Radiohead Reimagined, Classically and Beyond (CD reviews)

By Karl W. Nehring

One of the most exciting and creative rock bands to come along over the past few decades is Radiohead, an English quintet comprising Thom Yorke (vocals, guitar, keyboards), brothers Jonny Greenwood (lead guitar, keyboards, other instruments) and Colin Greenwood (bass), Ed O'Brien (guitar, backing vocals) and Philip Selway (drums, percussion). Although their first couple of albums, although reasonably successful, were relatively straightforward affairs, musically speaking, their next four releases – OK Computer (1997), Kid A (2000), Amnesiac (2001),  and Hail to the Thief (2003) – were creative breakthroughs that brought the band widespread recognition and respect. Radiohead had suddenly arrived, and was one of the most talked-about if not necessarily listened-to bands on the planet. In November, 2021, the band will release Kid A Mnesia,  a multiple-format triple-album release of the two albums plus some unreleased tracks to celebrate the 21st anniversary of the group’s influential Kid A and Amnesiac albums, the music for which were recorded at the same time but released separately as the band did not want to release a double album so spread the music out over two separate albums released a year apart. With the new release, Radiohead fanatics will be able to get all the music together, plus some additional cuts from the sessions that did not make their way onto the original releases.

I’m quite confident that there are other classical music lovers besides me who enjoyed (and perhaps even still enjoy) the compelling music of Radiohead. For them, and even for those who have perhaps never even heard of Radiohead but are game to hear some interesting music, I’d like to highlight some releases that directly or in some cases indirectly relate to Radiohead and have a direct or in  some cases indirect connection to what we can all relate to as “classical” music. (Roll over, Beethoven…) 

I’ll begin with a couple of albums that bring the music of Radiohead to the keyboard. When classical pianist Christopher O’Riley (b. 1966) first hosted the popular NPR music show From the Top, he began to play some of his transcriptions of music by Radiohead during breaks. It has been said that some listeners, upon hearing O’Riley announce that this was music by Radiohead, even wrote the show to inquire as to where they could find more music by “Mr. Head.” O’Riley was quite a fan of the band and had made many transcriptions of their music for the piano. Having already made several recordings of classical music, O’Riley then shifted gears and released some truly fascinating recordings of a completely different pedigree.

True Love Waits: Christopher O’Riley Plays Radiohead. Everything in Its Right Place; Knives Out; Black Star; Karma Police; Let Down; Airbag; Subterranean Homesick Alien; Thinking About You; Exit Music (For a Film); You; Bulletproof; Fake Plastic Trees; I Can't; True Love Waits; Motion Picture Soundtrack. Christopher O’Riley, piano. Sony Odyssey SK 87321. (2003).

O’Riley’s transcriptions blend the vocal lines with the instrumental lines into a seamless whole that he fortifies with rich chords. For songs with which you are familiar with the Radiohead album originals, you will immediately recognize the music. At the same time, however, you will find yourself amazed at how “classical” it sounds after being processed through O’Riley’s mind and fingers. If on the other hand you come to this album never having heard any Radiohead music in your life, you might still find this to be engaging, enjoyable music that sounds more like serious classical piano music than anything resembling what you might take to be rock music.

Hold Me to This: Christopher O’Riley Plays Radiohead. There There; (Nice Dream) No Surprises; Polyethylene Part 2; How I Made My Millions; Like Spinning Plates; Sail to the Moon; The Tourist; Cuttooth; 2 + 2 = 5; Talk Show Host; Gagging Order; Paranoid Android; Street Spirit (Fade Out). Christopher O’Riley, piano. World Village WV 704. (2005).

Although released on a different label two years later, Hold Me to This is the musical fraternal twin of True Love Waits. The songs are different, but the transcriptions continue in the same vein, making this effectively “Christopher O’Riley Plays Radiohead, Volume II.” Once again, O’Riley weaves this music into a tapestry of sound and emotion. No, it is not the piano music of Beethoven, Brahms, or Chopin, but hey, I can scrunch up my imagination and imagine Liszt nodding his head approvingly at what O’Riley has accomplished here. If you enjoy piano music and are not entirely straitlaced, give one or both of these O’Riley albums an audition and discover the fascinating music of that mysterious composer, Mr. Head.
Next for your consideration are three albums that present reimagined renditions of two of those classic Radiohead albums, Kid A and Amnesiac. Each release is by an ensemble coming at Radiohead’s music from a different perspective: classical, folk, and jazz.

