Many of the acts reinventing country in the early naughts tended towards darkness. Castanets discarded the usually clean sound of the country in favor of a dense, oppressive approach. Cathedral 2 (Your Feet on the Floor Sounding Like Rain), the first song off the band’s first album, opens with groaning, mournful saxophone reminiscent of a jazz dirge. Before too long it breaks into a sad shuffle with a recognizable country twang. It’s a folk song in the old sense, like the ones about plagues and hangings and villages being burned. It sounds like a curse or something you’d sing to ward one off. The plodding heaviness is enhanced with a low blanket of noise that never lifts thanks to funereal organ and swirls of electronic enhancement. “It’s all right to want more than this” repeats Ray Raposa, almost like a spell, giving you the feeling that it’s anything but all right. And then , just like that, that song ends mid-sentence, unresolved. “It’s all right,” he says, leaving the listener wanting just a little bit more than is on offer.
While I can’t fully endorse Clem Snide’s back catalogue, they did turn out a few quality pieces at the turn of the millennium. Their frequent snark has not aged well, particularly compared to deeply sincere contemporaries like Arcade Fire and The Decemberists. It could sometimes veer into too cool and too cutesy. That said, when the band was able to channel an inherent sweetness, it was able to craft lasting jewels. Joan Jett of Arc is just that. With an easy tempo, a gentle xylophone interlude and vocals dripping with longing, the song hearkens back to classic country ballads while being a distinct product of its time. Maybe it’s the tinge of sadness that helps it stand out from much of the band’s other work, or the fact that it is clever, but not too clever. Either way, Joan Jett of Arc is a dreamy highlight of the noughties alt-country movement.
When you think of modern country, what comes to mind often isn’t too pretty. Out-of-touch, overproduced, cookie cutter dreck dominates the genre. But hiding in the corners are a few artists who have gallantly lent credibility and soul to it over the past few decades. Performing under Smog, as well as his own name, Bill Callahan has spent years creating simple, repetitive songs that burrow inside you, none more so than Cold Blooded Old Times. It gained a modicum of fame after being featured on the High Fidelity soundtrack. Compared to the likes of Aretha Franklin, The Jam and The Velvet Underground, it was a pretty obscure inclusion, but it’s stark confidence was unique amongst the rest of the collection, which leaned more psychedelic and soulful. It’s easily the standout. A painful account of a child recalling the abuse his father inflicted upon his mother, it nevertheless feels oddly upbeat, with hand claps throughout and a saloon-inspired piano. The subject matter and the simple, unchanging structure combine with Callahan’s flat vocal inflection to create an uneasy tension. It’s an impressive trick, creating a song that’s equal parts toe-tappingly catchy and disquieting.
Performed onstage by Thom Yorke and Atoms For Peace, Paperbag Writer is actually a Radiohead b-side from the Hail to the Thief era. What is loses in haunting eeriness live it gains in kinetic strangeness. Either way, it’s a delightfully ghostly bit of light electronica.
An acoustic collaboration between Thom Yorke and Johnny Greenwood, Gagging Order is as simple a Radiohead song as you will find. It’s a sweetly morose track that seems to capture the isolating weight of the everyday. “A couple more for breakfast/a little more for tea/just to take the edge off,” explains Yorke. You can feel the distance in his voice as he urges, “Nothing left to see.” Adding musical nakedness to the bands emotional honesty makes for a standout in their massive catalogue.
Cuttooth, an Amnesiac era Knives Out b-side, seems like a painfully appropriate song in light of the events of the last few days. Venting is nothing new to Radiohead, but the song is a strange mix of inescapable momentum and soaring catchiness. It begins in media res, with a driving piano and then a scream of frustration. And then it builds. And builds. “I don’t know why I fell so tongue-tied/I don’t know why I feel so skinned alive,” sings Yorke, working from soft-spokeness to a shouting release. The whole song is claustrophobic. Musically, it is steady and relentless, cleverly slipping into and out of slight syncopation and featuring some great timepiece-like work from Phil Selway. Lyrically, it is violent and oppressive, featuring threats of crucifixion and images of military occupation. But there is seeming light in the darkness. “Run until your lungs are sore/until you cannot feel it anymore/run until your lungs are sore/until you find an open door,” Yorke commands. While even running (possibly to join the Foreign Legion) seems hopeless, there is an unexpected sliver of light to wrap up the song. “I’ll find another skin to wear,” he promises defiantly. It’s a rise above moment that shows that maybe not all is lost. The very type of moment we need right now.
