Music Review: Radiohead OKNOTOKCOMPUTER - 20th Anniversary Remaster of OK COMPUTER
Release: June 23, 2017
Label: XL Recordings
When I first discovered Radiohead, shortly after their In Rainbows release in 2007, I mentioned to one of my sons how much I was enjoying their work. He commented, "I like Radiohead, especially their earlier stuff before they got all weird and whiny."
I had to answer, "But the weird and whiny stuff is what I LIKE."
Listening to the recent remastered version of OKCOMPUTER, Radiohead's third studio album at its 1997 initial release and the first with Niles Godrich as producer, it is clear that the work marks the beginning of Radiohead's weird and whiny phase, which continues to this day. Titled OKNOTOKCOMPUTER, the remaster includes 3 unreleased tracks and 8 B-sides.
I am not a big fan of Pablo Honey, their first album, but it was a solid Alternative album in its time and it is not hard to see how its success brought the band a solid footing in the world of modern rock. The Bends, their second, had them bending into a newish direction before even beginning to wear out their Pablo Honey welcome, and I liked it a lot, thinking of it as Radiohead’s first REAL album. OKCOMPUTER had the lads from Abingdon showing that electronica-centric innovation would be a central theme of their future works.
Sitting in the nosebleed seats in St. Louis’s sold-out Scotttrade Center in 2012, where I saw them perform in support of The King of Limbs, I could not help thinking how unusual it was that such an innovative band should be so popular. Luck? Some bands, and people, are just lucky, they succeed beyond reasonable expectations and you can say what you want about hard work and creativity and sticktoitiveness, luck can be a powerful attractor that touches certain among us in certain ways, and in my opinion, Radiohead is a very lucky band. Not that they haven’t worked for their fame and success, but like a fitness buff who runs because running feels good, Radiohead works their craft because it feels good, benefiting from both the hard work and the synergy of luck, and sharing with their lucky audience the outcome.
“Airbag” with electric guitar and cello hard-panned left and right dueling the opening theme, gives a hint that this will not be an ordinary album. Something The Beatles might have tried? Sure, and this is not the only nod to the great music the previous century. There are shades of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and Miles Davis floating through the themes and arrangements.
Yorke’s lyrics on “Airbag” refer to a car accident in which he was saved by an airbag.
“I am born again
In an interstellar burst
I am back to save the universe.”
A near miss with death is a rebirth that opens ears and eyes to the everyday and to the wonders of life, to wide-open possibility and secret superhuman talents. This first track marks the group’s rebirth, in OKNOTOK terms, and with OKCOMPUTER the band stakes out their territory in the land of innovation and art rock while remaining true to their established music base.
“Paranoid Android” takes flight like a Bach multi-part invention, amidst 1/2x and 2x pace changes, and gives me a major tickle every time I hear it.
There are times when it is hard to understand much of Thom Yorke’s singing, but then a phrase or chorus will hook its way into your psyche and not let go, set in deep and ready to tough out a wild ride while you try to shake it loose or drown it out with some boring drivel on the radio. This happens for me on “Paranoid Android” and on “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” both lyrically and musically, as it does with much of Radiohead’s music. An attempt to create a playlist of Radiohead favorites years ago failed miserably when I ended up putting almost every song on that list, including all of OKCOMPUTER’s tracks.
“Exit Music” is simply a pretty song.
“Today we escape, we escape....
Don’t lose your nerve.”
The first law of escape, just keep breathing and moving. Mellotron choral vocals, nothing new to rock, add to the beautiful weirdness of the arrangement.
“Let Down” speaks to disappointment and anger, the fate of so many humans.
“Disappointed people clinging onto bottles...
A chemical reaction,” unavoidable.
“Karma Police” has been stated as the favorite of all the band’s songs by of a number of fans I know. I never quite got that until really listening into the lyrics. There is karma and there is human-manufactured “karma” and the two are rarely close to any kind of equivalence, the latter always tied to some self-serving human agenda.
“This is what you’ll get when you mess with us.”
Then a frustrating, “I’ve given all I can, it’s not enough.”
Karma bites hard, but never harder than when self-inflicted.
