[11 November 2003]
Anyone Can Transcribe Guitar
If you’ve clicked on the link to read this review, no doubt you’ve heard of Christopher O’Riley’s latest album, True Love Waits. A respected young classical pianist, O’Riley decided to record and release his transcriptions of Radiohead songs due to the positive feedback they received after airing on his NPR show. I should note up front that O’Riley does not sing either live or on record. He is a big enough Radiohead fan to recognize that trying to emulate or improve on Thom Yorke’s vocals would be both futile and insulting.
Taking this information at face value, one might expect (as I did) that O’Riley is engaged in some insane avant-garde maneuver, trying simultaneously to give rock a “museum quality” and to knock the classical snobs down a notch. I was pleasantly surprised to find that, contrary to all expectations, O’Riley plays Radiohead only because he is part of that I Might Be Wrong mini-album-owning nation of Radiohead freaks that can be found on college campuses all over the country. He plays solely out of fanboy obsession. He mentioned that after the show, he planned on going for coffee with people he met on ateaseweb.com, the primary Radiohead fansite. He defended Pablo Honey. Looking at the set list (which I’ve included to give you an idea of what Radiohead songs could possibly be played in a classical setting), you’ll notice that he played “Good Morning, Mr. Magpie”, a song which has never been recorded or played live. It’s only surfaced once, during a Christmas webcast by Thom Yorke. I’d never heard it. The ateaseweb.com member is front of me had never heard it.
Not that I’m knocking fanboy obsession. O’Riley’s approach to Radiohead’s music, does, however, smack of novelty. As he took the stage, dressed in all black, and gently pressed down “Airbag” in dramatic fashion, it immediately became clear that, without Thom Yorke’s voice, these songs could never be as great. O’Riley himself admits to hearing Yorke’s voice in his head as he plays. He wisely chooses songs where the vocals are less prominent (he opts out of “Pyramid Song”, one of the few Radiohead songs written for piano), but the songs suffer nonetheless.
They can still be pretty good, though, and even occasionally moving. Obviously some songs bear O’Riley’s treatment better than others, especially “Black Star”, a highly underappreciated track from 1995’s The Bends (as if you didn’t know). The intro to “Black Star” sounds like it was made to be pounded out on the keys. It’s also obvious that Radiohead’s later work, as a general rule, sounds better on piano, since it’s harder for verse-chorus-verse structure to sound as good without vocals. “Thinking About You” and “Fake Plastic Trees” seemed simplistic and bare compared to more lush songs like “Everything In It’s Right Place” and “True Love Waits”, though they may not technically be so. The show was made far more enjoyable by O’Riley’s comic asides, during which he discussed meeting Michael Stipe (“You don’t play ‘No Surprises’?!?”) and Thom Yorke (“You’re talking about Gag Order?!?”), and his encounter with a Wall Street Journal interviewer who seriously thought that the proceeds from an album called True Love Waits must go to the abstinence movement. O’Riley: “The time spent transcribing and recording the songs on the album was my particular contribution to the abstinence movement.”
The highlight, though, by far, was O’Riley’s version of “Paranoid Android”. He invited the crowd to guess the concert’s closer by showing them the long accordion of staff paper it had taken to transcribe it. The song gave him a chance to rock out for a while, something he obviously reveled in, and gave the audience a chance to pretend they were at a rock show for a while, something they obviously reveled in. O’Riley also managed to duplicate the two vocal layers of “Rain down” and “God loves his children” at the end of “Paranoid Android”, without which the song is a sham.
He took requests during the encore, though he quickly realized that he was only prepared to play four or five other Radiohead songs, from which the crowd enthusiastically chose “Exit Music (from a Film)” from OK Computer. “Exit Music” is the one case where O’Riley chose a song that was entirely and utterly boring without the vocals. He redeemed himself by playing “Polyethylene Pt. 2”. I was sure I was the only one on the planet who really liked this song. Then again, I think O’Riley might like David Hasselhoff songs if they were covered by Radiohead. But we all feel that way about at least one band. Admit it.
Christopher O’Riley’s concert was nice enough, a good substitute for those too poor or too confused by Ticketmaster to attend actual Radiohead shows. As a Radiohead fan, O’Riley did a bang-up job, causing me to go home and dust off my copies of The Bends, OK Computer, and, yes, even Pablo Honey. But that’s where O’Riley ends. His music really, really wants to make you listen to some Radiohead. What it does not do, sadly, is make you want to listen to more Christopher O’Riley.