A b-side to The Bends cut High and Dry, Maquiladora is arguably a lot more interesting than the a-side. It’s as close to sounding like an 80s arena rock band as Radiohead would ever get on a guitar-heavy track that sketches a tour through America. The experience is overwhelming, disingenuous and big. While there are certainly perks to be had, there is also pressure. Yorke describes the band as “useless rockers/from England,” showing how they’re sidelined even in their own story. Trading heavy, electric stretches with more nimble, slinky moments helps convey the roller coaster journey, but when Johnny Greenwood rips on his guitar and Thom Yorke yelps “Oh, baaaaaby buuuurn!,” it’s clear the experience left a lasting mark, for better or for worse.
It’s a wonder that so many perfectly crafted Radiohead songs are never officially released in any capacity, but more seemingly unfinished pieces end up on EPs, foreign editions and extra discs. Bangers and Mash doesn’t feel totally complete, but that’s what makes it somewhat unique and wonderful as a Radiohead track. It’s slightly primal and scattershot. The crunching guitar hearkens back to OK Computer opener Airbag. The whole song is loose and, frankly, rocking in a way that the band had mostly forgone years ago. But even a throwaway, second disc, guitar track has got to say something if it’s worth Radiohead releasing it. This time it’s a threat to the corrupt and powerful. “If you are on the top/then it is a long drop” chants Thom Yorke before whipping himself into a frenzy. “I’m taking you down/I’m taking you down/I’m taking you down when I go down,” he croaks, getting ready to self-immolate in order to expose everyone from the Chief of Police, the Vice Chancellor and “Lord and Lady blah blah.” The song is an expression of sputtering anger, the kind that can almost never be contained and refined. Instead, it’s jagged, raw and immediate, providing a welcome change from the cold, calculating disapproval of the bands other works.
A deeply disturbing deep cut, Fog was released as a b-side to Knives Out. It was the era that Radiohead was at their darkest. Thom Yorke has compared the song to cannibalism and it’s no surprise why. While it starts off with gentle, lullaby-like piano and almost whispered vocals, they’re accompanied by discordant percussion and electronic noise that sound like a creature trying to scratch through the walls. Eventually the song settles into a driving, tambourine-heavy corker, but not before planting it disturbing seed. “The fog comes up from the sewers and glows/in/the dark” taunts Yorke, stretching out the end of the line with a threatening caesura. As the song ramps up, so does the emotional intensity. When it reaches its jittery, guilt-ridden peak, we’re reminded, Lady Macbeth-like, “some things will never wash away.” It’s an apocalyptic piece that still manages to find beauty in horror.
Now that everyone’s had time to digest Radiohead’s new material, it’s the perfect time to take a look at some old stuff. After all, that’s the way the band themselves seem to do it, often releasing songs that they’ve already been kicking around for decades. Lift is 20 years old at this point, and while many expected it to be on A Moon Shaped Pool, the song apparently didn’t make the final cut. The soaring pop piece, which straddles The Bends and OK Computer eras, is the sound of Thom Yorke giving himself a pep talk, urging to cheer up and come home, even though he’s “stuck in the a lift/in the belly of a whale.” Ending with the iconic-for-Radiohead-fans line “So lighten up, squirt,” the song seemingly addresses accusations that have been leveled at Yorke since the band achieved global success. It puts it in the interesting position of being both cynical and hopeful, private and acknowledging a public concern. But mostly, it’s a brilliant piece of guitar rock with a killer backing vocal that speaks to anyone who’s ever needed to be pulled out of a bad place.