I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings
First Appeared at The Music Box, October 2003, Volume 10, #10
Written by Michael Karpinski
After hitting the trifecta with 1995’s The Bends, 1997’s OK Computer, and 2000’s Kid A, Radiohead found themselves beating something of a dead horse with 2001’s Amnesiac. What had been rumored — in fact, all but promised — to be a return to guitars-front-center, Bends-era rock would ultimately prove to be little more than a Kid A clone with a string of damaged DNA. Mesmerizing as some of the songs most certainly were (Pyramid Song, Like Spinning Plates, I Might Be Wrong), the band’s continued use of keyboards and computers as their basic sonic building-blocks served to confirm a lot of people’s worst fears: that this once all-mighty juggernaut had somehow come untracked — stranding itself in some time-stand-still MTV Land where that creepy computer from fitter happier channeled HAL and played Professor to marooned members of Sigur Rós, Can, and Autechre. Or, to put it more simply: Radiohead, it appeared, had forgotten how to rock.
Perhaps to put just such perceptions to rest, the band released the extended EP I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings hard on Amnesiac’s heels in November 2001. Consisting of seven live tracks from the Kid A/Amnesiac period — as well as one long-time live favorite — the release may have been intended to cast the new tunes in a somewhat less studied, more "organic" light while simultaneously showcasing the band’s consistently stellar stagecraft. If so, then it must be said that I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings only halfway succeeds in its mission.
While opening track The National Anthem buzzes with the same angry, crunching bass that drives the Kid A album-take, it ultimately offers nothing new — and makes no improvement — to the original. To the contrary, as it lacks its recorded counterpart’s signature, punch-drunk brass section, the live version almost can’t help but come across as an incomplete, demo-caliber shadow of itself.
Faring even worse in the translation is the EP’s title track. Such an accessible, riveting listen on Amnesiac, the version offered here suffers from some inexcusably shoddy sonics. Singer Thom Yorke’s vocals are buried too deep to do anything but rot and fossilize, and the overall impression is that recording took place not at an acoustically-friendly European venue — as the liner-notes suggest — but within some subterranean, Siberian wind-tunnel once used in the testing of crappy Soviet sedans.
Next up is the curiously ubiquitous Morning Bell — a song the band is obviously quite fond of, seeing as how it keeps reappearing, release after release after release. Too bad, too, because there’s always been something a bit stunted about the thing. Though sound quality and performance are back up to par here, the song’s only truly memorable elements remain drummer Phil Selway’s crisp-as-artillery drum-fills and Yorke’s Swiftean solution to the post-split custody scrum: "Cut the kids in half... cut the kids in half...."
Then, just when things are looking their irredeemably bleakest, the sterling Like Spinning Plates appears like a saving-grace angel. All hiss-and-sizzle, spacey atmospherics on Amnesiac, the song, here, is stripped to a simple, repetitive piano-figure and some understated stings of synthesizer. Over this, Yorke’s trademark, brittle-boy-lost falsetto soars to some dark, cold-shouldered corner of the cosmos: "My body’s floating down the mighty river...." And never has drowning seemed so beautifully peaceful or so soulful a surrender.
If anything, the slinky, propulsive Idioteque — Kid A’s intergalactic-Casio tip-of-the-cap to "I-think-I-Can... I-think-I-Can" Krautrock — manages to build on its predecessor’s power. Here again, Selway’s possessed-by-demons drumming lays the groundwork while Yorke rants like some cocaine-and-Revelation-crazed cult leader channeling Chicken Licken. Armageddon it is, indeed.
Idioteque’s swirling storm-surge flows uninterrupted into the obsessive-compulsive, Martha Stewart-in-the-madhouse mantra Everything in Its Right Place — here extended and expanded for a full surround-sound meltdown. Still, sinister as it is, the mood is also somehow soothing — as though Idioteque’s cocaine-and-Revelation-crazed cult leader has quaffed a quart of Quaaludes and started circulating the black Nike cross-trainers for that long, last walk to the Kool-Aid station. Yet another bittersweet surrender — something for which this band has always had an unerring knack.
Finally, after a suitably intense rendition of the anti-capitalist Dollars and Cents, the spotlight shifts to a solo Yorke, armed with just an acoustic guitar and one last song up his sleeve. This is True Love Waits — a gentle gem never before available on an official release. Yorke’s performance is quietly devastating — slicing through the sentimental claptrap that accrues to "love" like maggots to meat, yet speaking most eloquently to that desperate, pathetic ambivalence that murmurs just below its surface: Leave me alone... don’t leave me alone... leave me alone... never leave me alone....
For die-hard, dyed-in-the-wool Radiohead fans, I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings will no doubt be considered a critical addition to their collections. For the somewhat less fervently faithful, however, the EP may well prove too brief and uneven an example of the group’s ability to rock the house, and consequently it won’t make much of an impression. For these doubting-Thom dissenters, there is always The Bends — the ostensible beginning of Radiohead’s rise, and a record that — most of the time, at least — plants the guitars front-center and relegates the keyboards and computers to dash-of-color background status.
As for traversing the rest of the Radiohead repertoire... that can, admittedly, require a bit of difficult, uphill listening. But the journey, most certainly, is worth it. For there’s gold in them hills, just ripe for the striking. ½
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2003 The Music Box