[5 October 2009]
Out of My Hands is Christopher O’Riley’s fifth foray into reimagining hip popular music for classical piano; previously he has devoted entire tribute albums to Radiohead, Elliott Smith, and Nick Drake, turning himself into something of a well-known novelty act in the process. For those who have followed his work, it’s clear that his highly professional approach to these artists has become consistent and at times quite evocative. Whether anyone would have expected or even wanted him to continue for this long, however, is questionable: regardless of quality, one who carves out such an outsider niche as O’Riley is bound to wear out his welcome with enough persistence, especially when focusing so much on the work of a small number of songwriters. Perhaps that’s why he chose to stir things up by making this latest release a veritable mixtape of cover songs, offering several new selections from the above mentioned artists along with newly adopted repertoire from other mainstay acts like Nirvana, the Smiths, and Pink Floyd.
With his first album of covers in 2003, the Radiohead-devoted True Love Waits, there were those who praised O’Riley not only for his skilled and novel approach to a beloved body of work, but also for the prospect that he might introduce classical music listeners to Radiohead, thereby bringing the band even more widespread scholarly acclaim. The fact that an already established pianist—heretofore noted for his enlightened performances of Rachmaninoff concertos—would release such a well-considered tribute to a rock band, and claim in an interview that their music was all he ever listened to in his free time, seemed like it would lend the band an exciting air of legitimacy in a completely new sphere. But while True Love Waits may very well have had that effect, at least to a limited degree, there’s no real doubt that something of an inverse has come to be true with his subsequent albums: namely, that only listeners who are already intimately familiar with the work O’Riley is covering will have any real interest in hearing his reworked versions, let alone the potential to be compelled by the results.
What Christopher O’Riley does is inherently fraught with difficulty—taking cherished, well-known music whose identity is by and large reliant upon particular vocal performances and singular instrumental textures, and attempting to distill it and rebuild it on one lone instrument while keeping some element of the original character in tact. In making the music devoid of both the sound and meaning of its lyrics and the particular interplay and panache of the original musicians—who could be more enigmatic than vocalists like Kurt Cobain, Thom Yorke, and Morrissey?—it becomes essentially about utilizing familiar melodies and countermelodies in their pure form, and exploring their rhythms and repetitions in the new, limited context of classical piano.
From a music theory standpoint, it’s a safe bet that O’Riley sees more in the music he interprets than the average listener, which gives him a unique vantage point. Along with providing a rather open description of his inspiration and the near-cathartic value he finds in doing this, the liner notes of Out of My Hands give a brief but effective academic reading of each song, with O’Riley ultimately painting himself first and foremost as a fan whose primary method of connecting with the music he loves is to rework it on his own terms.
In light of the fact that he seems inspired by fairly unique aspects of the music he draws from, listening to O’Riley’s work can bring to the forefront nuances that might have gone unnoticed in the original, but it also has the potential to undermine certain expectations. His version of Pink Floyd’s “Us & Them”, for example, manages in some places to heighten the dreaminess of the original, by taking rhythmic liberties with the playfully twinkling ivories and accompanying chords, but in other places the melody gets entirely lost under layers of adornment. He has a penchant for embellishing melodic lines with plenty of extra dissonances and complex key patterns repeated ad nauseam, which, in their circumvention of the beautiful simplicity of the original melody, can sound like they’re totally missing the point. Of course, searching for and following a familiar melody amidst the fray can be half the fun—and often actually allows O’Riley’s renditions to take shape—but for those unfamiliar with the original, it quickly becomes an indecipherable mash of well-executed notes that lack coherence.
It stands to reason that the most successfully converted songs are the ones that are the most nakedly melodic and rhythmically striking to begin with—in this respect, O’Riley’s choice of material is almost as important as how he executes it, especially given how established his process now sounds. The first few tracks on Out of My Hands are fairly successful, in that they have a good balance with one another and manage to remain captivating throughout. Tori Amos’ “Mother” is kept subtle and pretty, while Elliott Smith’s “New Disaster” is gorgeously cinematic, if a bit overlong. Probably the main attraction here is Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box”, in which O’Riley imbues the melody with just enough of a brooding undercurrent, capturing the soft/loud bite of the original by amping up the bombast at just the right places.
This is the first time he has taken a disparate set of songs from a wide variety of sources and made them all get along together, and there’s certainly a danger to reducing them all to a homogeneous state. When he devoted an entire album to, say, just Nick Drake, it was easier to get lost in the tracklist, because you only had to relinquish your sense of one artist’s distinct aesthetic at a time to get lost in his performances. It’s much harder to allow the different acts represented here to lose their respective individuality all together in a big mixing pot; by the end of the album, the biggest craving is for the kind of distinction that only legitimately different entities can bring to the table. And where Christopher O’Riley’s previous releases had significant novelty value to the fans of whichever artist he was focusing on, it’s hard to say who Out of My Hands is going to appeal to, or why anyone would be moved to listen to more than one of these renditions at a time.