Sunday, June 19, 2011

This Is Really Happening: Vol. 6- HAIL TO THE THIEF

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.

2 + 2= 5 (The Lukewarm)- 2009, Reading Festival

“Are you such a dreamer?"

Hail to the Thief arrives with the ominous explosion that is “2+2=5”. Amnesiac’s morbid fatalism is largely absent here on Radiohead’s sixth album, replaced with a grim swagger. The title’s irony is that, of course, there is nothing lukewarm about this song whatsoever. Beginning with some truly foreboding guitar/drum interplay, the song ultimately gives way to a rousing Post-Punk climax. Thom was having a vocal off-day during the 2009 Reading Festival- but manages to hitch a ride on the song's energy. Right out of the gate, the band reminds us they are alive. And they have a bone to pick.

Sit Down, Stand Up (Snakes @ Ladders)- 2003, Glastonbury

“Sit down. Stand up.”

Whatever “2+2=5” achieves on the eeriness scale, “Sit Down Stand Up” one-ups it. Beginning with some spooky synth percussion and a haunting xylophone arrangement, Thom wanders around on the piano for several minutes mumbling vague condemnations about life, the universe, and everything. An outstanding mood-setter and live powerhouse, it is rarely performed.

Sail to the Moon (Brush the Cobwebs Out of the Sky)- 2003, Beacon Theatre

“I sucked the moon… I spoke too soon…”

A gorgeous song of cautious suggestion, “Sail to the Moon” is often overshadowed by its bigger brother, Amnesiac’s “Pyramid Song”. Tastefully constructed with particular regards to Phil Selway’s percussive contributions and Jonny’s chord arrangements, it also feels unapologetically intimate without seeming overwrought. Only Radiohead can pull off an optimistic funeral dirge.

Backdrifts (Honeymoon Is Over)- 2003, Summer Sonic, Tokyo

“We’re rotten fruit, we’re damaged goods…”

Like a significant portion of Hail to the Thief, “Backdrifts” translates much better to a live setting than to a studio recording. More than any other Radiohead album, Thief demands space to breathe- and “Backdrifts” is a good example of a song that sounds like it was recorded in too small of a room. But when translated to the stage, it goes from feeling only slight to appropriately slight- despite its overlength.

Go to Sleep (Little Man Being Erased)- 2003, BBC Studios

“Something for the rag and bone man…”

Boasting one of the most mind-bogglingly brilliant Jonny Greenwood solos ever, the 2003 BBC performance is a four minute stick of acoustic dynamite climaxing in a glitchy, electronic mushroom cloud. The song so quickly takes flight once the guitars and drums shift gear midway, it’s easy to forget that “Go to Sleep” begins as Radiohead at their most folksy. It’s easy to envision the foreboding opening verse echoed around a campfire deep in the woods.

Where I End And You Begin (The Sky Is Falling In)- 2003, Eurokenees

“There’s a gap in between…”

With a percussive arrangement strongly reminiscent of Can, “Where I End And You Begin” is equal parts morbid and dance-worthy. It is easy for your mind to conflict with your body when caught up in the fast-paced moodiness- this is, after all, some painfully rhythmic stuff. Bassist Colin Greenwood is on his A-game here as well offering up some subtle masterstrokes.

We Suck Young Blood (Your Time Is Up)- 2003, West Palm Beach

“Are you hungry? Are you sick?”

“We Suck Young Blood” would be an interesting transitional experiment if it weren’t so endless. With the exception of the moment mid-song where it briefly springs to life only to be nobly smothered soon thereafter, “Blood” is a real lurcher. A purposeful lull amidst Thief’s atmospheric madness, it will probably be remembered as the point where the album got so dark, it momentarily went goth. That said- it’s endearing in a way. And watching this rare live clip makes me wish they would incorporate its eccentricities into the live circuit more.

