True Love Waits: Christopher O’Riley Plays Radiohead – Christopher O’Riley (2003)

True Love Waits: Christopher O'Riley Plays Radiohead cover

True Love Waits: Christopher O’Riley Plays Radiohead cover

It’s not often that classical music and alternative rock come together in any meaningful way. Phillip Glass might be one of the few composers whose work might straddle the edges of that definition. The few composers who even acknolodge non classical music do it in tribute to pop or jazz.

Of those classical composers who would re-imagine alternative rock songs, very few can match Christopher O’Riley and his obsession with Radiohead. An accomplished classical pianist in his own right, O’Riley is the host of the popular NPR show From The Top.

On his show he often features young up and coming classical musicians who were likely to listen to the kind of rock music that O’Riley himself pays tribute to. Besides, anyone practicing classical piano would probably enjoy taking a break from the likes of an acient Frédéric Chopin or Franz Liszt songbook.

On his second album (but first Radiohead tribute), True Love Waits: Christopher O’Riley Plays Radiohead , O’ Riley covers an ecletic variety of Radiohead songs that span their catalog. Even the cover art is a tribute of a sorts, combining graphic elements of OK Computer, Kid A and Amnesiac. Musically, familiar hits like “Karma Police” are mixed in with more experimental material like “Thinking About You”. All these songs got a classical piano treatment.

Interestingly many of the songs in their original versions feature the complex layered sound that Radiohead had begun to develop by 2000 with their Kid A album. O’Riley handles this layered sound approach with skillful piano playing that suggests the sound of two pianists playing at the same time. The considerable skill and dexterity needed to do justice to songs like “Thinking About You” and “You” alone makes True Love Waits… worth hearing for fans of classical piano and Radiohead.

The classical treatment strips away much of the mystique of the originals and in its place adds a clean elegance that stresses and sometimes reveals hidden melodies. If you are one of those people who can’t get enough Radiohead, True Love Waits… offers an interesting alternative to your usual fix.

O’Riley offers alternative rock fans a great way to slowly ease into the world of classical music without the stigma of having bought a Windham Hill record. If that’s not enough to interest you in the more progressive forms of classical music, there’s always Phillip Glass and Steve Reich.

Glass revisited David Bowie’s Hero album (With Bowie) in 1997, but to date no classical musician (that I’m aware of) has touched Radiohead’s or any other alt rock band’s material like Christopher O’Riley.

The Joshua Tree – U2 (1987)

The Joshua Tree album cover

The Joshua Tree album cover

Anyone who’d been following U2 since their beginning, would know that their fifth (studio) album was the beginning of superstardom. From The Joshua Tree on, U2 went from scruffy college rock favorite to big rock superstars on the order of Bruce Springsteen or Van Halen.

Produced by Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, The Joshua Tree would feature less artsy ambient noises and more all out anthem rock, with big hooks and more of Bono’s wailing voice. It was a conflicting album in many ways, its overall message is one of praise and condemnation of the American way, while being deeply influenced by its music and culture.

To top it all off , the added layer of implied spirituality made Bono a (pretentious) holy man in the eyes of some critics and fans. The expanded scope gained the band many new followers thanks to big uplifting songs like “Where the Streets Have No Name”, a song that marks an increasing fascination with all things black and American.

The big sounds-capes crafted for this record are in keeping with Lanois and Eno’s production style, a style that favored big vistas. The compressed wind up drama of “With or Without You” or “One Tree Hill” perfectly framed Bono’s voice.  The Edge’s guitar no longer fronted the wall of sound of the past, but still retained some of the eerie atmospherics of previous work. Some of the ambiance was due to Mark Flood who was the recording engineer for The Joshua Tree sessions. Flood would be joined by familiar names in the studio like Steve Lillywhite.

This is by far the biggest of U2’s albums, due to its diversity and very strong compositions. Irish and American soul influences play a pivotal part in shaping the band’s evolution. No longer just a Irish protest band, U2 became the face of international humanitarian issues, or Bono’s causes gained new-found notoriety thanks to the band’s rising stature. U2 had become the poster boys of international humanitarian rock .

In condemnation of greed and the international corporate structure, U2 began to resort to gospel influences as musical salvation. It was not surprising that a few of The Joshua Tree‘s songs were widely admired by black church choir directors. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” had all the energy of an old gospel song. Like Daniel Lanois’ “The Maker”, “I Still…”  had the effect of being instantly vintage. The actual song featured a gospel choir-like chorus and would be replicated in concert with a real choir (Harlem Gospel Choir and New Voices of Freedom) at a 1987 concert in New York City. Oddly enough, many church communities were well aware of U2 and openly embraced Bono’s message of peace, love and tolerance.

