Review Summary: Kachina
I am still fascinated by Sun Kil Moon's Modest Mouse cover album Tiny Cities. They made one of the most unique bands in the world even more unique by giving them an acoustic song, putting more emphasis on their song lyrics, and turning the goofy and sarcastic side of Modest Mouse into a beautiful and soulful side. I am probably going to end up considering that cover album a classic album because it made five "average" Modest Mouse songs into classics ("Space Travel is Boring is one of the catchiest songs I have heard in a long time, "Trucker's Atlas is so damn beautiful and even borderline romantic, "Neverending Math Equation" is one of the finest folk covers I have ever heard, "Jesus Christ Was An Only Child" is one of the albums more emotional songs, and "Ocean Breathes Salty" might end up being one of my favorite songs of all-time,) it made songs that were harsh and sarcastic beautiful and romantic, it gave a band that didn't have much of a soul another side, and it completely changed my thoughts on covers and the cover album in general.
But when I listen to Sun Kil Moon's original works I notice that it just isn't quite the same as Tiny Cities. Their other work isn't quite as emotional, isn't quite as beautiful, isn't quite as consistent, and definitely isn't as close to being as memorable. I have often wondered since I heard Tiny Cities why Sun Kil Moon hasn't approached their original work like they approached Tiny Cities. Why can't all of their music be as beautiful and gut wrenching as "Ocean Breathes Salty" is? Why can't all of their music be as catchy and unassuming as "Neverending Math Equation" is? Why can't all of their music have a weird sort of romanticism that "Trucker's Atlas" has? Why can't all of their music be as stripped down and genuine as this entire album? Is it impossible for a band to approach an original album like they would a cover album? Could Sun Kil Moon not honor Modest Mouse without covering them? Is it impossible for an artist to create an "indirect cover album?" Meaning is it impossible for an artist to pay tribute to a band without using their chords, words, or harmonies? Basically could another artist have a Tiny Cities type of album but make it using their own words, instrumentation, and ideas?
I always thought that if I ever listened to this album it would have to be a sort of "Disney" version of what I was looking for. It would have to be something cliche like a bunch of pop singers "capturing the spirit of Michael Jackson," a country artist writing an EP because of the huge impact Dolly Parton's boob job(s) have had on her decision making, someone honoring Whitney Houston by doing a lot of crack before rehearsing every new song on their new album, or someone saying they were making an album that was going to be a "21st century Beatles album." No one could ever make an "indirect cover album" of any of my favorite works because that would just be I always thought they would just be to "untouchable." It would take to long to make a "indirect cover album" of one of my favorite bands and it probably wouldn't be worth the work or the pain. Most of my favorite bands probably were not going to be paid tribute to, but I knew of one band for sure that I just knew no one would ever make a "indirect cover" album of:
I mean how hard would this album be to make? You would have to put yourself in the mind of Thom Yorke, you would have to make every song have a different feel, you would have to pay tribute to six totally different sounding albums (Ok Computer-The King of Limbs,) you would have to have be extremely talented, and you would have to make an album that was nearly flawless. If someone made an "indirect cover album" of Radiohead songs then that means they are either completely nuts or one of the most ballsy and talented musicians of 2012. No one would ever pay tribute to my favorite band unless they were clinically insane.
I thought no one would give Radiohead the original Tiny Cities treatment until I heard Drew Smith's 2012 album The Secret Languages. Drew Smith has created an album full of original lyrics, original sounds, and original atmospheres that could easily pass as a "stripped down" version of a Radiohead album. The album is the darker older brother of The Bends, it is the less epic but more in touch version of Ok Computer, it is the folky version of Hail To Thief, and it is a version of The King of Limbs that actually allows the listener to connect to it. Smith was able to create a "indirect cover album" of Radiohead by using his vocals, his instrumentation, his songs, and the atmospheres of his song.