The Gloaming (Softly Open Our Mouths In the Cold)- 2008, Saitama

“Genie let out of the bottle…”

Here is the quintessential example of a Thief recording completely outdone by its live counterpart. The album version of “The Gloaming” seems like a merely odd, consecutive transitional piece following “We Suck Young Blood”- the electro-equivalent to “Treefingers”- albeit interspersed with some of Thom’s more creepy vocal fragments. The live version features these characteristics but pairs them with Colin’s heavy bass during the chorus. Suddenly, we have another member of the Tribal Electro genre (along with “Idioteque” and the upcoming “15 Step”) and an insignificant ambient bridge becomes a popular live staple. Who knew?

There There (The Boney King of Nowhere)- 2003, Glastonbury

“In pitch dark, I go walking in your landscape…”

It is best to probably just watch the above video clip of “There There”. Both the studio and live versions are epic swells of intense majesty. The electric throb of the overamped guitars rattles over the relentless beat. Thom’s lyrics seem to grow organically from the melody- as does the sheer volume of the song itself. When “There There” ultimately explodes into an unforgettable climax, it is clear this is Radiohead at the top of their game. A lesser band would let this song continue for ten minutes or so. Radiohead leaves us gasping for more.

I Will (No Man's Land)- 2003, Hellfloyd

“I will… lay me down…”

An earlier, keyboard-enhanced cut of “I Will” existed pre-Thief. But Radiohead couldn’t make it fit with the other songs from the Kid A/Amnesiac sessions, so they did what any ordinary band would do- they recorded it backwards and used it as the instrumental background to “Like Spinning Plates”. The existing Thief version is an exercise in artistic minimalism- a trait that would recur on 2007's In Rainbows and 2011’s The King of Limbs. Poignant and brief, this live performance exudes warmth despite it’s Thiefian characteristics of death, destruction, and consequences.

A Punchup at a Wedding (No No No No No No No No)- 2003, Beacon Theatre

“I don’t know why you bothered…”

The latter half of Hail to the Thief is often viewed as an afterthought. “There There” reaches such a huge crescendo that the five following tracks have a tendency to feel like an epilogue of sorts. “A Punchup at a Wedding” is a tune that suffers probably the most from this mindset. A leisurely paced groove progression, “Punchup” is essentially a combination of bluesy riffs and black-humored lyrics intermingled with sporadic Thom wailing. It’s a little song that should be bigger.

Myxomatosis (Judge, Jury & Executioner)- 2003 ???

“The mongrel cat came home…”

The enjoyable oddity called “Myxomatosis” is completely its own thing. A fuzzy, distorted bass riff paired with some of Phil’s more sultry percussion, it feels as huge and immediate as “Punchup” feels small and distant. This live version is especially infamous due to Thom jarringly stopping the song halfway through (roughly 2:30 in) because he sees a fan pass out in the first several rows. He doesn’t continue the song until security has carried the unconscious fan away to presumably an ambulance. Once that is taken care of, the band launches back into “Myxomatosis”’s sensory assault. The whole thing is very surreal.

Scatterbrain (As Dead As Leaves)- 2003, Eurockennees

“I’m walking out in a force ten gale…”

Hidden near the bottom of Radiohead’s sixth album is one of their prettiest melodies. On a record overflowing with imagery, “Scatterbrain” is strangely the most vivid song. Echoey, windswept vocals wash over the precise, efficient chord progression. It truly feels as if we are peacefully in the eye of an impending thunderstorm.

A Wolf at the Door (It Girl. Rag Doll)- 2009, Prague

“Drag him out the window…”

Choosing to end Hail to the Thief with an angry, nightmarish waltz feels like the appropriate thing to do- why not? How else would you bring this seething opus to a close? “A Wolf at the Door” is also the first time where we glimpse the flagrantly paranoid stylings of the old Radiohead- a characteristic that Thief has mostly replaced with vibrant anger and upheaval. Additionally, this song is a runner-up to “The Gloaming” in regards to live performances far outshadowing the studio cut. The Thief recording of “Wolf” feels claustrophobic when the song should foam at the mouth. The Prague version features the swagger the song deserves.

And there you have it. Up next- In Rainbows. Until then.

1 comment:

  1. A couple of things:

    1.) You're off on Sail to the Moon. Not a funeral dirge, but a lullaby, specifically directed to Noah (e.g. the ark imagery).
    2.) No B-sides? Thought I'd see a shout out to Gagging Order