“Radio (in my) Head”

5 stars (out of 5)

0

RIMH Album coverI first heard about the Radio (in my) Head project over a year ago when I met up with a couple of the people involved in putting the album together.  It’s fair to say that it’s been a fairly long flash-to-bang time, but the end result certainly is a cracker (sorry).   We’ve been publishing fairly regular updates on the album’s progress and reviews of the singles released so far (as well as a few unrelated singles from the artists involved), so the final release could have been an anti-climax; it isn’t, because this is a very, very good album.  Normally, I’d give you a bit of background on the artists, but there are eleven of them, so you can find all you need to know here.  I try to avoid track-by-track reviews as well, but there really isn’t any choice here, so I’ll start at the beginning, leaving out the songs we’ve already reviewed as singles.

The opening track, “The National Anthem” by STRNGRS, which eases the listener into the album doesn’t depart radically from the “Kid A” original but replaces the funk groove with a rockier, heavier feel, a bass sound that wouldn’t be out of place on a Kasabian track and a vocal with more than a nod in the direction of Brian Molko.  You just know that Black Casino and the Ghost will put their own very individual stamp on “Packt like Sardines in Crushed Tin Box” with an incredibly heavy bassline and Elisa Zoot’s breathy but powerful vocals driving the song along; it doesn’t disappoint.

Stoneface Travellers are the first band to really make a song their own with a version of “My Iron Lung” that replaces the original’s “Dear Prudence/ Lucy in the Sky…” guitar sounds with straight ahead blues riffing.  Where the original breaks down into a noisy middle section, this becomes quieter ahead of an extended solo from Emile Gerber.  It’s the first radically different version on the album.  Yoya’s take on “Wolf at the Door” replaces the mainly acoustic instrumentation of the original with samples played backwards and forwards, loads of electronic sounds and a vocal which goes from pure to fractured in the space of one line; it took Marianne Faithfull twenty-five years to do that.

There are good, and very good vocal performances on the first half of the album, but the first truly outstanding vocal is on Amy Hannam’s version of “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”.  The song builds gradually from a chiming guitar intro with the piano providing the bass and a very close-miked vocal which demonstrates the quality and power of Amy’s voice, particularly when joined by the perfect harmonies in the chorus.  It has a very 70s prog feel at times; there’s a passage where the vocal is reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky” and the piano is straight out of “Tubular Bells”.  And, yes, it does fade out.  Skeye’s version of “Karma Police” again has a retro feel using traditional rock band instrumentation and adding organ to the mix in traditional 70s style.  The vocal is pure and clear until pushed hard when it becomes more raw and rocky and it’s another song stamped with the style of the performer.

Malin Andersson’s version of “Exit Music (For a Film)” has electric and acoustic guitars providing the backing for Malin’s breathy vocal (close-miked again) before adding a violin, in contrast to the original’s drums and synths in the final third of the song ; it’s another excellent version.  Alexey Zelensky tackles the only non-album track of the project, “Staircase”, which was released on “The Daily Mail” single.  Many of the elements of the arrangement are similar to the original, including the UK garage/drum ‘n’ bass drum patterns and chiming guitars but Alexey adds some powerful multi-tracked lead and backing vocals and guitar.  And I think you can guess what’s coming at the end of the album.

The closer is Bethan Mills’ version of “Creep” and it’s a classic.  I must admit to hearing a demo version of this a few months ago and it’s been really difficult to keep this one secret; it’s a powerful and original take on the song that Thom Yorke seems to hate so much now.  The song opens with understated piano before Bethan’s (close-miked again), intimate vocal comes in.  Drums and bass kick in after the first chorus, but the vocal still punches through the arrangement.  There’s a breakdown back to the opening arrangement on the “Whatever makes you happy…” verse before an epic finish featuring a big guitar solo with squalls of controlled feedback drop out to leave a plaintive vocal to end the song.  I’m a huge fan of the Chrissie Hynde unplugged version of “Creep”, but I think this version just shades it in a straight fight.

So, it could have easily been a bunch of tired retreads of Radiohead songs but it’s much, much more than that.  Project curator John O’Sullivan has pulled together a bunch of people from all over the world to put their own stamp on their favourite Radiohead songs.  Listening to the album for the first time, you have no idea of what’s coming next and the surprises are all pleasant.  There aren’t any average tracks here; they’re all well thought-out and very well performed.  My personal highlights are Amy Hannam’s version of “Street Spirit” and Bethan Mills’ version of “Creep”, but I’ll happily listen to any song on this album.

The good news is that from October 29, you can hear the album in all its glory by downloading it on iTunes here.

What are the odds on Portis(in my)Head next?