“Fitter Happier” features a voice generated by a 1990s-vintage Macintosh computer. The album’s arrangements make generous use of odd synthesizers, instruments, guitar effects, a theremin, Mellotron, and electronics galore, but stays grounded in the guitars, bass, and drums of British Rock. This track refers to the lengths we go to for that which we think we need.
A minor complaint I have voiced from time to time is that some of Radiohead’s more recent albums have contained fewer tracks that really ROCK! OKCOMPUTER starts steering slightly in that direction, while keeping a satisfying balance. Tracks like “Electioneering,” “Airbag,” and parts of “Subterranean Homesick Alien” keep the blood pumping and hold weird and whiny at bay. “Electioneering” rocks as well as any of Radiohead’s tracks.
Then there are songs like “Climbing Up the Walls,” dirty with production density, that are both whiny AND heavy. There IS balance in the universe. Follow that tune with “No Surprises,” with its super clean, easy simplicity and dark lyrics -
“A heart that’s full up like a landfill,
A job that slowly kills you...
This is my final fit,
My final bellyache with
No alarms and no surprises...
I’ll take a quiet life,
A handshake of carbon monoxide.”
Volume 2 consists of B-sides and unreleased bonus tracks, a couple of which had me sure I was hearing a cover tune by the Beatles or Badfinger or some other Brit band from the 60s or 70s, good tunes and fun to experience, but not prime-time tracks like Volume 1. The eleven bonus and B-side tracks added to the OKNOTOK edition all hark to simpler productions and firmer nods to other styles and groups of and before the time of OKCOMPUTER. The Beatles and Pink Floyd and their arrangements and instrumentations showed up many times through the tracks of the second side of OKNOTOK. Some will strike you as cover tunes at first. I had to look up the track info on a couple of them to be sure they were not. McCartney and Lennon were surely there in spirit, if not in the credits as the writers.
Back to Volume 1, “Lucky” was the band’s final encore number when I saw them live, and seems like the perfect closing song for this album, but then is followed by “The Tourist,” another perfect album-closing song, with its dense closing vocal harmonies. You can’t even be sure when these guys have completed an album or musical idea, even their finishes are sometimes merely flourishes of the finishing kind, marking the close of another lucky gesture by this talented, lucky band of musicians from Abingdon.
The remaster goes back to the original analog tapes, which are “the highest definition version of the record,” and benefit from improved mastering technology to “make a digital version that's an improvement of the original transfer,” according to Yorke. It is available in 80g vinyl (optionally with copies of notes and sketches by band members), CD, or digital-only versions. I downloaded the 24-bit / 48-kHz WAV version and streamed Tidal in lossless Hi-Fi quality for this review. Most listening was done with my LG G5 and Beyerdynamic DT-880 Premium 250-Ohm headphones. Clarity was otherworldly, like the album.
Initially, I could hear little difference in the new mastering processes, and spent a couple of sessions focusing on the music, sometimes alternating original and remastered versions of songs. Soon, the remasters became identifiable as being smoother and a little less strident sounding, especially during the livelier passages. The compression in use also feels gentler and more conscious of preserving dynamic range, opening up clearer spaces between sounds and passages. And the deep reverberation that fills the open spaces on a few tracks is just a little cleaner.
You have to love Radiohead to love Radiohead. This does not make a lot of sense except in the weird Radiohead vibrational plane where it makes perfect sense, wherein Back, Beatles, and Miles Davis, and sometimes-whiny Radiohead co-exist, thanks to hard work and harmony and a goodly dollop of luck. OKNOTOKCOMPUTER is a prime example of what I love about music, about “discovering” delightful tunes right off the charts of the already-well-known, about surprises and juxtapositions, about surrendering to the inevitable and the lucky breaks and airbags that bounce us back into the swing of life, the weird and the whiny and the captivating. And this album might very well be the one that you hear and suddenly find yourself thinking, You know, those guys ARE really pretty good, and next thing you know, you are a Radiohead freak. OKNOTOKCOMPUTER is a solid remaster of a great album, with subtle but notable sonic improvements, a fun revisit for fans and, for those who need one, a fine Radiohead introduction.
- AudiocRaver Senior AdminStaff MemberThread Starter
- Nov 21, 2016
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