Sound: It's hard to believe that it's been 16 years since Radiohead's major label debut Pablo Honey was first introduced, and during that time the alternative quintet has become somewhat of an unstoppable entity in the music world. As a band that plays by it's own rules, is respected by critics and fans alike, and can quickly sell out sizable venues, Radiohead has the luxury of being as experimental or tame as they deem necessary. They certainly have not painted themselves into a corner musically, and you could certainly see those tendencies in Pablo Honey although on a much smaller scale. Capitol Records is giving us a chance to revisit the early days of Radiohead with the reissue of Pablo Honey (The Bends and OK Computer are also available), with the Collector's Edition featuring additional material such as demos, live performances, and rare B-sides.
While albums like OK Computer and In Rainbows have been inundated with praise, Pablo Honey was more of starting point an impressive one, of course for Radiohead. That album will inevitably be associated with one primary single, which is the Rock-Band-video-game favorite Creep. That single thrust the band into the spotlight, and deservedly so. With the exception of songs like the opener You and Blow Out, Creep represented a keen alternative rock sensibility, just the right amount of internal angst, and creative musical arrangement.
I recall listening to Pablo Honey in the early 1990s, and my reaction is still fairly similar to the one I had back in the day. The album is certainly leaps and bounds above most of the 1990's buzz material that inundated MTV and the radio, but it's still relatively a straightforward rock album. How Do You? is driven by a pop-punk feel, with vocalist Thom Yorke adopting a slight Johnny Rotten approach to the vocals. Anyone Can Play The Guitar is an enjoyable song, but again there's a pop vibe to much of the piece. But in the end, hints of experimentation do arise in Pablo Honey and foreshadow what Radiohead will create in the coming years. Stop Whispering doesn't push the envelope too much, but the drawn-out ending does indulge in some well-utilized feedback. Blow Out is perhaps the most unique offering, jumping from almost a jazz sound to an all-out rock tune that delivers an incredible sustain-driven guitar solo at the end.
If you already own Pablo Honey, the reissue does include 2 disks with 22 additional songs (the Special Collector's Edition will also include a DVD). Much of the bonus material are demos or live versions of familiar hits, but the most interesting tracks tend to be the few lesser-known ones like Killer Cars (live), Coke Babies, and Banana Co. That being said, it's still worthwhile to hear a song like Creep take on a different life as an acoustic version. // 8
Lyrics: Lyrically, Radiohead could be considered the patron saint of the underdog. For anyone who ever felt self-loathing, Radiohead can always hit the message home. Whether they're dealing with general insecurity in Creep (I want you to notice when I'm not around; You're so f--king special; I wish I was special) or the more serious topic of suicide (I can't afford to breathe in this time; Nowhere to sit without a gun in my hand; Hooked back up to the cathode ray; I'm better off dead), there's a distinct honesty that comes through in every track. // 10
Overall Impression: While Pablo Honey isn't necessarily the best album that Radiohead has churned out, it's still a fairly iconic record from the 1990's. What makes the reissue a little more desirable for fans who already own the band's entire catalog is the fact that there is a good deal of rare material. The Drill EP, b-sides, and a BBC Radio One Session gives the album more depth, but only a few of those can compare with Radiohead's most inspired efforts (I.e., OK Computer). If you're a fan who desires a little something more, you'll probably want to invest in the Special Collector's Edition, which will include several older music videos as well as a performance at the Astoria in London. // 8