Thursday, 3 November 2011

The King of Limbs remixed: Radiohead as source material for new gen producers

[Wrote this for the Spectator Night & Day arts blog but it hasn't been posted up yet]

TKOL RMX 1234567 
XL Recordings

Given the clangorous fanfare and critical parping that usually accompanies a new Radiohead album, the February release of the band’s eighth studio effort caused merely a few ripples in the big splashy sea of new music. Partly this is down to the band’s decision to forego the expected promotional duties, festival headline slots and arena shows, but another explanation is that The King of Limbs could be band’s least successful and least memorable record. While it’s not without its moments, particularly when it hits its stride halfway through with the twin beauties of ‘Lotus Flower’ and ‘Codex’, TKOL is Radiohead in B-side mode, showing off a practiced ease with their own style and the organic interplay between human and machine; acoustic warmth and synthetic glitch.

But it was also obvious that these few tracks (only eight of them!) would undergo multiple incarnations, as producers and DJs from the top of the tree to its bedroom-bound roots got their hands on the fertile raw material. Given Thom Yorke’s recent collaborations with progressive hip-hop producer Flying Lotus and home-grown talents Four Tet and Burial, it’s not hard to imagine Radiohead taking the remixer’s job into account as they tinker in the studio. Why finish a track definitively when someone else will do it for you? Why write 10 great songs when you could do eight and let the remixers go forth and multiply?

And lo, eight months later, I’m clutching a copy of the snappily titled TKOL RMX 1234567 in my (virtual) mitts. At its best, this record shines a spotlight back onto TKOL to pick out the delicacy and maturity that underpin tracks like ‘Bloom’ and ‘Lotus Flower’, not to mention Thom’s ever-lovelier distant falsetto. But at its worst, it’s an over-long, over-stuffed non-album that doesn’t hang together with any coherence, despite brief flashes of brilliance and a handful of moments that easily surpass anything present in the source material.

So for best results, ignore the idea that this is an album. Although sequenced as well as it can be for a disparate bunch of tracks made by a disparate bunch of people, what you essentially get is a compilation of back-to-back singles that would never normally sit together in a mix. Reflecting the bubbling-over of all kinds of electronic music in 2011, highlights include the bucolic beauty of Four Tet and Caribou’s efforts standing shyly against the bubbling, dubbling, low-end splash of Harmonic 313’s take on ‘Bloom’ (see video below) and Blawan’s deliriously wacky version of ‘Bloom’, a tightly locked dancefloor ear-shredder. Then there’s Pearson Sound’s abstract and virtually undanceable rework of ‘Morning Mr Magpie’, which starts off quiet and arboreal before debasing itself with scattershot drums, hard-panned vocals and twisting rhythms.

The ultimate cut-out-and-keep track has to be Montreal newcomer Jacques Greene’s excellent ‘Lotus Flower’ (see video at top), which mimics Nathan Fake’s warped warmth as its builds unfussily towards the big drop at the four-minute mark, a glorious acid pulsing with pockets of melodic tastiness bursting through to configure new harmonic alliances quite different to the original track.

Lowlights are the less interesting, more ambient offerings from Shed and Altrice, and the straightforward dancefloor rework from SBTRKT, which is serviceable but disappointing considering how steeply his star has risen this year. Similarly, man-of-the-moment Jamie XX submits an anaemic ‘Bloom’ with his now-trademark bells and steel pans needlessly smeared all over it.

It’s an exciting collection that anyone with half an ear cocked towards electronic music should not ignore, but whether Radiohead can really continue in this vein is another question. Will they accept a fate as merely a sample generator for more inventive producers to play with? Or will they go back to the drawing board and make a ‘proper’ album of a proper length with a few guitar riffs chucked in for good measure? My prediction – bearing in mind the recent news that they’ve already returned to the studio – is that they won’t be able to stay away from the Pyramid Stage for too long. Glastonbury 2013: I’ll put my money on it.

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