Lesson 4 on how follow-ups can send a band to superstardom or playing 3rd act at your local state fair: Radiohead.
In the 90s, we've seen bands crumble due to the inability to follow-up the release that broke them into the spotlight. Financial-wise, the Spin Doctors, Hootie and the Blowfish and sadly enough, Blues Traveler came out with follow-ups that sold less than half of their predecessor albums. Other artists such as the Wu-Tang-Clan and Liz Phair (never thought I'd say those two in the same sentence) released albums that, though great in themselves, couldn't match the innovativeness of their groundbreaking albums that re-invented rap and the way people look at women rockers in the 90s.
If you're in Radiohead's case, the album that made people take notice was Pablo Honey. The very grunge-like "Creep" made the album go platinum. But with Bush about to break it big, they were about to vanish into one-hit-wonder territory. Radiohead's solution to this problem was to release The Bends.
Unlike Hootie, The Spin Doctors and Blues Traveler, who released watered down versions of their newer works, Radiohead decided to take the ambitious route and make an album that was..well...defied explaination. It cemented the Radiohead sound that we know today. The Bends is full of instantly catchy numbers, but a the same time, none seem fit for radio.
You know you're in for an aural trip 15 seconds into the opening chords of "Planet Telex". A sound like wind coming in through a crack in your window, the song bleeds into a trippy feedback squall. Nothing on Pablo Honey can prepare you for the next 45 minutes.
Sonically, The Bends is awesome. The triple guitar attack may be a bit self-indulgent sometimes, but it's refreshing to see a band who is not afraid of ambition. It also helps that the lyrics are solid. "Nice Dream" evokes images of Heaven's Gate, even though that tragedy happened two years after this album came out. The rest of the album is filled with tales of alienation much along the lines of Pink Floyd.
"Just" and the beautiful "Fake Plastic Trees" are other highlights on the album that actually landed some video time. This may have been due to the fact that the videos were extremely cool, however. Other songs toy with you with a catchy hook that makes you bob your head...then they get all avant garde on you. Case in point on "My Iron Long", Thom Yorke's soothing voice moans "Faith...you're driving me away" while the band lays down a simple melody. Sounds like ear candy...but in the middle, the song melts down into an amp-screwing session with the guitarists while Yorke's vocals go distorted. Scrap that one from the radio.
Radiohead borrow heavily from their peers. Along with Floyd, R.E.M. and U2 can be heard clearly in The Bends. They're smart enough to somehow make the mixture fresh, however. In a practical sense, The Bends is a better U2 album than Zooropa.
"The Bends" and "Bullet Proof...I Wish I Was" are the only tracks that take time to warm up to the listener. The rest of the album is a grabber...or a repellant. A lot of the faults on The Bends got corrected with OK Computer, their magnificent follow-up. Songs like "Sulk" and "Black Star" are coming from a band that was still trying to find their sound.
Radiohead does have one advantage:their location. Right now, they're in friendly competition with other pop kings in that area to create the perfect pop album. Blur, The Verve and that one band with those two drunk brothers inadvertently push each other to create great works. We had that in America for awhile, first, with the regions in the 80s. (Southern California vs. Minneapolis vs. Athens), then the bands in Seattle duked it out with each other to create some great works. Now, we are left with precious little rock competition. It's depressing, but listening to The Bends makes it somewhat bearable.