“With or Without You” became U2’s first US #1 hit. From there they were as big as Bruce Springsteen and would not cool off for nearly a decade. Re-issued and remastered on a few occasions, The Joshua Tree has multiple cover style variations. All of them feature the band in a Anton Corbijn photograph in the Mojave Desert. Like the album itself, the cover is considered one of the best cover designs of all time (really?). The band is still making compelling music, but has resorted to gimmicks to distribute it lately. This would have been unimaginable for the U2 of 1987. Thats the U2 that a lot of fans still miss.

Acadie – Daniel Lanois (1989)

One of two cover designs for Acadie

One of two cover designs for Acadie

Every sense Phil Spector and John Martin helped craft the direction of the Beatles, the role of the producer in music has gained a higher profile. During the ’80s few were as hot as Daniel Lanois . After producing albums for Peter Gabriel, Emmylou Harris and U2, he became one of the most sought after names in music. His distinct approach to production gave any material he touched a grounded earthy yet otherworldly touch.

His two U2 projects, The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree raised him to the level of U2 itself, making Lanois something like a phantom 5th member of the Irish rock band. So when the time came around late in the decade for Lanios to release his own material, there was much anticipation. After all this was the man who made Emmylou Harris and Bob Dylan cool again.

The resulting album Acadie, neatly sums up the gritty and earthy style Lanois had been refining for more than half a decade. Recorded in New Orleans, it features songs sung in French and English (or sometimes both). Those compositions like “O Marie” or “Jolie Louise” have a cartoonish feel to them, a kind of old world charm like what one might hear in the crowded markets of Paris. Those songs reveal a lighter side of the Lanois sound.

Other material more consistent with the production work he built his reputation on is where he really shines as an artist. With a voice that can be as passionate as Bono’s, Lanois reveals his trademark style with haunting melodies on “The Maker”, one of the album’s standout tracks and only single. Aaron Nevil (normally a voice I can’t stand) adds depth and soul to a song that could easily be mistaken for an old hym.

Lanois was also well versed in extracting a facade of spirituality from the artist he worked with. In his own music, a neo-gospel flair was often the end result. The Joshua Tree was a great example of this implied spirituality.

If at times Acadie sounded like a U2 album it was by design. Both Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr. are credited as well as longtime collaborator Brian Eno. There were other luminaries involved with the project including the other Nevil brother Art.

It was Aaron Nevil’s delivery on the Lanois version of “Amazing Grace” that really set the tone of the album beyond the festive French language songs on Acadie. The song, like others shows Lanois uncanny ability to turn otherwise cold sounding synthesizers into warm earthy instruments of spiritual connection.

This was Lanois at the height of his creative powers. His sound to me was like to loose dirt, but not in a bad way. The mystic and gritty nature of his productions made for a distinctive sound that revealed both soulful and progressive impulses – like unearthing something old and ancient. No song better illustrated this sound than “The Maker”. It was one of the best singles of 1989 and should have charted higher just on his affiliation with U2 alone.

So as it stands Acadie will likely be one of those gems that most new fans of Peter Gabriel or U2 will discover on their own thanks to smart playlists form always connected internet sources. It’s actually a great time to be a music fan.

Night Train – Keane (2010)

Night Train cover art

Night Train cover art

Along the lines of Young the Giant, there were other bands that recall the exuberance of ’90s pop rock. England’s Keane started out strong with soft ballads and near dance rock. Its first three albums, Hopes and Fears (2004), Under the Iron Sea (2006) and Perfect Symmetry (2008) establish the band as bona-fide hit makers in their native England.

By Under the Iron Sea, the band had become a chart fixture in America too, reaching as high as #4 on Billboard’s Album chart. While Tom Chaplin was not household name in America, his flexible voice that sounded somewhere between Bono and Coldplay’s Chris Martin was bound to make it in America. Expanding their musical vocabulary to include electronica as on Under the Iron Sea must have been key to American acceptance.

So it came a surprise that their next album (technically an EP) was a complete reinvention of their sound. Night Train was something of a through back to various ’80s pop styles. In addition to sounding distinctly retro on the U2-like “Clear Skies” or the Human League meets Howard Jones pop of “Ishin Denshn”, the album featured a Somali rapper called K’Naan.

