Exit Music: Songs with Radio Heads
lack music, white music, rock, jazz, soul, electronic music, not electronic music.
Whatever. Any musician worth their salt will tell you there's a fertile exchange program going on all around us—some of it conscious, some of it not—that informs us all in ways ranging from the dramatic to the subtle. Music fans tend to get tied up in recordings rather than songs, performances rather than performers, the canon holding sway over the constantly shifting, patterns of notes and beats that surround us all the time, every single day. For someone who mainly encounters music in the form of shiny plastic discs, a single one of those can exert a powerful mental hold. Those who are in the business of making it have a slightly different perspective—the process is always ongoing. I'm not saying musicians don't obsess over specific recordings, I'm simply implying that they are most emphatically aware of the difference between the day-to-day life of music and the snapshot taken in the studio.
Enter Exit Music: Songs with Radio Heads, a goofily named collection featuring artists far away from the "rock" field reinterpreting Radiohead songs with varying degrees of faithfulness. They experiment with the canon in much the same spirit that Radiohead played with the expectations of what a "rock" band could sound like when they originally wrote and recorded these tunes. Most importantly, they bring to the table a sense of playfulness—the artists sound happy to have the chance to record these songs. It’s enjoyment mingled with respect for the originals; a tribute in the best sense. I don't know if you've listened to (or endured) as many rock tribute albums as I have, but in the main they are tedious, masturbatory exercises (kinda like remix albums, no?) filled with bands either sounding too close or too different from the original recordings to please fans, and with an end result that's rarely enough to warrant more than a meh from non-fans. The difference here is mainly (and this is the point where I pay real homage to the band) in the strength of the tunes. They are pliable enough to take a whole lot of bending, twisting, and reshaping, and durable enough to emerge with their dignity intact even when given a lite-funk or jazz-house treatment.
There are some hits, some misses, some ideas that probably should have stayed on paper, and some things that succeed in unexpected ways. But above all else, it's a bunch of good songs re-interpreted in a new way. Nothing more, nothing less. Why that makes some people pull out the horsewhip, I've no idea. Radiohead might be the most critically fellated group to emerge from the '90's, but that doesn't mean every note they've played is etched on some kind of Rosetta Stone of rock. In fact, one would think that if they've contributed anything to the canon, it's been an experimental mindset often missed in the careerism of other bands from their era. Over the course of three albums (as if you needed to ask—The Bends, OK Computer, and Kid A), they rolled the dice with styles and trends, coming out with a winner each time. Whether or not I'm a huge fan (I'm not) or they've treaded water since (they have) is irrelevant—Radiohead have managed to toe the line between commercial success, critical praise and (most importantly) pleasing their fanbase without—to paraphrase Thom Yorke via Bill Hicks—"sucking Satan's cock."
I'd read so much negative press about this record before I chanced to hear it that, were I the kind of person who allows such things to inform my opinion, I doubtless would have been prejudiced against it. Luckily, I could give a fuck—so when I actually heard the damn thing, I was frankly quite amazed. This is not the record of a lifetime, or a revelation from some alien planet. But neither is it a horrid abortion of valueless schlock. It's actually a very enjoyable, thoroughly listenable, and in many cases quite successful transformation of music that, to be frank, I had gotten kind of sick of hearing. Of course 90% of the material is from the three albums mentioned above, and that's to be expected. Perhaps we also should have expected the changes wrought upon it: "Just" becomes a mid-tempo funk jam, "High & Dry" and "No Surprises" go neo-lounge-soul, and "Karma Police" gets a stellar jazz trio treatment from the rock-lovin' Bad Plus. Some of the best results happen when the tempos go down and the sound-painting is given deeper resonance, as when fellow depressive Sia turns "Paranoid Android" into a stark cello-laced torch song, while the always underrated Cinematic Orchestra refashion "Exit Music (For a Film)" as a near-ambient blues bleeding over with harmonics, broken up by fragments of airy acoustic guitar. One of my favorite takes here, though, is by Osunslade, who bolster "Everything in Its Right Place" with a swelling, breathing arrangement of multiple percussions, reverb-laden strings and an aura of hopeful melancholy.
Exit Music: Songs with Radio Heads is nothing more or less than those '60's compilations that brought soul singers, R&B groups and jazz artists together to play a bunch of Beatles or Stones tunes. It's one of the most acclaimed groups of the last decade given their props by a divergent set of musicians steeped in jazz, funk, house, and all kinds of sonic adventurism. It's nothing that attempts to establish itself as anything more or less than an enjoyable ride through some solid tunes that shows how far actual musical improvisation and studio-based creativity can take a singular set of material. Comparing these versions of the songs to the originals is missing the point. That is the difference between recordings and music. One is a moment in time preserved, the other a continuous evolving experience. Let the fanboys argue about what belongs in the canon—I for one would rather listen to an enjoyable, imperfect record like Exit Music then engage in a debate about which Radiohead album is the best or read another mind-numbingly predictable Q or Mojo Top 100 Greatest Albums Ever list.