How To Disappear Partially

Longhairs and jazzbos give radiohead a new face

On Public Radio International's program From the Top, host and concert pianist Christopher O'Riley plays some of his original transcriptions of Radiohead tunes--thus, he says, inspiring a number of calls from listeners who wonder, "Who is this Mr. Head and where can I hear more of his beautiful music?" (Head, by the way, is a bona fide surname, as fans of "One Night in Bangkok" writer Murray and entertainer Mr. Potato should know.)

O'Riley isn't alone among non-pop musicians who've tackled or wrestled with Radiohead. Jazz pianist Brad Mehldau has been mottling his albums with their tunes for about six years now, and a number of other Radiohead-meets-whatever undertakings have come and gone to less notice. There's a plaintive elegance and contrapuntal intricacy to much of Radiohead's music, which makes for fertile soil for a pianist accustomed to Debussy and Stravinsky. Then again, the group's records are so loaded with textures and parts that they're all but impossible to reproduce, which might either be daunting or liberating for the solo interpreter. It's not surprising that the most notable Radiohead covers have been by instrumentalists, if only because one imitates Thom Yorke's voice at his own peril, and sings his lyrics at the risk of appearing silly. I'm not the only Radiohead head who barely pays attention to their lyrics and who hears Yorke's voice as just another instrumental element, one that just happens to be articulating some English words that I figure clever undergrads have attached meaning to. This is a vocalist who can warble a line like "Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon" four times in succession and not actually suck (lemons or anything else), which I think is quite a feat.

Yesterday, he woke up sucking a lemon: Concert pianist and Radiohead enthusiast Chris O'Riley
Douglas McDonald
Yesterday, he woke up sucking a lemon: Concert pianist and Radiohead enthusiast Chris O'Riley

That line, as some of you lemon suckers probably know, is from Kid A's "Everything in Its Right Place," which I'm greatly keen on both as a very expensive piece of recording art and as a rich piece of music. I love the backward vocal blips and blurbles, which at times sound like one of the Three Stooges moving his index finger rapidly up and down over his lips while humming. Elsewhere, the synths, which I believe sound like heat molecules, swoosh in and out and remind me of when, as a child, I would cover and uncover my ears again and again while my mom vacuumed the living room. But besides all that, I love the song's compressed melody, its gentle dissonance. In what might be called the verse (the lemon sucking, colors-in-my-head part) Yorke spends nearly eight measures repeating a C note, which is highly dissonant when sung over the initial D Flat chord and which passes through various pretty and eerie harmonies on its way to the big, tension-releasing F chord of the chorus. During that C note orgy, three time signatures are covered, which sounds tricky but not gratuitous.

Maybe this is the kind of stuff--these interesting but unlabored harmonies and rhythms--that attracts jazz and classical players to Radiohead's music. Concert pianist Christopher O'Riley's True Love Waits, released last year, features 15 Radiohead numbers, or compositions if you must. I'm a dilettante when it comes to classical music, and so I only feel comfortable evaluating O'Riley's transcriptions in nakedly subjective terms. That said, let me add that I pretty much hate True Love Waits. O'Riley's "Black Star," for instance, is so insufferably maudlin, so gaudily florid, that I'm literally, childishly red-faced with embarrassment to have it emanating from my office. And getting back to "Everything in Its Right Place," O'Riley has taken the unease within the piece and made it lugubrious, and he's taken its deceptive simplicity/cloaked complexity and made it fussy and proud of itself. Being a jazz fan and an on-again-off-again supporter of Brad Mehldau, I prefer the Mehldau Trio's treatment of the same tune (from the group's latest, Anything Goes), but it too struggles. Mehldau has done a handful of Radiohead tunes with mixed results, his stately version of "Exit Music" being my favorite. On "Everything," I like bassist Larry Grenadier's introductory solo, which takes a moment to quote Harry Belafonte's "The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)," and I like the bobbing groove the trio finds at the start of the pianist's solo. But in Mehldau's hands the song's repetition is not tense but dull, and as with O'Riley's version, the trio's cover (excepting Grenadier's solo) seems to extinguish the light from the original's effective dark/light push/pull.

And so my favorite recent Radiohead cover isn't really a Radiohead cover. "Respiration," from jazz bassist Ben Allison's latest record, Buzz, borrows the anxious mood of "Everything" and takes it to some other right place. On the track, pianist Frank Kimbrough plays both a Wurlitzer and an acoustic piano, sometimes in unison, which on account of the Wurlitzer being a hair out of tune, lends a cool chorus and phase effect. The Wurly is the only electric instrument on the record, but a few other things hint at Radiohead's techno side, namely a drone note provided by Allison playing a piano string with a bow made of fishing line, and the fact that drummer Michael Sarin plays quarter notes on his kick drum, as on Radiohead's version and thousands of dance records. Over that bed, Allison puts a cool melody (played by a trio of horns), which maintains the piece's modernity but evokes an entirely different set of references, mostly '60s Blue Note sides by Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter. And then, about three minutes in, comes the solo section, a hip-jutting, polyrhythmic addendum that brings on the funk. And funk is just what I wish there was more of--which is to say, any of--in Mr. Head's music, which as the public radio caller said, really is beautiful.

 
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