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'Head Games 

Forget critics' warnings: Listening to Radiohead is easy

There are many reasons why rational people dislike Radiohead's records: terminal overexposure (commonly cited by record-store employees), "that damn whiny voice," compulsive contrarian tendencies, paucity of killer mosh-pit fodder or boogie-down beats. Because of all these issues and more, Radiohead fandom cannot be considered a litmus test for good taste in the way, say, appreciation of The Simpsons can. Still, under pressure from overbearing enthusiasts, holdouts must explain their personal preferences at length. Often, they'll offer elaborate "I realize they're talented, but..." disclaimers; only Phish elicits more of these.

More problematic are the music critics who describe recent Radiohead albums as "willfully inaccessible" (Rob Brunner, Entertainment Weekly) or "deliberately inarticulate" (James Slaughter, Blender). There could be several causes for such off-target analysis, such as self-congratulatory snobbery ("I liked this challenging work, but most of you plebeians just didn't get it") or a misguided attempt at protecting esoteric status (because critics shouldn't have to share a favorite act with the masses). Again, there's nothing wrong with making an anti-Radiohead argument, but such reviews not only are essentially inaccurate but also dilute the value of superlative terminology that should be used only in truly extreme cases.

Take "We Suck Young Blood," a track from Radiohead's 2003 release Hail to the Thief that both Brunner and Slaughter dismiss with the word "tuneless." On the contrary, the song contains a clear melody, and it even follows an uncharacteristically conventional path. Its verse structure, with two lines in the same key followed by a downward-slanting kicker, mirrors a blues shuffle; its instrumental backing, mostly handclaps and choral hums, mimics gospel. It would be fair to accuse this composition, as Slaughter does, of being "agonizingly slow" and "depressing." But "tuneless" lumps this slightly unorthodox sing-along song with Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music and Mike Patton's belch-and-screech solo work.

When absolutist adjectives are used irresponsibly, ambitious, prog-informed outfits often bear the brunt of the criticism. In Blender's current issue, several of its writers (Slaughter did not contribute) name the "50 Worst Artists in Music History." Among those listed: the Doors, Primus, Asia, Kansas and, at No. 2, Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Certainly, all of the defamed have duds in their discographies, but what's telling is the way complimentary terms become indictments in the paragraphs explaining the groups' inclusion.

Asia gets ripped for its "virtuoso playing"; ELP "shunned blues-based rock in favor of bombastically reinterpreted classical works -- with bafflingly successful results"; Primus caused "musicians and the terminally nerdy" to "gape in wide wonder at the trio's prodigious instrumental chops." If these acts are the "worst," what about the thousands of similar-minded groups without the same level of instrumental skill? Wouldn't a song filled with flubbed notes and butchered solos be less bearable than a flawlessly played number?

Early punks railed against '70s prog outfits such as Pink Floyd and Genesis, so it's natural for writers who witnessed that era to harbor some hostility toward the arena acts. Moreover, there's a tendency to overvalue basic bands and their rudimentary riffs for the same reason sports fans identify with scrappy, talent-challenged players: It keeps the anyone-could-do-this dream alive.

Conversely, the obviously gifted must meet outrageous expectations. For example, Radiohead was expected to self-stunt its artistic evolution after 1997's OK Computer. It's logical that musicians who have reached a zenith while working within rock's parameters would want to incorporate challenging elements such as free-form jazz and glitchy electronic programming. But Brunner eschews this explanation, opting for a bizarre construction that paints Kid A and Amnesiac as cowardly gestures. These albums, he writes, "felt like something of an attempt to deflate impossible-to-live-up-to expectations." He concludes that for Radiohead "making weird music took precedence over making great music," discounting the possibility that the two concepts are not mutually exclusive.

Slaughter builds his Hail to the Thief review on the shakiest of foundations, comparing Radiohead's early work to Coldplay's current release. It's a ludicrous assertion, akin to equating a creatively vital art district to a sterile suburb based on some superficial architectural similarity. He then asserts that Thief offers "nothing in the way of a chorus, nothing approaching a hook, nothing graciously pleasing," missing the fact that the album's opening track contains one of the year's most anthemic, cathartic choruses, the rallying cry of which is, appropriately, "You are not paying attention." Amnesiac, he adds, was "hard work to listen to," which would make perusing Autechre's Gantz Graf or Dillinger Escape Plan's Calculating Infinity Herculean tasks worthy of a tribute in epic-poem form.

Such criticisms almost never surface in reviews of Radiohead's live shows, because its sets present the material in a form that even the experimentation-averse can recognize. The songs' hooks, only slightly obscured in even the band's most ambitious offerings, can swallow stadiums, and Thom Yorke's freakish mumble becomes a commanding primal scream. The tangible spectacle of the show overshadows Yorke's sci-fi scenarios: He might be singing about black-eyed angels, but spectators are thinking only of the rotating-rainbow stage lights and the vividly crackling guitars. Radiohead concerts would present the perfect opportunity for conversion -- if only members of the choir weren't trying their damnedest to scare the uninitiated away from the church.

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