[11 October 2011]
Let’s back up for a second. Is there truthfully a concrete definition of the word “remix”? Back in the day, it basically meant an artist-approved alternate version of a recording—possibly adding some more instrumental elements removed from the original track, or even just a literal new mix (“Let’s turn up that bass a bit!” or “How about we move those guitars around a tad?”). In 2011, “remix” is way more specific than that. The word is basically synonymous with “electronic version”, and more often than not, a remix becomes an entirely different song, barely containing any trace of the original.
This brings us to the awkwardly titled TKOL RMX 1234567. I entered this project a bit skeptical—none of Radiohead’s previous remixes have been all that enlightening, mainly delegated as b-sides and foreign compilation filler, so the prospect of a 19-track bleep-blip-headfuck seemed more than unnecessary. Then there’s the fact that The King of Limbs, their latest record, sort of already sounds like a remix album in its original state. For its eighth studio album, the English quintet took its fascination with samples and looping to a completely new level, displacing live band interplay almost entirely in favor of glitchy programming, insular synths, and atmospheric doodling, all tied together with some of the most paralyzingly distant and unemotional production of the band’s career. This isn’t to say King fell flat—it’s a more than worthwhile collection that reveals its layers more subtly and slowly than the sweeping 2007 masterpiece, In Rainbows—but devoting an entire album to newly remixed versions of these tracks could basically result in one of two outcomes: fresh perspectives that breathe new life into these often difficult tracks…or a straight-up snoozefest.
The answer (as is often the case with these sorts of collections) lies somewhere in between those two distant poles. Just a simple glance at the packaging gives a reasonable impression of what this whole thing sounds like: These guest remixers are primarily electronic artists, and given Thom Yorke’s recent obsession with dubstep, that hardly comes as a surprise. Radiohead faithful will recognize plenty of names from Yorke’s website’s “office charts”, with folks like Jamie xx and Nathan Fake, and then you have Modeselektor, Four Tet, Caribou, some of which have opened for and collaborated with Yorke in the past. As it turns out, the more established names on TKOL RMX are the ones who manage to bring something new to the songs, and isn’t that the intention of a remix in the first place?
Yorke and company lead off with Caribou’s take on “Little by Little”, which proves to be a wise move. We’re greeted with a fluttering harp loop, warm electro-bass, and dusty beat, all the while leaving Yorke’s main vocal largely untouched, his Middle Eastern-esque melody floating (almost jarringly) amid the swirling layers. (Side note: Why do remixes always have to include random, fly-on-the-studio-wall vocal snippets? Here, a chopped-up Yorke declares what sounds like “Wait” about 20 times. Thanks for that.) Minor nitpicking aside, Caribou clearly had a vision for this song, choosing to pull the appropriate bits and pieces from the original recording and layer them with his own engaging instrumentals. The result is a refreshing 180 that puts the emphasis on song more so than texture.
Similarly, the always dependable Four Tet offers a gorgeous interpretation of “Separator”, the rousing, Neil Young-esque King of Limbs highlight. His lonely, tongue-tied hi-hats and atmospheric synth wash over the track, as various elements (Colin Greenwood’s propulsive bass, flutters of electric guitar) are introduced gradually and naturally, still placing focus on Yorke’s transcendent main vocal.
Unfortunately, these inventions are the exception rather than the rule, and the bloated tracklist is littered with loads of awkward dead weight. Since the Pearson Sound Scaven version of “Morning Mr. Magpie” contains absolutely no detectable trace of the original track, I’m not sure this even qualifies as a “remix”. Just loads of cheap-ass beats and a dash of dorky Yorke grunt. Oh, but they did manage to capture the original’s ending vacuum cleaner sample, so congrats on that. The “Thriller Houseghost” version of “Give Up the Ghost” is past skippable; Yorke’s fragile “Don’t hurt me” vocal is in there if you listen closely, but this is basically nothing more than one repetitive synth pulse and a four-to-the-floor bass drum.
If, like me, you eat up every musical scrap from Thom Yorke’s sweaty palm, I wouldn’t skip this. The highlights here are easily the most essential Radiohead remixes to date (for what that’s worth), and as far as decent-enough background music goes, I suppose there’s a bulk of that, too. But when you’re talking about the World’s Greatest Fucking Band, one expects a bit more than pre-set blips and half-assed atmospherics, and too often TKOL RMX 1234567 feels as calculated and mechanical as its soulless title.