Short Cuts 

Radiohead reconnects.

Hail to the Thief

Radiohead

(EMI)

It's not news to anyone that the world is a mess; the question is: what to do about it? Rock-and-roll's answer for the last decade has been "nothing." The classic slacker ethos held that the current institutions are irreparable and the best option is to refuse to participate in things you don't agree with. This is understandable; after all, rock-and-roll had claimed it could save the world for 20 years and seemed to have little to show for it. Overtly political lyrics became anathema. U2, the biggest flag wavers of them all, shed their politics on 1991's Achtung Baby for introspection and ironic detachment.

And that was pretty much where Radiohead came in. Like U2 in the '80s, Radiohead began their career with a string of big guitar-rock albums before radically reinventing themselves (with 2000's Kid A.). If that parallel were continued, then Hail to the Thief, the group's seventh album, should be another major course correction like Achtung Baby. But instead of throwing out the kitchen sink, Radiohead has chosen to make 21st-century arena rock by deftly rearranging tricks from their past while attempting to dispatch their ironic detachment.

Hail to the Thief kicks off with the ominous guitar arpeggios of "2+2=5," which eventually bursts into the only straight-ahead beat on the album. The song, named for a quote from George Orwell (who seems to be the political thinker of the moment), rocks as hard as anything the band has ever done, and the lyrics, like the music, are angry. It goes without saying that the title Hail to the Thief is a swipe at George W. Bush, and the album's mood -- much like the zeitgeist -- vacillates between anger and despair, often within the same song. "Backdrifts" percolates along on processed drums and jagged piano, its lyrics simultaneously decrying powerlessness in the face of huge events ("One gust and we/Will probably crumble") and calling for action ("This far/But no further").

Schizophrenia is also evident in the music, which swings between electronica and rock with an assured ease that no other band could accomplish. "Where I End and You Begin" and "There, There" follow a rock variation on the drum-and-bass formula, with atmospheric theramin and ambient electronic noises swirling around a strong beat. It's when the rhythm section is absent that the album falls down. On "Scatterbrain," "I Will," and the ponderous "We Suck Young Blood," Thom Yorke's crooning brings the proceedings to a grinding halt and squanders some hard-earned momentum. But these slow songs seem to come from a newfound desire to express emotion unfiltered by irony.

It's a clichÇ to say that Radiohead albums open up after repeated listening because it's true. Hail to the Thief might leave a bad taste in your ears after the first listen, but then you'll find yourself trying it again the next day, and on day three you'll wake up with "A Punchup at a Wedding" in your head, and you'll be hooked. -- Chris McCoy

Grade: B

The Remote Part

Idlewild

(Capitol)

It's not that politics and rock-and-roll don't mix; it's just that the balance has to be precise. On The Remote Part, their third album, Scottish quartet Idlewild, who are as backward-looking as any contemporary garage-rock band, express their outrage through platitudes, which, though original and even risky, are platitudes nonetheless. The lyrics have a studied feel to them, as if lead singer Roddy Woomble has spent too much time reading Kirkegaard while listening to Life's Rich Pageant, and too often they fall embarrassingly flat.

"Losing isn't learning to be lost/It's learning to know when you're lost," he sings on "A Modern Way of Letting Go," one of several intense and catchy tracks on The Remote Part. But intense and catchy only get you so far if you don't define what "lost" is (aside from losing, which only makes that statement circular).

"Maybe you're young without youth/Or maybe you're old without knowing anything's true/I think you're young without youth," Woomble sings on "American English," an anthem about the Americanization of British culture, which sounds more fitting for a thesis paper. As the band tries to rouse their fellow Englishmen with a sing-along chorus and the best of intentions, their righteousness curdles into self-righteousness.

Idlewild surround such mock profundities with churning guitars, chiming keyboards, and ringing melodies -- it's obvious they've studied their "college rock" progenitors very closely and taken careful notes. That The Remote Part sounds so dynamic just reveals what a great band Idlewild could be if their lyrical urgency matched their sonic mimicry.

Ultimately, all the parts of this album sound remote: devoid of humor, humility, and warmth, all of which are crucial for any statement, political or otherwise, to sound human and compassionate. Which makes me think Idlewild are young without youth. --Stephen Deusner

Grade: C+

The Transfiguration of Vincent

M. Ward

(Merge)

Though it is perhaps the most dubious of all musical propaganda, the press sheet still succeeds at getting my ire up on occasion. I do not hear, for example, the Nick Drake or Tom Waits shout-outs professed within M. Ward's promotional material. Nor is M. Ward's singer-songwriter gift "timeless." I do detect an early-'70s time-stamp, and the name that won't leave my head is Paul Simon. This guy would do well as a karaoke master of Simon's post-Garfunkel '70s work.

How is it that, music unheard, you sorta know what you're going to get from an album that begins and closes with a track of crickets chirping in the night? The Transfiguration of Vincent may be an example of a songwriter finding his voice, but the absence of memorable hooks and lyrics makes this genre-hopping a pointless exercise. It's as if he is saying, "Hey look, I can be eclectic," without writing songs that make you feel anything at all. They start, they finish, and then the crickets chirp to tell the listener that they just heard a CD they can't recall three minutes of.--Andrew Earles

Grade: D+

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