Though often maligned as the last resort of the uninspired musician, the cover song is another way we keep air in the lungs of our musical heritage. But for Bay Area music collective UnderCover Presents, which held three sold-out performances of Radiohead's Kid A this past weekend at Rickshaw Stop, organizing shows to cover acclaimed albums does more than honor the original works; it casts the floodlights on emerging local talent.
A quick primer: A few times a year, UnderCover selects a classic album and, with the help of a guest musical director, assigns one song each to a local artist to reinterpret and record. Then the entire album is presented in a live performance where attendees receive a CD of the reimagined work. Past shows have covered Black Sabbath's Paranoid, Nick Drake's Pink Moon, and Pixies' Doolittle.
Of all of the albums spawned by English rock juggernaut Radiohead, Kid A lends itself to the widest range of reinterpretation. It signaled the band's break with its tradition of mostly straightforward rock, which culminated with 1999's masterpiece, OK Computer. Depressed about making another guitar-based album, singer Thom Yorke and the rest of the band began listening almost solely to electronic artists like Aphex Twin, and from this dark hole Kid A was born. L.A. Weekly wrote of the album: "It's the sound of human warmth flooding into a formerly alien space — of Radiohead finally going exactly where they wanted." UnderCover's ten artists seemed to inhabit this space, both natural and otherworldly.
At the Rickshaw, thick layers of pot smoke hugged audience members, who clustered close together like bristles on a wire brush as opener Rob Ewing's Disappear Incompletely started with an unsettling electro-jazz rendition of "Everything in Its Right Place," featuring vocals from Dominique Leone. Gamelan X followed with an inspired take on the minimalist title track, turning it into a richly textured, Balinese-flavored number, replete with the deep hum of gongs, exotic wind instruments, and strings. Noir-pop outfit DRMS performed what it called an abridged, more structured interpretation of "The National Anthem," a shrieking, jazzed-out, free-for-all with an intoxicating bass line. While DRMS certainly hit a groove as the song wore on, its randomly distorted vocals and spacey rhythms only highlighted how much structure (however subtle) is actually embedded in "The National Anthem."
The show hit its stride three songs in. Backed by the impeccable Latin guitar work of Roberto Aguilar, the show's musical director Elizabeth Setzer sang a flamenco arrangement of "How to Disappear Completely," as La Tania danced mesmerizingly onstage. Bathed in a scarlet spotlight and wearing a slinky metallic dress with a deep leg slit, La Tania used her body to visually interpret the music — a profound contrast to the song's theme of invisibility. Next came "Treefingers," which, to quote a conversation overheard at the show, "is no one's favorite song from Kid A," but Gojogo managed to amp up the instrumental track with a fusion of classical Indian and modern jazz. In one of the loudest, most emphatic (and maybe best) performances of the night, Latin hip-hop group Bang Data delivered a fairly literal cover of "Optimistic" (about as close as Kid A comes to a normal rock song), only to surprise everyone with a dub reggae/dancehall-inflected outro that lasted longer than the song itself, as the charismatic vocalist Deuce Eclipse repeated the refrain (not from the original lyrics): And the story goes and goes and goes.
Battlehooch's orchestral rock interpretation of "In Limbo" lost the song's original off-putting arpeggios but kept Yorke's wistful, I'm-barely-here vocals. Beatboxer Kid Beyond killed his cover of "Idioteque" (Kid A's most accessible song) by turning his words into an organic, percussive instrument, and was accompanied by a string ensemble and a DJ who scratched on turntables. The Hurd Ensemble's version of "Morning Bell," impressive in its orchestral detail, occasionally lost its footing with Karina Denike's slightly bluesy vocal delivery, which sometimes distracted from the song's subtleties. Unfortunately, Bells Atlas' creative Afrobeat rendition of "Motion Picture Soundtrack," with its off-key vocals, did not quite retain the song's sad beauty.
Kid A is the sixth album to get the UnderCover treatment and the project's first foray into the 21st century, not to mention electronic music. While UnderCover still favors rock and folk (it'll tackle Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited in July), it's only a matter of time before it ventures into other genres. On the shortlist for future projects, according to UnderCover founder Lyz Luke, are D'Angelo's Voodoo and Michael Jackson's Thriller. If UnderCover can do what it did with Kid A — resurrect the music in a myriad of styles so distant from the original, while keeping the album's soul intact — the transformation of modern classics could prove groundbreaking.