The hip hop accents actually worked, especially on “Looking Back” with its Rocky soundtrack rif. Despite all the attempts at Justin Timberlaking their sound, it was rock-based songs like “Your Love” that were among the albums best. Interestingly, Keanes’s attempt to branch out into the popular dance/hip hop world resulted in one of its smallest selling albums. It was a bold experiment because to the uninitiated, Night Train contains everything good about Keane in one neat little package.

The bands next album, Strangeland was back to basics. In returning to their original sound, they were once again the chart topping band that they were before Night Train. It’s always nice to see bands like Keane take chances. In the profitable realm of pop rock that seldom ever happens.

Double Fantasy – John Lennon and Yoko Ono (1980)

Double Fantasy album cover

Double Fantasy album cover

I grew into a Beatles fan over a long period of time. It seemed that the further along I went with modern music, the more I would discover that many of the songs I liked were actually written by either Paul McCartney or John Lennon. I was never really good at distinguishing McCartney’s influence vs. Lennon’s until much later in life.

I had followed McCartney’s music casually from my childhood memories of Wings right through the Give My Regards to Broadway era of the ’80s. Lennon on the other hand was a different story. I remember hearing his first solo album and not really likeing it.
So when John Lennon came out of his little retirement in 1980 with Double Fantasy, I was not interested at first. After hearing the excellent “Woman” and “Watching the Wheels Go Round” I’d thought I’d take the plunge. Hell, I did not even mind that Yoko Ono was attached to the project.

Not even two songs into the album I thought “what the hell!”. I had stumbled upon the first of a few Yoko Ono songs. It became clear that this album had a dual personality. Double Fantasy was actually two separate albums stylistically with Lennon’s somewhat backward leaning compositions against Ono’s more experimental and forward leaning pop.

The ideal was to show how aligned they were as a couple, but in reality it produced an album with a disruptive flow and long lasting after effects in surprising ways. Released without Ono’s material, it might have been an excellent pop album for Lennon. Released with just Ono’s songs, it likely would have been one of those albums many would claim to have been influenced by, but not paid much attention to until years later.

All of Lennon’s influences show up in some form or another here with the bluesy “I’m Losing You” and the 1950s-like “(Just Like) Starting Over”. There were a few songs where both Ono and Lennon perform together like “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)”. The song about their new born son Sean was a nice fusion of Eastern and Western styles.

Despite the instant accessibility of the Lennon songs, I still thought I had made an $8 mistake. Ono’s voice was well…not great. Stylistically her off key delivery was only made palatable to me because it was often mixed with humor and a strange funk free quirkiness. After awhile I got tired of skipping over tracks on my turntable and began to listen to all of the album in its weird splendor.

That’s when I would over time come to appreciate Double Fantasy as a window on the future of girl rock. Ironically Lennon claimed to be compelled to cut a record after hearing the B52s while sailing. He thought they reminded him of Yoko Ono’s music. In reality it may have been the huge success of “Coming Up” that sealed the deal, although both Double Fantasy and McCartney II were experimental in their own right. On Double Fantasy it would be Yoko Ono ironically who would be the trailblazer.

Now it’s easy to see that the quirky melodies and chords changes of the B52 in some of Ono’s music. More specifically Ono must have influenced a wide range of female artists like Shonen Knife, Cibo Matto, Bjork and many others.
Although constrained, Double Fantasy would be considered Lennon’s shining moment only after his death. Initially it got mixed reviews (mostly because of Ono’s involvement). So it would seem that the albums effect of the critics was not unlike my initial impression – separate but equal.

McCartney II – Paul McCartney (1980)

McCartney II album cover

McCartney II album cover

Before the duo of Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze were being touted as the next Paul McCartney, the ex Beatle himself was busying crafting the next version of himself, if only for one album.
McCartney II was the second solo album from McCartney released under his own name. Like the first one from 1970, II was a completely self recorded affair and was about as far apart from the songwriting bond McCartney formed with John Lennon as a Beatle as he could get. Made at McCartney’s Scottish farm estate, he sat on the recordings for more than a year. A series of unfortunate events (busted for drug possession in Japan) would cause him to reconsider his old recordings.

McCartney II was released while Paul’s other project Wings was still together. That band would break up about a year later. As the differences between Lennon and McCartney grew further apart, the two would openly criticize each other’s work. It was mostly Lennon though, who’s bitter Yoko Ono’s Plastic Band was released the same year as McCartney in 1970By 1980, McCartney’s music oddly enough would more Human League than Help!
Critics had complained of McCartney’s formulaic pop in the past, although his output with Wings was some of the best rock n roll of the ’70s. McCartney would not only acknowledging, but embrace the new wave movement securing his ability to be part of the musical “in crowd”.

