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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Amanda Palmer Performs The Popular Hits of Radiohead on Her Magical Ukulele

-Amanda Palmer

I'm trying a new way of reviewing music. I'm going to list things about the album that make me go yes, no, and hmmm. This album is more or less what the title says. It is a mostly studio recording, in which Amanda Palmer covers Radiohead songs in stripped down versions with ukulele as lead instrument. I'm assuming she has some session musicians acommanying on a few of songs, but mostly it is just Amanda Palmer on ukulele, and occasionally piano.

You can stream the album or purchase it here.

Yes: Amanda Palmer's cover of "Idioteque" is a revelation. Stripped of the electronic music of the original Radiohead recording, it becomes clear that in this case the composition of the song is what gives it a haunting sense of paranoia and dread, not the artificiality of Radiohead's music. Score one for Radiohead's songwriting ability, and score one for Palmer's creative rearrangement of the song for ukulele, prepared piano, and hand drums.

Palmer also does a bare bones ukulele and voice performance of "Creep," supposedly while "Hungover at Soundcheck in Berlin" ("This is the saddest room I've ever played to. Nobody came to my show. But you're here.") In my opinion, this is a perfect simulation of the mood under which "Creep" should be appreciated. Palmer gives a great vocal performance, evoking the pain and anger that "Creep" was intended to be evocative of. Especially beautiful is Palmer's use of falsetto mid-way through the song.

No: The songs of The Bends are Radiohead's most immaturely pretentious, and it is no coincidence that despite the prettiness of Palmer's covers of "Fake Plastic Trees" and "High and Dry," I don't particularly care for them. There is only so much adolescent BS you can take from Thom Yorke after you reach a certain level of maturity. I don't hate these songs, but every time I hear them, regardless of who it is singing, I just want to say, "isn't that a bit much?" "High and Dry" does have a nice chorus though.

Also, having a second version of "Creep" on the album ("Live in Prague") is hard to explain, especially given that the only big differences between the two versions show why the soundcheck version was so good and the second version is not. Firstly, this version is in front of an audience, which you are acutely aware of due to applause and the occasional sing-along, and which works counter to the sense of the song as an elevation of rejection and loneliness to an ideal form. Secondly, her singing is much more precise in the Prague performance, which you would expect in comparison to an off-the-cuff soundcheck performance. This is not a good thing. A refined performance is in stark contrast to the pathos underlying the song. Palmer's frequent voice semi-cracking in the Berlin version is part of what gives that version its "authenticity" and resonance.

Hmmm: Was there really a great demand for more covers of Radiohead songs? Once you get over the novelty of the ukulele and stripped down arrangements, most of the songs in this album do not stand out. There is nothing wrong with the two OK Computer covers, it's just that I don't see that they go beyond the original and at least give us a new understanding of the songs (1). Almost all the songs are good barring the few mentioned in the "no" section, but this is partly on Palmer being a competent arranger and performer, and mostly Radiohead (often) being really good songwriters. However, "Idioteque" and the soundcheck version of "Creep" do reinterpret the originals in a way that at least expanded my understanding of the songs, and music-listening is never zero-sum.

(1) Radiohead's recording of "Exit Music (For a Film)" goes on my list of greatest musical recordings of the 1990's, and the fact that the original is so perfect means that if you are going to cover it, you are better off taking a cover of it in a direction completely different from the original rather than hewing to the same structure (2). It doesn't matter if it's Amanda Palmer, Vampire Weekend, or the Easy Star All-Stars, I have yet to hear a cover that resembled Radiohead's original that wasn't completely dispensable.

(2) For example, a good punk or grunge cover of "Exit Music" would earn a place in my music collection.

Yeah, it's been a while. Not making any promises it won't be another two years before the next post.