[25 April 2005]
It would be a horrendous mistake to dismiss this disc as merely another one of those instrumental or orchestral discs created to cash in on a popular artist’s compositions. These “tributes” to the beauty of songwriting royalties clog the record racks, and only a sucker would pay any attention to them as anything but a novelty. What we have here, however, is something far more rewarding than merely a backhanded tribute disc. This is nothing less than a wholesale reinvention of one of the greatest and most versitile catalogs in modern pop music.
It used to be that the strength of a songwriter’s body of work could be judged by how well it adapted to constant adaptation and improvisation. Of course, the advent of rock and roll changed this equation, as singing one’s own songs eventually became the Platonic ideal of the rock star life, notwithstanding the occasional cover song thrown onto the B-side of a live album. Whereas a popular song by Gershwin or Porter could have a decades-long run in public affections during the first half of the century, being constantly performed and recorded by dozens of different musicians, the greatest songs of the rock era are indellibly tied to their composers, granting even the most clever reinterpretation the somewhat unflattering appelation of a “cover”. Certainly, any artist who built a career out of playing other people’s material would be regarded as something of an oddity or a poseur—Joe Cocker notwithstanding.
Although Christopher O’Riley is a classical pianist, what he has accomplished with his pair of Radiohead discs (of which this is the second, the first being 2003’s True Love Waits) is to return contemporary pop songwriting to the same province of popular interpretation and rediscovery once enjoyed throughout the jazz world. Admittedly, he walks in the footsteps of Brad Mehldau, who has been casually exploring the Radiohead catalog since the turn of the century. But I think that while Mehldau’s reinterpretations are unerringly interesting, O’Riley’s are absolutely essential. It’s the difference between an appealing cover song and a radical adaptation—the former reminds you of why you love the original, while the latter opens up entirely new vistas inside the context of a supposedly familiar chestnut.
Music is built around the concepts of melody, harmony and rhythm. Most rock is constructed in a fairly straightforward manner—a 4/4 drumbeat, recurring melody lines, limited harmonic variation. Whenever rock attempts to stray far from this template, it seems to get lost, and we end up with “projects” like Tarkus and Metal Machine Music. As a result, a lot of the stuff that makes rock so powerful and affecting has a hard time translating. Even a comparitively complex band like Radiohead is still relatively straightforward in terms of their song structures—verse, chorus, verse, middle, refrain—even if the arrangements of said songs may be more complex. Every now and again they throw in a tripartite structure, as on “Paranoid Android”.
Listening to Radiohead’s work stripped down to basics on O’Riley’s discs is a crash course in just how integral repitition is to even the most intricate rock songwriter. Repetition, in terms of rhythm and refrain, creates expectation, and expectations can be manipulated to sustain tension and instill relief. O’Riley siezes on this repetition as the vehicle for his melodic inprovisation. But the crucial element that makes these translations so successful is the intuitive connection between rhythm and melody that gives rock it’s propulsive spirit—melody lines swing with rhythmic precision, and that’s what makes rock, from the chunka-chunka guitar of early Elvis to the blitzkreig of the Ramones. The fact that the piano is, uniquely, both a percussive and melodic instrument allows it, with the proper guidance, to capture this seeming contradiction quite easily.
Hold Me To This is composed mostly of Radiohead rarities, but even those unfamiliar with back-catalog nuggets like “(nice dream)” and “How I Made My Millions” should be able to enjoy the disc. Radiohead have a knack for creating the most beguilingly melancholy melody lines in all of pop, and placing them in the most interesting context. Of course, O’Riley only has his piano, but he manages to do OK simulating the interplay between complementary harmonics that Radiohead would achieve with multiple guitar players, keyboards, electronics and vocals with contrasting and dissonant piano chords. He plays with the rhythm, too, elongating the basic 4/4 or 3/4 (on “The Tourist”) to fit his melodic improvisations. On a track like “No Surprises”, he manages to find multiple layers of harmony within the core of that song’s very simple, almost lullabye melody. He repeats and builds, varying his vocabulary just enough with each pass so that by the end of the song we have achieved something quite complex without ever completely losing sight of the basic tune. What was poignant has become grand and almost majesterial, elevated from the intimate to the cosmic.
Although it is quite interesting to see O’Riley try his hand at the aforementioned “Paranoid Android” (hardly a rarity, but still), the song is one of the less satisfying adaptations because it is tied so integrally to its structure. He attacks the song with more energy than anything else on the album, but he seems to find far less room to relax. Far more interesting are tracks such as “The Tourist” and “There There”, tied to a less baroqe rhythmical structure and therefore able to accomodate a far more radical reinvention.
Hold Me To This enlightens the enduring strength of Radiohead’s catalog without cheapening the classical idiom that inform’s O’Riley’s work. If there is such a thing as a “modern” repertoire, Radiohead’s music is surely one of the cornerstones of such a concept, and it is extremely gratifying, not to mention enjoyable, to see such deliciously rewarding music given such a compelling deconstruction. I hope that this will be just the first of many discs in this vein, by many artists, as the postmodern rapproachment of disparate modes—the great musical story of our times—continues apace.