While we were all busy celebrating America’s independence by scarfing burgers and slurping brewskies, the British were firing back — not with gunfire but with the latest volleys from the British Invasion of the last year or two. American rock feels restricted to a tattered post-grunge shirt, but a new generation of Brits continue to use rhythms, noises, loops, and samples to expand the definition of the increasingly amorphous term rock & roll. Three new albums from the U.K. prove America may have won a few battles, but in 1997 we’re losing the musical war.
Techno knob twiddlers aren’t the only enterprising musicians in the U.K. Even those rooted in rock traditions — pop hooks, guitars, neurotic lead singers — are moving toward a grandeur not heard since the days of art rock. Oasis’ upcoming album Be Here Now is said to include songs as long as ”Stairway to Heaven.” They’ve already been beaten to the punch by Radiohead, whose new single, ”Paranoid Android,” runs over six minutes long. With its celestial call-and-response vocal passages, dynamically varied sections, and Thom Yorke’s high-voiced bleat, this torturously long and winding ode wants to be nothing less than the ”Bohemian Rhapsody” of the ’90s.
The Bends, Radiohead’s 1995 album, found them banishing the neo-grunge of their initial hit, ”Creep,” for a more expansive ambiance. OK Computer, the album that includes ”Paranoid Android,” moves even further afield — into a pastoral field, in fact. On ”Subterranean Homesick Alien” and ”No Surprises,” York incites us all to break free of societal constraints. The music aims to do the same: Shrouded in wafting guitars, swoony rhythms, and moody-blue strings, it shrugs off mosh-pit conventions for a poignant delicacy and breadth, with Yorke’s cracked-throat voice the album’s melancholy center. (His asides — ”When I am king/You will be first against the wall” — are as acerbic and world-weary as the best Leonard Cohen.) When the arrangements and lyrics meander or sprout pretensions, the album grows ponderous and soggy. For all of Radiohead’s growing pains, though, their aim — to take British pop to a heavenly new level — is true. B+