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Radiohead - Kid A

It can't be easy having the weight of the rock and roll world on your shoulders. Despite the unrelenting stream of worthwhile new releases easily visible to those willing to take the time and effort to find them, so many people are bemoaning the death of rock, and acting like it’s a new phenomenon. And while it's true that the American pop charts do have less of a rock bent than at any time since before the Fabs stormed the shores in early 1964, this whole panicky "rock is dead" business has been bandied about for at least 25 years now. The middle bit of a certain Who song comes to mind.

With such an attitude in place, it is quite a rare thing to see a rock band cause such a stir among the pop cognoscenti before its new album has even been released. Through the summer into the early fall, as the October 3 release date approached, it was wild and in many ways wonderful to witness Radiohead's Kid A become the most highly anticipated rock album since…In Utero? The Joshua Tree? Revolver? In the era of No Next Big Thing (Yet), fans scrambled for invites to exclusive listening parties and frantically downloaded MP3s of the new recordings, perhaps making Kid A the first album that Napster could have certified Gold all by itself.

It's understandable how the excitement happened. After 1993's Pablo Honey, the fairly well-received but not mind-blowing debut album that did boast the classic lead single "Creep," the band really hit its stride two years later with The Bends, a breathtaking collection of rock songs with a desperate passion that matched Nevermind, the standard bearer of the New Rock Order. When OK Computer came out to universal acclaim in '97, these five guys from Oxford had already begun to retreat somewhat from an all-out rock style in favor of a whole-album soundscape approach. Though song-for-song it's not nearly as strong as The Bends, it was the sound of Computer and its cohesiveness that turned the eyes of the world onto this band not only for its achievements but also for its potential.

So now it's showtime. Here's what they came up with… The album opens with "Everything In Its Right Place," which begins with slow but steadily rolling synthesizer notes and synthetic gibberish that could pass for the dot-dot-dash-dash of a telegram from Venus. A fine and engaging leadoff track. The title track follows, and without picking up the tempo meanders with a distorted vocal and an electronic drumbeat in an odd time signature.

It's not until "The National Anthem," the third song in, that the sound of a guitar is in evidence. A plodding midtempo rocker that doesn't really go much of anywhere, the song disintegrates into a cacophany of disjointed horn snippets that the band might have found on the floor after George Martin and the boys were finished mixing "A Day In The Life." Points are begrudgingly given for trying.

The ballad "How To Disappear Completely" ranks among the band's classic moments, with Thom Yorke intoning "I'm not here/this isn't happening" over acoustic guitar, strings, keys, and actual drums. Beautiful. The rather non-descript instrumental "Treefingers" precedes the most rock-radio friendly track, the midtempo, guitar-based "Optimistic." The song climaxes as its tempo increases, leading into another—you guessed it—midtempo number, the rolling and rather beautiful "In Limbo."

Then there's Kid A's most jarring jolt of energy, the drum and bass propulsion of "Idioteque." Perhaps the most convincing track on the record in terms of forging a new direction for the group's sound and adhering to it, from the relentless beat to Yorke's pleading double-tracked vocals, it is the one shining moment on the record when it sounds as though the group really has stumbled onto something new. They chase "Idioteque" with "Morning Bell," which rolls along efficiently, once again not very quickly, and with the obligatory traces of distortion and intentionally misplaced electronic blips. The closing ballad "Motion Picture Soundtrack" (the 45-second instrumental hidden at the end isn't worth mentioning outside of parentheses) is another great, haunting Radiohead moment, as Thom sings, "I think you're crazy, maybe" over muted keyboards and what sounds like a harp. Nice.

There are moments so frustrating that a listener couldn't be blamed for wanting to ask the band just what the hell it is that it's trying to prove. And then there are entire songs of such haunting, daunting beauty that it somehow excuses all gratuitous experimental transgressions. The band is said to be readying another full-length platter for a spring release, so perhaps in some ways this record is nothing more than a curious appetizer. Easy to intrigue but difficult to love unequivocally, Kid A is nonetheless a fascinating next step in the evolution of the band on which so many dedicated followers of rock fashion are pinning their hopes. Life-changing? No way. Intriguing, heartbreaking, and intangibly cool? Yuh-huh. This time around, Radiohead doesn’t rock, but they definitely do roll. Borrowing from The Who once again, suffice it to say the Kid A is alright.