You know music is at the mercy of capitalism when oral tradition and communal knowledge of a song must acquiesce to private ownership and copyright law. Say what, you say? Translation: You know we done fucked up when cover songs are viewed with suspicion. What was once an open-air market of juke-joint jams, competing versions of “Respect” and the occasional Pin Ups to bring new meaning to originals has become a restricted-access area of concert-encore novelty and addenda for collectors and deejay nerds. Which, perhaps, isn’t such a bad thing — I am all for proper paper, and I really cannot stand another cover of “Yesterday.” Of course, I am being mean and simple, but I have yet to comprehend why one result has been a market for CD compilations of shitty covers.
So, hearing about Exit Music: Songs with Radio Heads, another tribute to Radiohead, hardly raises an eyebrow. After receiving the string quartet, electronica and jazz treatment (the karaoke version was the only sensible one, with its inherent utilitarian value), the neo-Dylan gypsy band has received enough covers-mileage to shield it from an operating room full of name producers and artists under the Rapster banner. However, for a considerable part, the band comes out from under the knife looking post-TrimSpa Anna Nicole Smith: fitter and happier (and I mean that in a good way, Thom). Kudos, then, to Exit Music: quality control was an obvious priority — record mostly contains startlingly innovative and genuinely fun takes.
Much of Exit Music‘s appeal centers on its sense of experimentation. So it’s no surprise that the most noteworthy contributions are based on Kid A material, Radiohead’s most challenging album to produce. Similar to the album’s veering and colliding personalities, Exit Music‘s artists challenge the material to explore new avenues. Dependable Sa-Ra Creative Partners turn “In Limbo” inside out and sunny-side up, surfing an Andy Bey-like croon atop a J-Davey long board along the lip of a Linn drum curl. Even when Me’Shell NdegéOcello and cohort drummer Chris Dave stick close to the original arrangement of “The National Anthem,” they offer a lesson in organized chaos, chewing Colin Greenwood’s bass line like naeng myun then pulping out a vicious jam. (Note to Rapster: Really, it’s a bad look when every female-led group on this comp is suspiciously left off the promos, but it’s even worse when a Grade A+ talent such as NdegéOcello has to endure this kind of treatment while a Gap model gets a music video. A perfect instance where keepin’ it real could have gone really right.) Performance chops remain more essential than even the source material, in spite of the abundance of production and arrangement tricks. Which opens the door for the record’s heartbeat, an absolutely stellar version of “High and Dry” by Pete Kumza (Jill Scott’s musical director) and Bilal. Completely revamping the heartache of the original into something hopeful, the transformation is whole and complete, like Donny Hathaway reinventing John Lennon or Aretha taking over the Beatles — from sour grapes to sweet soul.
Certainly, Exit Music has its share of passable moments. The Bad Plus tepidly gives “Karma Police” the jazz-trio treatment but with little innovation this side of Brad Mehldau’s reading, and Sia’s fragility actually one-ups Yorke’s preciousness, slurring certain syllables in a near laughable manner. (I know y’all loved that 6 Feet Under closer, but do you really want “Paranoid Android” to get drawn out like this?) However, the record offers a welcome change of pace from the redundancy of the covers market and, more important, a needed sense of creative adventure.
Songs With Radio Heads Web site (streaming audio)Rapster Records Web site (video for “Just”)