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New World Disorder 

Radiohead opts in/out

Wednesday, Oct 18 2000
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Photo by Pennie Smith

RADIOHEAD Kid A (Capitol)

“Hey man, slow down, slow down,” head Radiohead Thom Yorke pleaded in “The Tourist,” the concluding track on 1997’s OK Computer. It wasn’t that Yorke couldn’t keep up, it’s that he resented being pulled in a direction he didn’t want to go.

Where was that? Well, open Kid A and remove the CD. Now remove the CD tray. Hidden underneath is a 12-page paper booklet in black, red, white and yellow: a collection of Edward Goreyesque horror drawings, with rows of words set in bold, distressed pseudo-woodcut fonts. The text is unrelentingly bleak and surreal, like a George Saunders sci-fi horror fable: “For Christmas I got you a prepackaged newborn slave to serve your every need”; “Watch the world collapse like a discontinued component in a new outdated appliance; you will soon be thrown on the scrap heap with the corpses and the fridges, with CFCs and killerbees”; “Food is food & sex is sex; I’ve had my fill, I want to defect.” A post-present conjured by the techno-corporate elite for the First World’s medicated/alienated consumer drones and the Third World’s 3 billion souls living on $2 a day: Yorke has seen the near future, we gather, and he must scream.

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Fortunately, Yorke’s is one of the prettiest, most reassuring voices there is in the increasingly coarse, numbed and flat-out-contrived popular culture that accompanies the cross-global fungal crawl of hypercapitalism. From the opening of Kid A, it flits about in a barely decipherable scream of consciousness, phasing from ear to ear — cut, compressed, squeezed, backmasked, warped, echoed, twitched and battered. And then, almost without warning, everything falls away — the processed vocals and slippery beats and synth washes, all the Aphex Twin homagework of the title track and “The National Anthem” — and it emerges, wondrous, in some grand, desolate space previously occupied perhaps only by David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell anime.

“Bad day . . .,” sings Major Thom, ethernaut, to Ground Control on “How To Disappear Completely.” “I’m not here/This isn’t happening . . .” Shimmering notes (guitars? keyboards? strings?) cascade in from the wings one, two, three, four times. This harrowing, stunning song, like the whole album — like the future itself — is scary and weird and exhilarating, the sound of the bio invading the cyber, of man taking over the machines by falsetto and grace. Musically, it’s a guitar-rock band intentionally dipping itself in electronica liquid, without becoming Garbage; thematically, it’s an account of attempted escape from the psychological toll of being too aware of what goes on in this nightmare gridworld.

Kid A may feel cold and ahuman at first, but stick with it for the full 50 minutes: Listen long enough, and a fragile, flickering glow becomes apparent amid the chill. It’s the sound of human warmth flooding into a formerly alien space — of Radiohead finally going exactly where they wanted.

Radiohead performs at the Greek Theater on Friday, October 20.

CHEIKHA REMITTI Nouar (Sono)

Cheikha Remitti is the 77-year-old godmama of all the rai chebs and chabas, and Nouar has been banned in Algeria. Predictably banned, since Remitti has a 60-year track record there as an outlaw for singing songs openly encouraging women to have and enjoy sex, with lyrics so plain-talk frank they’d still send the self-appointed guardians of the U.S. moral order running for cover. It’s hard to conceive of how they must hit home in an Islamic society, though Remitti did have to move to France when Algerian fundamentalists declared open season on rai musicians in the late ’80s. There’s nothing obviously risqué in the brief translations of the songs on Nouar. “Others fall in love with the handsome guy, I do with the experienced one” ain’t that provocative, but it does give some idea of Remitti’s ongoing commitment to having at it with the immediate object of her desire.

Most of Remitti’s half-dozen albums since her re-emergence 15 years ago haven’t strayed from framing her voice with throbbing Magrebhi hand percussion and the breathy wooden tones of the ney flute. The one anomaly is 1994’s Sidi Mansour, a “record Remitti’s voice and basic percussion tracks in Paris and ship ’em to Geza X in L.A. to flesh out in a mélange of Frippertronics, Flea funk-bass pops and East Bay Ray punk/metal chords” job. It worked because Remitti’s coarse, character-laden vocals were never dominated by the sonic maelstrom. Nouar expands and adorns her customary spare arrangements in more low-key ways. Tasteful keyboards supply melodies and muted solos; the bass underpinnings are simple but firm; occasional accordion and acoustic guitar add different colors to the mix. Melismatic wails spice “Saida,” and three songs feature the tart, melancholy trumpet of Bellemou Messaoud, a key figure who midwifed the transition of rai generations from Remitti to Khaled.

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