[1 September 2006]
This has gotta be some kind of a joke, right? That was my initial take on the Easy Star All-Stars concept. But that was before I heard the music. All I knew was that some dudes had covered Pink Floyd’s über-classic 1973 LP Dark Side of the Moon, re-recording the entire opus in a reggae style. I figured it was meant to be funny. Now, I don’t have a very good sense of humor about music. When I want comedy, I watch The Simpsons or read The Book of Bunny Suicides. The idea of someone tampering with one of my all-time favorite albums to get some yucks was so odious to me that I only ever listened to Dub Side of the Moon in order to sanctimoniously support my initial hunch that it was worthless and crass. Well, as in all good tales, the smugly prejudiced villain (that’s me) had his frown turned upside-down once exposed to the winsome truth. And, truth is, Dub Side is, like, totally awesome. And, really, when you think about it, what could make more sense? Of all the dope inhaled since the early 1970s, a huge percentage of those tokes have been taken while grooving to either Pink Floyd or reggae. Clearly, both forms of music exist on the same tripped-out astral plane.
It’s three years later, and what I assumed would be a one-time project band have resurfaced. This time, Easy Star All-Stars, the New York area collective headed by Michael Goldwasser, decided to tackle yet another album from my Eternal Top 10, Radiohead’s 1997 neo-prog, instant-classic, OK Computer. Apparently, for issue number two, the band name, rather than the album title, made for the better reggae-themed pun. Radiodread, then, is the follow-up to Dub Side of the Moon. The group could have played it safe and remade Wish You Were Here. Instead, they took a chance on recasting an album less than a decade old, made by a still-vital and much beloved band. So, does the risk pay off?
Unfortunately, Radiodread starts off with one of its weaker adaptations, the collective’s take on “Airbag”. It’s the experiment-gone-wrong that the cynical and uninitiated will have likely predicted (but that’s cynics for you). With the original’s unsettlingly asymmetrical attack all smoothed out and sped up over a straight beat, the new version of the song just feels wrong. And, although they tweaked the tempo, the All-Stars kept the timbre of the central guitar theme largely intact, leaving it to clash badly with the otherwise straightforward reggae elements of the track. Its saving grace is the quietly desperate and smoothly supple vocal from Horace Andy, the exquisite singer who’s been dubbing it up for over 30 years now. Having lent his pipes to some Massive Attack tunes in his time, his familiarity with this kind of cross-pollination lends a needed confidence to the otherwise clumsy opener.
That initial misstep is, happily, atypical of Radiodread. Easy Star All-Stars are most often quite adept at illuminating exactly the right element of each of the dozen Radiohead songs they had to work with, bringing a hidden facet of the original to the fore. Did you know, for instance, that both “Let Down” and “No Surprises” are actually quite cheery? Yeah, Thom Yorke, battered choirboy that he is, did a good job of disguising this fact. But you give these same songs to a bunch of Jamaicans, and you get yourself a party. Well, maybe an after-party. Toots & the Maytals and the Meditations bring the brass to their respective tasks, their sunny horns breaking through the cloudbanks of the originals and finding something lively and new.
Other numbers stick closer to the original vibe. Kirsty Rock’s soulful and blue-hued vocals turn “Paranoid Android” into the best Morcheeba song that never was. The twisted ska-mariachi horn charts in the middle break reel in an added layer of drunken chaos around our favorite “kicking squeeling gucci little piggy” [sic]. Despite some new approaches, the end result remains a dark, three-part, epic journey. “Subterranean Homesick Alien”, featuring Junior Jazz, is exactly what one would expect of the Radiohead-meets-reggae tag, which is quite all right. The legendary Sugar Minott does a wonderful job with “Exit Music (For a Film)”, a song so dear to me that I held my breath during the first few seconds of this cover, hoping they wouldn’t butcher it. Thankfully, they did it right, maintaining both the intimacy and the spaciousness that Radiohead found in the old castle where they recorded their ur-version. “Lucky” is deeply dubby, but otherwise a bit unremarkable. “Climbing Up the Walls” crackles with energy, riding a reverby breakbeat into a Mingus-like jumble of blurting horn solos at its close.
Perhaps the greatest departure from its OK Computer counterpart is “Fitter Happier”, the short mid-section piece that, for many, marred Radiohead’s great album. It’s actually always been a favorite of mine. Yorke’s lyrics expressed the near-millennial state of the world as well as any other set of words written during that time. And, of course, having the text read by a computer only enhanced the theme of festering automatonism. Menny Moore, with his resin-thick Jamaican accent, skews the original to the more laid-back culture of the Western Hemisphere, changing “regular exercise at the gym (3 days a week)” into “regular push-ups and sit-ups (almost every day)” and “a patient better driver” into “ease up on the road”. But a pig is still “a pig / in a cage / on antibiotics,” no matter where you live.
And, in the end, after the final idiot has been told to slow down, the music of Radiohead is still captivating, no matter who’s interpreting it, be it the classical approach of Christopher O’Riley, the jazz takes of Brad Mehldau, or, now, the reggae restylings of Easy Star All-Stars. Their latest full-length tribute doesn’t succeed as uniformly as did Dub Side of the Moon, but the gang get it right more often than not, offering fresh perspectives on well-worn songs and creating a new vibe from an old atmosphere. I was feeling such a chill, but Radiodread has got me all nice and toasted … er, toasty, that is. I joke (or try to), but Easy Star All-Stars do not. Their seriously dubby paranoia is the reggae of the new millennium.