Airbag/How Am I Driving? (Capitol 58701)
After Radiohead reached "critical mass" in 1997 with the highly-acclaimed (and legitimately masterful) OK Computer, Capitol wanted some hot-iron product to pump out stateside in its wake. The album eventually went platinum in America, perhaps indicating that quality does sometimes rise to the top, but at bottom, you have to figure that the suits mostly wanted to squeeze a few extra bucks out of this success.
So in spring '98 we got Airbag/How Am I Driving?, with the attached caveat "This mini album is aimed at the USA." Uh, thanks. It's comprised of the track "Airbag," which opened OK Computer, plus six b-sides from the album sessions. I was kind of pissed, as I'd already collected the import singles on which these tracks initially appeared, but my completist nature (as well as the neato packaging) compelled me to make the purchase. Damn OCD.
Despite the assumptions that could be made "aimed at the USA" indeed this is hardly a commercial offering. If Capitol were intending to make a lot of money off of the band's increasing stature, this was hardly the collection of songs with which to do it.
I distinctly remember seeing rack upon rack of the unbought EPs on display a couple of weeks after the release date. Not that the quality is bad; for one, the title song is a standout track. It's also one of the least commercial songs on the album it comes from, with jagged rhythms, distorted sounds that come at you from all sides, and a melody that creeps up on you rather than making itself obvious.
Hardly teenyboppin' "modern rock" fare, which makes me wonder who exactly Radiohead's audience is. There must be a couple million pasty fools like myself out there ready to snap up anything these jerkoffs put out. (!) Whatever, a hit single this is not, though I love the song, and manage to hear some new piece of subtle instrumentation with each listen.
The remainder of the EP is mainly interesting, though a couple of tracks are (unsurprisingly) forgettable. "Pearly" and "Polyethylene (Parts 1 and 2)" are the standouts, showing Radiohead in a rockin'-out mode they don't really indulge in anymore. They're pretty well-written, and played with a typical combination of gusto and precision.
"Pearly" almost sounds late-80s in spots; it's here that one realizes there isn't too great a distance between them and The Cure or Echo and the Bunnymen, though Radiohead is a tad more musclebound. "Polyethylene" starts with what sounds like an acoustic guitar outtake, and then launches into something most approximating prog-metal, with amps cranked all the way up and time signatures shifting easily from 4/4 to 7/8 and back.
This is what Rush would sound like if they weren't so busy trying to fit half-a-million notes (with rototoms, cowbell, and triangle) into each measure. One can see why the songs didn't make the album, though; they're a bit more obviously derivative on these songs than on the tracks from the album, which are very unique in theme and sound. Listen to "Airbag" closely against the rest of the EP and notice the comparably better, fuller production.
The only other fully realized song here is "Palo Alto," which closes the disc. It's Radiohead in pseudo-punk mode, with pissy fragments of guitar distortion and effects on Thom Yorke's voice that make it sound whiny and withering. This approach is not unwelcome given their tendency to go for arena-sized sound, making this a good one to play loud on occasion. Not brilliant, but still better than album tracks from most of Radiohead's Brit-rock contemporaries.
"Meeting in the Aisle" is a moody instrumental that is basically a showcase for some keyboard diddling, without enough melody or sonic excitement to make it memorable, while "A Reminder" and "Melatonin" have their pretty moments but sound unfinished, never quite taking shape.
The latter two songs are rather subdued, with Yorke singing in his usual mannered, pretty voice atop whirring synth sounds but the production's a little flat, and I have a hard time conjuring up the melodies when they're over. Not that it needs to be all about melody, but forgettable is forgettable, daddy.
Nothing on this EP is bad, and a good portion of it is quite good. It's a must-have for any Radiohead fan; I listen to it far more than Pablo Honey or the much-hyped My Iron Lung EP. There's nothing too revelatory here, other than a peek at some of the avenues they considered going down while recording Computer.
It's also a fairly inexpensive way of collecting all the b-sides at a good price (the bastards) and picking up another example of the band's creative packaging tendencies, as pretentious as they may be.
Review by HIP