Echo Collective: Echo Collective Plays “Amnesiac”. Margaret Hermant, violin/harp; Neil Leiter, violin; Charlotte Danhier, cello; Yann LeCollaire, clarinet/bass clarinet/baritone saxophone; Helene Elst, bassoon/contrabassoon; Gary De Cart, piano; Antoine Danday, percussion. 7K! 7K008CD (2018).

We have previously reviewed releases featuring Echo Collective in Classical Candor. While those releases were more classical in nature, this album from 2018 found Echo Collective bringing in a percussionist to add a drum kit to their assemblage of classical instruments to produce an instrumental version of Radiohead’s Amnesiac. Although there are moments that sound much like chamber music, the overall mood is more like a jazzy/spacey cover version of pure Radiohead, lacking only the voice of Thom Yorke. The song “Dollars & Cents,” for example, has a driving acoustic bass line, drum accents, yearning string sounds, clarinet notes -- but still sounds like Radiohead. For many Radiohead fans, Amnesiac represents the peak of the group’s output; for them to hear Echo Collective’s take on it would be quite a stimulating experience, no doubt about it. Christopher O’Riley transformed the music through his piano, while Echo Collective does so through an array of instruments, but again from a trained classical perspective, this time filtered through an eclectic collective imagination.

Wooden Elephant: Landscapes, Knives, and Glue: Radiohead’s Kid A Recycled. Aoife Ni Bhriain, violin/jaw harp/flexitone/part blower/wine glass/milk frother with tissue/elbows on ukulele strung with guitar strings/kalimba/bowed toy handbells/plectrum/milk frother with elastic bands/toy archery bow/harmonicas; Huld Jonsdottir, violin/bowed toy hand bells/part blower/vibrator/ankle bells/plectrum/pacay shaker/wah-wah tube/harmonicas/music box; Ian Anderson, viola/arrangements/whirly tube/bathroom sink plug chain/plectrum/part blower/handheld fan with feathers/wine glasses/toy archery bow/bowed toy handbells/squeaky pig dog toy/power drill with cable ties/handheld fan with tights; Stefan Hadjiev, cello/bathroom sink plug chain/part blower/toy archery bow/bowed toy handbells; Nikolai Matthews, double bass/blu tack/kalimba/paper/bathroom sink plug chain/party blower/whirly tube/wine glasses/bowed toy handbell/timpani beater/harmonicas. Backlash Music BM006 (2020).

Be not frightened by the list of unusual “instruments'' credited to the players of Wooden Elephant. The group is a string quintet, and the arrangements of the Radiohead songs from Kid A (once again, the album is covered song for song) are for the quintet, with the other items listed being used for sonic seasoning. Although there are times when some of the sounds seem as though they could be produced by an electronic synthesizer, the liner states that “Every sound on this album has been produced completely acoustically by the five Wooden Elephant players. The album was recorded >as live< with only a few select overdubs for the noisier instrument changes.” The end result is an intriguing blend of Radiohead melodies with string quintet sounds augmented by sound effects that draw in rather than distract the listener. The song “How to Disappear Completely,” for example, which is haunting in its Radiohead version, is just as eerily haunting here, if not more so. The members of Wooden Elephant obviously have not only an ear for the music, but a feeling for the emotions that the music is meant to convey. The end result is a richly imaginative album that is well worth an audition by both Radiohead and chamber music fans alike.

Rick Simpson: Everything All of the Time: Kid A Revisited. Rick Simpson, piano; Tori Freestone, tenor saxophone and violin; James Allssopp, baritone saxophone; Dave Whitford, double bass; Will Glaser, drums. Whirlwind Recordings WR4765 (2020).

