still close enough to youth to taste it. On “Go” Fagen merely delivers his lines, never accentuating anything to reveal he’s sardonically aware of their content. And if you take away the juxtaposition of Steely Dan’s witty lyrics and how they’re delivered, it all sounds the same — like incidental music from television’s Taxi.

Dismissive, you say? The next time you’re in an elevator, a department store dressing room, on hold with the dentist’s office, or languishing in some other quotidian limbo, see how long it takes before you hear a Steely Dan tune. Smoother-than-smooth jazz Muzak loves these guys — despite the odd meters, the on-a-dime jazzy breaks, the overall structural precision, and the sophisticated, narrative lyrics. Steely Dan reduces down to ambient wallpaper like it was made for it.

And if you’ve heard True Love Waits: Christopher O’Riley Plays Radiohead, you may be surprised to hear how easily Radiohead’s brooding becomes mellifluous New Age piano pretense. A Van Cliburn-anointed classical pianist, O’Riley has transposed a number of Radiohead’s “orchestral” songs–from Pablo Honey’s “Thinking About You” to The Bends’ “Fake Plastic Trees” to Amnesiac’s “Knives Out”–for solo piano, and it’s amazing how much of their mood and effect remains intact in mere melody and pseudo-august tempos. Of course, the piano is the instrument best suited to Radiohead’s m.o. — percussive melodies. And after a casual listen to True Love Waits, you realize what the future holds in store for Radiohead, and it’s breathtaking how crystal clear it’s been all along. Rock without the hard edge, here you come.

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