Sunday, July 25, 2010

Cool as a Uke: Amanda Palmer Plays Radiohead

Cover of Amanda Palmer recordOr to give it its full, splendidly retro title: Amanda Palmer Performs the Popular Hits of Radiohead on Her Magical Ukulele, in which the newly-liberated-from-major-label-hell Palmer tackles six songs by prog-indie mopesters Radiohead. Perhaps it is not such a stretch, as the Oxford band share Ms. Palmer's penchant for pay-as-you-like releases: this one is available for download at 84 cents and up, to pay for licencing and admin costs. Anything above the minimum goes to Palmer and the other musicians.

So, it's totally DIY, direct selling, which is a natural progression of Palmer's online adventuring, which includes active Tweeting, aggressive merchandising and irregular webcasting. This past week, for example, she delivered a marvellously ramshackle webcast to launch the record, highlights of which were a performance of her song "Gaga, Palmer, Madonna" in the bath, as well as two versions of "Creep", one tense and a bit detached, the other rather more intimate, if tinged with fatigue. It was a gripping, if chaotic, set.

So, what do you get for your 84 cents' worth? Well, for me, the first two cuts are the weakest. "Fake Plastic Trees" and "High and Dry" sound a bit detached, as if she is still warming up. "No Surprises" sounds as if she is too close to the mic, and her downward vocal swoops are a bit melodramatic for my taste. This is a performer steeped in the stage tradition, with charisma to burn. But, these recordings are not her finest work.

Things get much more interesting on "Idioteque". There is intriguing online footage of her recording this in Australia, and the live version on the webcast was also a standout, featuring her musician chums Cormac Bride and Molly on vocals and piano. Palmer (or AFP, as she prefers to be known) also contributed some discordant percussion by striking the piano strings. On record, this song works beautifully, emotionally, and technically (if you see what I mean), whereas the preceding ones seemed almost Palmer-by-rote.

Then there are two versions of "Creep" to contend with. Having seen her perform it on ukulele earlier this year in Vienna, I am well aware how brilliantly this song works in a live setting. The album contains a soundchecked version, as well as a live one, neither of them as good as in Vienna, but what can you do? Given that the soundcheck version is parenthesised as "hungover in Berlin", one might view it with suspicion, but it actually adds a great deal of pathos to hear Palmer's rather strained vocal on the high notes. She has impressive breath control, to say the least.

In between the two "Creep"s is a piano and strings version of "Exit Music (for a Film)", the dark, reflective song with which she closed the webcast in fine style.

It will be interesting to see how Palmer negotiates the post-record label digital future. As she explained in her blog: "This whole radiohead release is a GRAND EXPERIMENT. it’s my first self-release off the label. i have no idea how the hell it’s gonna go and i’m not claiming to know what the answers are. i’m figuring out how to do this as i go along, and you’re helping me do it."

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