McCartney II was unlike anything Paul had done up to that point. Since then he has recorded a few electronic albums that were symphonic in nature, but McCartney was a stab at experimental pop/rock.
This album attracted my attention based on its most popular single. The song “Coming Up” was beginning to sound vaguely familiar to fans of Wings, as it was also released as a single for that band in the UK. In America, the sassy sped up tempo of “Coming Up” was both funky and surprisingly soulful with McCartney doing a good approximation of the ‘Memphis Sound’. The tight bass alone was enough to make my childhood self gain newfound respect for McCartney. The song reached #1 in both America and Canada. I even remember one of the local R&B stations in my hometown playing the song on occasion – it was that funky. The music video featured Paul in multiple roles which was fitting considering that he played all the instruments during the recording of the album.

“Coming Up” was more conventional and one of a few songs that could have been on any one of Wing’s albums. One of those songs “On the Way” was a bluesy reminder that McCartney was schooled in popular black American musical styles. At least two other songs “One of these Days” and “Waterfalls” were crafted nearly in the Beatles tradition of Let it Be….Naked with stripped down arrangements.
Where “Waterfalls” was subtle in its use of electronics, the zany “Temporary Secretary” went all out with a Kraftwerk like wash of keyboards. The song’s goofy nature diminishes any dystopian man vs. machine imagery usually associated with the style as McCartney makes silly sounds in an effort to mock a robot. It’s interesting coming from the greatest songwriter from the greatest rock band in history, but ultimately it proved to be corny and dated sounding.

The fact that McCartney would make such an album in amazing in itself. Very few flagship artists like himself would ever care to venture outside of their comfort zone to release so experimental an album with mixed results. On the radio in America, it was “Coming Up” that would be the only single from this album. In Europe “Waterfalls” was a successful second single.  McCartney had done what he intended by reminding audiences that he was one of rock’s most talented and versatile artists, even if John Lennon did not always think so. McCartney II may have been one of the reasons Lennon came out of his five year seclusion to record again. The album has been re-released at least twice recently, even remastered for those willing to hear the results of this experiment themselves.

Sweets From a Stranger – Squeeze (1982)

Sweets From a Stranger album cover

Sweets From a Stranger album cover

What becomes a legend most? For the English new wave band Squeeze, it was the excellent East Side Story. As their breakout album in America, it spawned the band’s first U.S. hit “Tempted.” A successful whirlwind tour followed, but Squeeze was still unknown to many on this side of the Atlantic.

In an attempt to cash in on the momentum of East Side Story, not a year went by before the band was back in the studio. The result was Sweets From a Stranger. Often called rushed and tired sounding, it was a snapshot of a band that had grown weary of record-tour cycle. I’ve heard it referred to as the ‘hangover album’.

Nearly all of its 12 songs have a remorseful gloom to them, often from the aftermath of a alcohol binge. Some of the charm of East Side Story was still intact however. The emphasis on vintage American soul and blues remained one of the band’s trademarks. That combined with the better than average songwriting of Chris Difford and Glenn Tillbrook, made Squeeze on of the better new wave bands from England who were not obsessed with synths and drum machines.

The best of these vintage tinted songs was “Tempted”. As one of the first new music videos to play on MTV, it was my introduction to the band. The video’s director would go on to produce Micheal Jackson’s famous “Billy Jean” video.  The Motown vibe that “Tempted” gave was made sweeter by the inclusion of Elvis Costello and Paul Young singing backup.

Although “Tempted” was the albums best known track, Sweets From a Stranger was rather diverse in its homage to past musical styles. “When the Hangover Strikes” (one of those alcohol related songs) was the band version of jazz, complete with a lush string section.

Despite the backward looking nature of the album, there were a few songs that pointed to the future direction the band would eventually land. “On to the Dance Floor” was a preview of the playful rhythm of “Hourglass” one of the band’s last US hits from 1987’s Babylon and On.

There were no less than two re-issues of Sweets From a Stranger, each with extra tracks. I have not heard these extras yet, but I doubt they fulfill the potential of Chris and Glen towards Beatle status. That was what critics were saying after East Side Story.

Squeeze would break up, if only for a short time while Difford and Tilbrook would record their excellent self titled solo album. It was considered my many to be the 6th Squeeze recording and brought Difford- Tilbrook closest to their potential as the new  Lennon and McCartney. Paul Craddock the band’s keyboardist and star of “Tempted” had already left after East Side Story  to start his own solo career.


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