Here we have another take on Kid A, this time from the perspective of a jazz quintet. The liner notes by leader and pianist Rick Simpson explain the genesis of the album: “My musical interests began with electronic music, then jazz, and then Radiohead. All three were intense love affairs. The sonic landscape of Radiohead, in particular their electronic explorations, seemed to meld perfectly with my love of jazz and the avant garde. The Vortex Jazz Club generously offered a concert series where I could rewrite popular albums as vehicles for instrumental improvisation. Naturally ‘Kid A’ was the first record I thought of. 2020 sees ‘Kid A’ turn twenty years old and its impact and inspiration on musicians and audiences alike is being felt to this day. I wanted to honour Radiohead’s original whilst re-writing the music to fit my vision as a composer, giving the musicians I chose for this project plenty of space to improvise and bring their unique musical voices to the forefront. For some tunes I wanted to stay close to the source material, for others they are merely referenced and serve as springboards for new composition or improvisation. I think we captured some of the fractured anxiety and beauty of the original.” Having some live performances of this music under their belt, the group then went into the studio in London and recorded the album in a single afternoon. The end result is a fitting tribute to Radiohead. Being an album of jazz, it diverges more from the original music than any of the arrangements above, but never so far that the music becomes unrecognizable. One of the interesting points to note is how jazz drumming differs from rock drumming, which can be discerned even in a comparison of the drumming in this album with that in the Echo Collective album, where although the basic thrust of the album is classical in nature, the drums are used to link the arrangements to rock music, and the sound is pretty much that of a standard drum kit playing fairly straightforward rock rhythms. There is nothing wrong with that, the net effect sounding quite engaging. However, the drum sounds and rhythms employed by drummer Will Glaser are more colorful and varied, doing more for the music than just supplying a beat. The more I listened to that album, the more I seized upon favorite highlights of the arrangements, such as use of the violin in “How to Disappear Completely,” the jazz trio sound at the heart of “Optimistic,” or pretty much everything about their amazing rendition of “Morning Bell,” but especially the exuberant drumming and interplay between drummer Glaser and pianist Simpson. If you like Radiohead and have at least a nodding acquaintance with jazz, or if you like jazz and have at least a nodding acquaintance with the music of Radiohead, then you probably have a pretty good idea of what I am going to advise...

Bonus Recommendations:

Rockabye Baby! Lullaby Renditions of Radiohead. Baby Rock Records  CD 9603.

As Monty Python were often heard to say, “and now for something completely different.” As the note on the back cover explains, “Rockabye Baby! transforms timeless rock songs into beautiful instrumental lullabies. The delicate sounds of the glockenspiel, vibraphone, and other instruments will lull your little one into a sweet slumber… These versions of Radiohead are sophisticated enough for people of all ages, but sweet enough to introduce your child to rock’s smartest band.” I suppose it would be easy enough to snicker, but to be honest, I used to play this CD often on my computer at work. The familiar Radiohead melodies played on bells, glockenspiel, keyboard, and other instruments all apparently played and overdubbed in the studio by a fellow named Michael Armstrong did not lull me to sleep; rather, they allowed me to get into a groove where I was able to work efficiently while feeling just fine -- on a gentle musical high, if you will. Laugh if you want to, but this is a seriously enjoyable take on Radiohead featuring 11 of their songs in sparkling arrangements.
There Will Be Blood: Original Music by Jonny Greenwood. Nonesuch 369020-2.

Radiohead guitarist and keyboardist Jonny Greenwood (b. 1971) grew up with an abiding interest in classical music as well as rock music. One of his early musical heroes was the French composer Olivier Messiaen, and he later developed a great admiration for the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. He also had a fondness for jazz and an interest in electronic music. In 2007, he composed the score for the film There Will Be Blood. This is music that does not sound like a typical movie score. Instead, it sounds for the most part like serious contemporary classical music. There are tracks for orchestra, for piano trio, and for string quartet. You do not need to have seen the film to enjoy this release, which can stand on its own as an engrossing program of finely crafted classical music.

Chrystal Für: Elusion. Requiem; I’m Losing You; Spark Over the Horizon; Nova; There Is No Second Chance; Memory of a Fading Home; *I’ll Rise at Dawn Once More; Pass the Torch; Other Side of the Mirror. Christopher J. Vibberts, piano, cello, guitars, bass, organ, keyboards, marxophone, melody harp, Tibetan singing bowl, wine glasses, ebow, breathing, samples, sound manipulation; *Margaret Hermant, violin, harp, wind sounds; *Neil Leiter, viola, bass viola, wind sounds. What Are We Records WAW202101.

Chrystal Für is a recording outlet for the creative energies of musician/producer/engineer Chris Vibberts, who recorded the album in his studio in California, with one track being recorded in Belgium by his friends from Echo Collective. Elusion has a contemporary feel yet still manages to have something of a timeless quality to it, reflecting a wide spectrum of musical influences. When Vibberts was asked to put together a mixtape of music that influenced the album, he said that he “created a loose musical timeline that dips into important early musical moments including being freaked out in the basement as a toddler listening to "Yellow Brick Road" by Elton John and Black Sabbath albums, to contemporary artists that constantly inspire me like Jóhann Jóhannsson, A Winged Victory For The Sullen, and Max Richter.” Given that Echo Collective has collaborated in the past with both Jóhannsson and A Winged Victory for the Sullen, it should come as no surprise that they show up on Elusion. Most of the cuts on this release evoke a mood of reflection, of pondering the joy and beauty to be found in everyday life. It is music at once soothing and inspiring, but with more substance than what you would find in the New Age category. A fascinating release, well worth an audition.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me — point out recordings that they think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, Goldpoint SA4 “passive preamp,” Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura’s hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can’t imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa