Sunday, June 5, 2011

This Is Really Happening: Vol. 4- KID A

For those in the nosebleed seats, Radiohead announced they are performing The King of Limbs live on the BBC July 1. This will be the first time we have seen any of the songs from their eighth album performed by the entire band (Thom played several solo while on his Atoms for Peace tour last year). As Limbs itself is quite the abstract album- this is exciting news to see how Radiohead will breathe life into these eight tracks. One of the most enjoyable things about the band can be the way in which their live shows transcend a studio recording which usually is already transcendent on it’s own. I’ll never forget the first time I heard the driving bass line for the live version of Hail to the Thief’s “The Gloaming”- they actually had the audacity to open several shows with this in 2003. For myself, the song instantly went from being an experimental bridge piece to an album favorite.

In honor of the live unveiling of The King of Limbs, I will be running a weekly (hopefully) column breaking down the seven previous LP’s and the quintessential live band performance of each song followed by a brief explanatory write-up. The rules I have given myself are pretty lenient- every album can only have 2 songs from the same live show (if this weren’t the case- the Astoria concert would dominate Pablo Honey and a large portion of The Bends). Bear in mind- when I say “quintessential”, I am shooting for the best rendition, but a meaningful performance sometimes will reign paramount. If it comes to pass that some rarer songs cannot be found, a favorable B-side live version will take it's place. This is obviously opinionated and comments are readily encouraged. So are you ready? Here we go.

Everything In Its Right Place- 2003, Glastonbury

“Everything… everything… in its right place…”

Arguably more than any song in Radiohead’s catalogue, “Everything In Its Right Place” acts as the harbinger of the unknown. In the eleven years since Kid A, the band has bombarded the listener with so many innovative sounds and unorthodox time signatures, that it is easy to forget just how disorienting this song was the first time we heard it. An introspective organ-tinged electro-ballad, “Place” gently introduces the listener to the enigmatic Kid A- without making any excuses about the direction in which we are headed. In hindsight, the song seems almost quaint. Transitioned to a live setting, “Everything In Its Right Place” is usually expanded to seven or eight minutes as a set closer where it can further embrace its mechanized loops and newfound driving percussion.

Kid A- 2003, Hultsfred

“I slip away...I slipped on a little white lie…”

Kid A’s “Kid A” boasts an almost confounding warmth. Despite the digital distortion of Thom’s vocals via vocoder, the album recording blankets the listener with childlike wonder and inspiration. The live version is a slightly more organic- but still nonetheless touching- affair, despite the fact that Thom rarely sings the first verse. A truly synthetic lullaby, “Kid A”, like many songs on this album, is an independently flawless song- it exists perfectly inside it’s own vacuum with no measuring stick for comparison.

The National Anthem- 2006, V Festival

“Everyone… everyone around here…”

This was a tough one. In the end, I decided to go with the Reading Festival version because it masterfully captured the underlying terror of Kid A’s third track. A straight-ahead, jazzy, bass-driven rock song- at least moreso than any other song on the album- “The National Anthem” is fueled by a manic anxiety that maintains its relentless pace. The listener unwittingly experiences a mass media download of information and sound as guitars, drums, synths, AM radios, etc. all collide in a danceably distorted throb. It’s a real chaotic wonder. Thom channeling the post 9/11 paranoid terrorgeist by shouting, “Whaddaya got in your carry-on?” during the bridge is an added bonus in this particular version. The Reading Festival performance from 2009 was a close runner-up.

How to Disappear Completely- 2001, PinkPop Festival

“That there… that’s not me…”

The quintessential “out of body experience” Radiohead song, “How to Disappear Completely” alternates between uplifting and sweepingly tragic. A tender acoustic ballad guided by an ambient swell- for over six heartbreaking minutes, no matter where you are, the listener is one with somebody else.


“Treefingers” is a delicate ambient drone that acts as an instrumental bridge between Kid A’s first and second half. An altogether curious piece of music that stretches on for almost four minutes, the album would be resoundingly incomplete without it.

Optimistic- 2008, Saitama

“Flies are buzzing around my head…”

A’la “Nice Dream” from The Bends and “Subterranean Homesick Alien” from OK Computer, “Optimistic” plays the role of Good Sport on Kid A. Why is “Optimistic” such a good sport? Because it is a flawlessly crafted song hidden between two more breathtaking moments. This is never more evident than when the tune resurfaced on the 2008 In Rainbows tour. Much to the credit of “Optimistic”, it is firmly able to stand on it’s own removed from the context of Kid A. Time will continue to crystallize this overlooked gem.

In Limbo- 2001, Paris

“Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea…

I wrote fairly extensively about "In Limbo" and its musical brethren earlier this week. So at risk of sounding redundant, I’ll just say the 2001 Paris version of this song is incredibly mesmerizing- for reasons difficult to pinpoint. Whether it’s Selway’s rolling percussion, Jonny’s strategic riffing, the sheer authenticity of Thom’s painful wail, Colin’s tasty bass line, or Ed hidden away on the organ- for four minutes, the whole band maintains remarkable precision.

Idioteque- 2003, Glastonbury

“Who’s in the bunker? Who’s in the bunker?”

Equal parts awe-inspiring, hypnotic, frustrating, and about fifty-seven other extreme adjectives, there has never been anything quite like “Idioteque”. The closest I can come to accurately describing the experience would be Tribal Electro (a sound they would further solidify with In Rainbows’ “15 Step”). A live favorite- "Idioteque" is far and away one of the band's greatest accomplishments. Listen as Thom pleads to Jonny under his breath to increase the tempo during the first verse. The 2008 Saitama performance should also not be overlooked.

Morning Bell- 2009, Prague

“Morning bell… morning bell… light another candle…”

A fragile organ-based ballad boasting a signature percussive stagger, “Morning Bell” is fast-paced and mournfully nostalgic. Beginning with a scant moment of idealistic hope, “Morning Bell” ultimately descends into darker undertones of human separation and withdrawal. Watching this live has an almost voyeuristic quality. We feel it’s pain and by the song’s conclusion, it has become our own. “Morning Bell” is an oddly communal Radiohead song best experienced from the crowd vantage point. It is also one of the first indicators, along with “In Limbo”, of the band’s capability for unapologetic dark, spookiness- a trait they would continue to address in Amnesiac before diving in headfirst on Hail to the Thief.

Motion Picture Soundtrack- 2001, Paris

“Red wine and sleeping pills…”

“Motion Picture Soundtrack” is an epic dirge of operatic proportions. Thom slowly grinds away on a fuzzy organ initially lamenting his current state- before reaching peace with (you guessed it) the next life. An ultimately transcendent song about the submission to eternal sleep, “Motion Picture Soundtrack” consoles the listener- as if to tell us “Don’t worry about me… I’ll be okay… this isn’t goodbye, just see ya later…” As the album floats to a close, the listener follows the music to the next plane of implied existence. I haven’t even mentioned Jonny’s harpsichord gracefully emerging in the second verse.

B-Side Substitutes

True Love Waits- 2003, MTV $2 Concert

“I’ll drown my beliefs…”

Okay- so technically “True Love Waits” isn’t a B-side because it was never recorded in the studio. On top of this, there were no actual designated Kid A B-sides- just outtakes from the combined Kid A/Amnesiac sessions. But considering “True Love Waits” shows up on the I Might Be Wrong live recordings, I feel it merits inclusion. This acoustic serenade is a painfully romantic lamentation of loss amidst undying hope- it would have felt right at home on In Rainbows. Fans have been clamoring for a proper studio version for years. As of right now though, it only sporadically turns up during live shows.

And there you have it. Next up- Amnesiac. Until then.

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