The concept reads great on paper. Radio is supposed to be a return-to-roots to the song-based approach of their (great) eponymous album following the shorter track times of their preceding two albums, and the liner notes’ shoutouts to every artist from every corner in the world itself informing listeners that this will be as full a listening experience as Naked City was by touching on as many genres as possible. Moreover, it’s been structured to be a good starting point into Naked City (/John Zorn)’s discography by putting the most accessible songs at the start and slowly becoming more abrasive.
But is Radio great? Well, it certainly starts great. “Asylum” manages to showcase everyone in the band (except Yamatsuka Eye, who shows up later) in less than 2 minutes – Fred Firth’s bass wiggles (inspired by Charles Mingus) provides some room to stand on while Wayne Horvitz (piano) and Bill Frisell (guitar) and later, Frisell and John Zorn (saxophone) try to out-solo each other. “Sunset Surfer” is perhaps the most straight-forward “theme song” the band has ever made (to a non-existent show called Sunset Surfer), though I’m probably only making that association because the high-pitched notes was similarly used in Lizzy Mercier Descloux’s reimagining of the “Mission Impossible” theme song; John Zorn’s entry is probably the catchiest melody he’s ever made (the 1:15 mark). “Party Girl” is exactly what it sounds like; a great night out in the perspective of a party girl (John Zorn’s triumphant blast at the 1:29 mark is like the obligatory “WOOOOH!” when the DJ finally drops the song you’ve requested – probably not this one though). I don’t see the praise for “The Outsider” (though I’ll acknowledge that the rhythm section pushing everyone’s jog into a sprint in the last twenty seconds are nice), but “Triggerfingers” really takes off at the 1:18 mark when they bring in some of the finest counterpointing melodies I’ve ever heard, starting with just Wayne Horvitz and becoming a full band experience.
After that? There are still some highlights to be found. “The Bitter and the Sweet” (the last song before metal riffs and Yamatsuka Eye’s screaming take over) is the album’s version ofNaked City’s “Chinatown,” beautiful nighttime ambience, for starring at the skyscrapers and wondering what it all means while sucking on a cigarette; “Metaltoy” gives Joey Baron a brief chance to shine on his own before it introduces a great melody and slowly adds more and more layers to it and the guitar riffs of “The Vault” (juxtaposed with some really funky basslines) and “Bone Orchard” (inspired by Led Zeppelin, apparently) make them both memorable (I should also note that Radio is the most guitar-heavy of any Naked City release). After that, the album decides to try to musically recreate the cover with song titles like “I Die Screaming,” “Pistol Whipping” and “Shock Corridor.” Allmusic’s Maurice Rickard describes Yamatsuka Eve’s performance as “convincing perpetrator-and-victim screaming.” I don’t know about “convincing” – sometimes it sounds absolutely absurd, for better or for worse (see, for example, the section on “I Die Screaming” where I imagine it was supposed to sound like Eve was being whipped at every brief lash of music).
Closer “American Psycho” gets a lot of praise because it features John Zorn’s smorgasbord-style approach rolled into one single, 6-minute song, but frankly, the structure is pretty amateurish—every change in style is signalled by full measures of rests. I suppose you could argue that it’s supposed to physically sound like you flipping through various radio stations on a long drive through the city to get home but it doesn’t change the fact that the silences are jarringly too much. Some good stuff: the really brief atmospheric plinks at the 1:25 mark (that remind me of Yes pulling off the same trick (but better) on “Close to the Edge”); the really brief sunny melody at the 1:42 mark and hearing Yamatsuka Eve scat (again, really briefly) at the 2:56 mark (which makes up for his earlier performance on the track which sounded like he was on the can). “Krazy Kat,” which marked the beginning of the album’s descent into insanity, was just as sonically encompassing for its runtime, but, like similarly scatterbrained structures fromNaked City, it didn’t bother with the pretense of transitions and thus, it’s more successful.
Yes, I would say that the opening few tracks and the way Radio was structured makes this Naked City’s most accessible release, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best starting point. Go with Naked City instead.