'Hail' storm

June 10, 2003



What was to have been the music industry's biggest release date this spring lost some of its zing when Metallica's “St. Anger” was rushed into stores last Thursday. But there are still three eagerly anticipated new discs arriving today. Here is a look at the latest from Radiohead, Annie Lennox and Steely Dan.


Radiohead's reputation as the great sonic innovators and art-rock geniuses of our time continues to mystify me: If the band truly wants to be a new-millennial Pink Floyd, it needs to pair its experimental soundscapes with much stronger hooks, less obtuse lyrics and the sort of driving rhythms that it delivers onstage but sacrifices in the studio.

The title of the group's sixth album of new material is either a reference to Florida in the last presidential election or a shout-out to Internet pirates--though it would have been nice if singer Thom Yorke had actually written about either of those topics instead of losing the plot with his typically impressionistic sketches of paranoia, fear and loathing. The sources of this dread are never spelled out--Yorke may be an outdated romantic loathing life in this soulless technocratic age, or he may just be upset because he can't win at PlayStation, and it's hard to say which.

While the line on this album is that it marks Radiohead's "return to rock" (and the notoriously publicity-shy quintet is hyping it with a fervor that it hasn't shown since "The Bends" in 1995), it actually continues in the vein of "Kid A" (2000) and "Amnesiac" (2001) by too often meandering in languid computer mood music, losing any semblance of melody, songcraft or drive in not-all-that-original experiments with electronica and free jazz. If you want mind-blowing electronic experimentation, listen to Aphex Twin; tracks such as "We Suck Young Blood" and "I Will" are indulgent wankery, pure and simple, and no amount of drugged-out time between the headphones will change that.

Even when there is a trace of a song, as on humble ditties such as "Scatterbrain," "Sail to the Moon" and "Myxomatosis," there's the obstacle of Yorke's whining to overcome. The troubled gnome has one of the most difficult love-it or hate-it voices in modern rock, making even Billy Corgan sound like a seductive crooner.

In the end, for all of the hype, the mix of tinkling pianos and organic acoustic guitars with otherworldly electronic keyboards and rhythms is being done much more effectively by the Flaming Lips and Wilco, bands that use sonic tomfoolery to enhance poignant and thought-provoking songs, rather than hiding behind it and merely hinting at meaning that may or may not be there.


As evidenced by the ghostly cover image and the bitter lyrics and liner notes, the former diva behind the Eurythmics is not a happy camper on her third solo album. Feeling vulnerable at the end of her 12-year marriage to Israeli filmmaker Uri Fruchtman, she wallows in loneliness and despair on her first collection of original material in 11 years, and fans wouldn't have it any other way.

"What do you expect from me? Emptiness and misery," she sings at one point.

If this isn't exactly accurate--it's the icy chill and sardonic distance that have always seemed most alluring--her voice remains one of the great instruments of modern cabaret music. The way that it soars and swells on numbers such as "Pavement Cracks," "The Hurting Time" and "Bitter Pill" hint that there may be light at the end of the tunnel after all, though one wishes that this languid disc had a little more of the soul and snap of the Eurythmics at their best (which is glimpsed here only once, on the Motown-like groove of "Honestly").


Unrepentant misanthropes, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen haven't softened a bit since the Grammys genuflected before their last effort, 2000's "Two Against Nature," while shutting out Eminem, whose hatred of humanity is much more troubling and a lot less funny.

Not quite smooth jazz but certainly not rock or pop, Steely Dan continues to explore a genre that can only be called "Steely Dan music." Obsessively perfectionist at times (though the boys recorded their latest disc in the old-fashioned analog style, and it benefits from the playing of the crack live band of its recent tours), the virtuosic solos, slick grooves and layered melodies can slide by without ever really catching your ear or holding your interest--unless you bother to delve into the lyrics.

The joy in Steely Dan has always been the contrast between the lulling sounds and the brutally sarcastic words, and that continues via cutting attacks on the culture of mass marketing (witness the opening and closing tunes, "The Last Mall" and the title track), lustful songs written from the perspective of one of their favorite characters, the Humbert Humbert-like dirty old man ("Green Book" and "Pixeleen"), and crotchety musings about the trials and tribulations of growing old ("Things I Miss the Most")--though some would say that Becker and Fagen sounded like 70-year-old men when they were still in their 20s.