Ignore the critics: Listening to Radiohead is easy.

'Head Games 

Ignore the critics: Listening to Radiohead is easy.

In some ways, being a Radiohead fan is like being a Phishhead. You'll travel great distances to watch your favorite band. (Numerous Kansas Citians, including members of groups such as Life and Times and the People, made the four-hour trek to catch Radiohead's August 24 concert at St. Louis' UMB Bank Pavilion.) You'll dance spastically at the show, playing air instruments that in no way coincide with what's happening on stage. And you'll spend a lot of time defending excellent musicians against naysayers.

Granted, Radiohead fandom cannot be considered a litmus test for good taste in the way, say, appreciation of The Simpsons can. Under pressure from overbearing Radiohead enthusiasts, holdouts must explain their personal preferences at length, usually just offering elaborate "I realize they're talented, but ... " disclaimers. (Phish, though, elicits more of these.)

But Radiohead must overcome an additional obstacle: music writers who describe the band's recent albums as "willfully inaccessible" (Rob Brunner, Entertainment Weekly) or "deliberately inarticulate" (James Slaughter, Blender). These ridiculous reviews dilute the value of superlative terminology. Readers might have skipped the St. Louis show, for example, because they didn't want to hear allegedly "tuneless" tracks such as "We Suck Young Blood" from 2003's Hail to the Thief. But that song contains a clear melody. Its verse structure, with two lines in the same key followed by a downward-slanting kicker, mirrors blues shuffles; its instrumental backing, mostly handclaps and choral humming, mimics gospel. It would be fair to accuse this composition, as Slaughter does, of being "agonizingly slow" and "depressing." But "tuneless" lumps this sing-along with Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music and Mike Patton's belch-and-screech solo work. In any event, the song didn't make the setlist, much to the relief of the misguided.

But when writers use absolutist adjectives irresponsibly, ambitious outfits often bear the brunt of the criticism. In Blender's current issue, several of its writers name the "50 Worst Artists in Music History." Among them: the Doors, Primus, Asia, Kansas and, at number two, Emerson, Lake and Palmer. If these acts are the worst, what about the thousands of similar-minded groups who don't have the same level of instrumental skill? 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 stunt its own 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 records, he writes, "felt like an attempt to deflate impossible-to-live-up-to expectations."

In St. Louis, Radiohead proved these compositions are anything but a calculated gimmick. The band members were clearly enthralled by the new material. Thom Yorke convulsed as if he were conducting jolts of electricity through his mic stand, and Jon Greenwood struck unironic action-figure poses while bashing his ax. It's easy to dismiss recorded walls of sound as the result of studio trickery or electronic enhancement, but in concert, Radiohead reveals the organic secret of its sonic strength -- three simultaneous guitarists during some tunes, three percussionists during others. The show pulsed with humanity, a surprising spectacle from musicians often depicted as androids.

Slaughter 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 choruses, the rallying cry of which is, appropriately, You are not paying attention. When Radiohead detonated this chorus in St. Louis, the stands surged with cathartic release.

Amnesiac, Slaughter writes, was "hard work to listen to," which would make perusing Autechre's Gantz Graf or Dillinger Escape Plan's Calculating Infinity Herculean tasks. In fact, it's possible to imagine Radiohead fans finding its sets too pleasant -- all gale-force melodies, massively magnified low-end thump and virtuosic interaction. Radiohead's show presented the perfect opportunity for conversion, if only members of the choir weren't actively attempting to scare the uninitiated away from the church.


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