Somewhere Between The Sleeves

“Horses” is not the best record Patti Smith has ever made. It’s one of rock and roll’s best opening acts, but it’s dwarfed her career with it’s gigantism. That album cover, those opening lines. Great moments, sure, but not everything.

“Radio Ethiopia”, her 1976 follow-up, is almost never mentioned. Where its predecessor bridges the logical gap from artist-as-poet plus rock and roll star, the follow up ditches the first half of that equation and shoots straight for affectation. The result – something way more raucous and virile.

It’s pretty clear from the get-go. The woman that opened her first record with the line “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine” opens the second with the exuberant “Ask the Angels”. Chunky chords, a firm low end and wild guitars are a ways away from the slow-burn intensity of tracks like “Gloria”. But that’s not the only difference.

“Pissing In a River” is frighteningly E-Street, predating future collaborator Bruce Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town” sound two years ahead of time. The hallmarks are there – dramatic piano, penetrating organ and downright cinematic soloing. Smith’s performance, her voice cresting with each wave, only adds to the intensity.

There’s a lot to like here: “Poppies” is a narcotic ballad with some of Smith’s most curious lyrics: “Everything is soakin’ and spread with butter.” The title track is a full ten minute auditory assault where Smith attacks primal drums and a scribbly guitars with imitable swagger. She glides across the mess with conviction, leaving no doubt, it’s a noise rock track, but with the added lyrical curiosities (sample: “When I See Brancusi/His Eyes Searching Out The Infinite Abstract Spaces”), it ends up being a satisfying experiment.

Side two unveils the album’s best moment – the riotous “Pumping (My Heart)”. It’s a masterful three minutes of seventies New York City punk. The keys are carnal, guitars oscillate furiously and Smith is in full howl mode. As the song hurls towards its climax, Smith keeps shouting “Total abandon!” It’s a perfect phrase to encapsulate the entire record. It’s an artist acting on instinct instead of playing to popular sensibilities. It’s wild, ugly and not an easy listen. Perhaps that’s why it’s been forgotten over time. Most people prefer to spare themselves the difficulty.

Patti Smith never cared to begin with.

‘The King of Limbs’ is a stretch

Few rock and roll bands these days elicit a global response to their every move. Sure, the world has progenitors like Lady Gaga, but there’s not a collective that captures our imagination these days. Except for one. Radiohead.

Through the years, they’ve gone from alt-rock afterthoughts to oh-no-maybe-not’s and evolved into unparalleled innovators of their craft. Whether it’s the man-machine tumble of OK Computer, or the heartbreaking disconnect of Kid A, Radiohead has made records that stand not only as critical achievements, but as unmatched classics.

Since then? They’ve stopped. It can be argued that they haven’t made anything nearly as impressive in over a decade. Amnesiac, released in the summer of 2001 is more or less a sister record to its predecessor, with songs recorded in the same sessions. It’s spotty at best. 2003’s Hail to the Thief was a return to guitar rock, but meandered and has left a small imprint. Four years later, there was “In Rainbows,” released with a week’s notice through a “pay what you want” system that shocked a fractured music industry. While the songwriting is strong, it suffered from flat production and lazy sequencing.

Radiohead’s albums are drenched in ambiguity and have always been geared by subtlety. They are not a group that cares much about hooks or riffs these days, as they did with 1995’s The Bends. Instead, they live in the abstract: grooves and textures. Friday’s release of The King of Limbs drives that home. Unfortunately, it’s colorless.

The album’s opener, “Bloom,” begins with a distant piano loop that melts into a series of blips and drum hits. Thom Yorke’s recognizable croon follows, but the song doesn’t seem to DO much. There’s a desire to hear this it build and crescendo, but the song refuses, staying firmly in the middle. And this is the problem with so much of the album’s material. It plays too much to the center and not enough to the extremes that Radiohead has excelled at. “Morning Mr. Magpie and “Feral” suffer from this same fate. “Little by Little” apes their OK Computer-era sound, but it sounds awkward, nestled in a collection of dour material.

Of course, there’s things to like with each of their releases. “Lotus Flower” is a slinky lead single powered by a gorgeous Yorke falsetto. “Codex,” a haunting piano ballad, is treated with care. The vocals are to the front, atmospheric loops sprinkled throughout, with a tasteful horn and string accompaniment to usher it forward. It concludes as a great addition to their catalog.

Still, Radiohead sounds bored. While it’s fair to assume that a band of their caliber has reached the point in its career where they’ve done everything they could have imagined musically, they must now face the challenge of keeping it interesting. Both for themselves and their listeners. This may very well be Radiohead reaching middle age. It may be painful, but they’ve got the drive to continue. It’s just now time for them to step outside of the realm of possibility and capture listeners imaginations once more.