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, "HAIL TO THE THIEF" (CAPITOL)
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The sources of this dread are never spelled out--Yorke may be an outdated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
** 1/2 ANNIE LENNOX, "BARE" (J RECORDS)
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
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").
** 1/2 STEELY DAN, "EVERYTHING MUST GO" (REPRISE)
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.