Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Amanda Palmer + Ukulele + Radiohead = success

Amanda Palmer Performs the Popular Hits of Radiohead on Her Magical Ukulele is Amanda Fucking Palmer's first full release since leaving Roadrunner Records, the six-year home of her band the Dresden Dolls and her solo project. She had a tumultuous relationship with the label, who supported the Dolls in full when they released their debut but left the band in the dark immediately after the release of their second album. Now she's releasing an EP of Radiohead covers. On ukulele. And it only costs 84 cents, unless you want to donate more. Buy it.

AFP has a very polarizing voice. It's very deep for a female singer, and her sort of brash style goes against classical music thinking. My brother (who's in a choir) absolutely despises her, but I love it. Being both a big Dresden Dolls fan and a big Radiohead fan, I went into this expecting a lot. Let's take a gander at the EP, track by track. The links in the titles go to the original Radiohead songs.

  1. "Fake Plastic Trees" - It's a solid cover, but it's a shame the EP starts with this song--it's very direct and not changed up from the original very much, other than that it's played on a uke.
  2. "High and Dry" - Another slow song from The Bends. The fact that Radiohead's early music translates so easily to ukulele makes it not as interesting as I'd hope.
  3. "No Surprises" - This one's from OK Computer, but no surprises here. I'm getting a bit disappointed at this point.
  4. "Idioteque" - Finally. This song kicks ass. Partially because Kid A is lightyears ahead of Radiohead's previous work, but also because the more complex composition leads to much more interesting uke/piano/vocal work by AFP. This is the epic cover I was waiting for. It makes up for the three "just okay" songs before it. I'll go through a new phase a week from now, but as of this writing, the "Idioteque" cover is my favorite track on the EP.
  5. "Creep" (Hungover at Soundcheck in Berlin) - I was worried about this, because "Creep" is one of my least favorite Radiohead songs. It's off Pablo Honey, their first album, which is amateur at best. On top of that, it's one of their most popular singles, probably for a lot of the same "pop sensibilities" reasons I dislike it. But AFP pulls it off magnificently. This is the only live track on the album, recorded at a soundcheck before a show. Before she begins, AFP laments, "This is the saddest room I've ever played to." And the song is beautiful. It reminds me of "Over the Rainbow / What a Wonderful World" by Israel Kamakawiwo Ľole, which was probably the first ukulele song I ever purchased on iTunes. I'd go so far as to say I like Amanda Palmer's version of "Creep" more than Radiohead's original song.
  6. "Exit Music (for a Film)" - I was ecstatic to see this song on the track listing. It's the only song on this album that wasn't a hit single (I know they didn't release any Kid A singles, but "Idioteque" is arguably its most famous song), and it's a fantastic way to end the cover album. This is the most un-ukulele song on the EP, featuring piano heavily, but it keeps the dark, brooding tone of the original song with a very AFP-esque twist.

If you buy the EP from her website you get a bonus track, "Creep" (Live in Prague), but it's not "officially" part of the album so I'm not taking it into account when judging the work as a whole. As an aside, it's a good track, but not as great as her "Hungover at Soundcheck in Berlin" version. Anyway, the first half of Amanda Palmer Performs the Popular Hits of Radiohead on Her Magical Ukulele is only okay, but the second half more than compensates. And it's all only 84 cents, cheaper than a single song on iTunes, so I don't know why you wouldn't buy this album. Buy this album.

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