The first reason Smith was able to create the perfect "indirect cover album" of Radiohead is because he sounds like the American Thom Yorke. His voice can go to heights that the human mind almost finds impossible to conceive, he sometimes mumbles without really meaning to, he has a weird since of "vunerability" in his vocals, and his voice always seems to match the instrumentation of the songs well. On "Frozen Still," he sounds like he is sounding like the In Rainbows version of Yorke: he seems to be unsure of himself but confident in his future, he seems to be in a more aggressive mood then he usually is, and he seems to be controlling what the music sounds like instead of letting the music control what he is singing. On "Smoke and Mirrors" Smith sounds like the Amnesiac version of Yorke: his vocals say that he wants to dance but he is so scared that he would almost rather live "Life In A Glasshouse," he wants a "new light" in his life but he struggles with the fact that he just "Might Be Wrong," and he wants to take over the world but he almost feels like he would end up riding "ghost horses" if that happened. "River So Deep" is Smith paying tribute to the Hail To The Thief version of Thom: he sounds angry at the world and almost "Scatterbrain," he sounds like he just wants to get out of the world and "Sail To The Moon," and he sounds like he wants to "Suck Young Blood" because he feels like the new generation is ruining the world. "Grotesque" is Smith paying tribute to almost every version of Thom Yorke: he pays tribute to the rocky and insecure version presented to us on The Bends, the maniac depressive version presented to us on Ok Computer, the overwhelmed and almost frightened version presented to us on Kid A and Kid B (aka Amnesiac,) the angry and grumpy version presented to us on Hail To The Thief, the re energized and reevaluated version presented to us on In Rainbows, and the atmospheric and distant version presented to us on The King of Limbs. Smith just doesn't do a good job of sounding like Yorke (hell any fat kid in the shower singing "Creep" can do that,) but he understands the "history" of Yorke's vocals and he makes sure that he pays tribute to each one of Yorke's vocal stylings throughout the album.
The album also sounds like a stripped down version of a Radiohead album. "The Frozen Still" has the "fast picking acoustic" feel of "Faust Arp" combined with the dark feeling of "Street Spirit" (not the light hearted feeling of "Skeet Spiritz" though,) "Bang Bang" sounds like a lighter version of "I Will" combine with a more fast paced version of "Knives Out," "Kachina" sounds like a combination of the dancy feel of "Down Is The New Up" and the angry feeling of "Electroneering," "Smoke and Mirrors" is a combination of the assertiveness of "15 Step" with the relaxed feel of "The Daily Mail," "Love Teeth" is a little bit of "Give Up The Ghost" with a lot of a "High and Dry," "Box Me Up" is an awesome combination of the piano driven vulnerability of "Videotape," the anger of "We Suck Young Blood," and the almost haunting ending to "Exit Music," "Mute" is a sped up version of "Karma Police" combined with the macho feel of "Talk Show Host" (it counts because it should have been on The Bends or Ok Computer,) "River So Deep" sounds like a slower version of "Bodysnatchers" combined with something like "Gagging Order," "Old Souls" sounds like an even light hearted version of "True Love Waits," and "Grotesque" sounds like a fast picking version of "The Tourist." The instrumentation on this album captures all of the changes in sound throughout Radiohead's storied career: it has the grungy sounds of The Bends, it has the "prog rock" sounds of Ok Computer, it has the vulnerable experimentation of Kid A and Amnesiac, it has the angry politically driven sounds of Hail To The Thief, it has the reflective sounds of In Rainbows, and it has the distant sounds of The King of Limbs. The amazing thing about Smith's instrumentation though is he creates all of the sounds mainly by just using his acoustic guitar. That in itself makes this album more than just an incredible "indirect cover album," it makes it a monumental achievement.
Another important thing about this album is that it sounds like a more humanized version of Radiohead. Even though Radiohead is by far my favorite band I can see the average listener struggling to connect with albums like Kid A and The King of Limbs because it is nearly impossible to connect with any of the lyrics and if you want to form a connection with those albums you might have to do it just based off of the atmospheres both albums create or the instrumentation. The Secret Languages is a more stripped down version of Radiohead, even though Smith has songs on here that sound like some of Radiohead's more "complicated" albums, he presents them in a acoustic form so the listener can immediately connect with the songwriting and maybe even a catchy chorus. Instead of just presenting us with complicated compositions like Radiohead did on Kid A and TKOL, Smith "strips down" the music to where we can not only connect with the music atmospherically but we can also relate to it on a lyrical basis. Smith not only does a great job of capturing all of the different "atmospheres" on all of Radiohead albums, but he also does a great job of making music that is more easy to relate to.
It is also important to realize that every song on this album is of high quality. "Smoke and Mirrors" might end up being one of the thirty best songs of the year, "Love Teeth" is insanely beautiful, "Box Me Up" is one of the best piano driven songs I have heard in a long time, "The Frozen Still" is one of the best openings songs of the year so far, and "Grotesque" is the most catchy song on the album. The album ends up having three to four classic songs, three to four other songs that are excellent, and two to four songs that are just pretty damn solid. Smith does a great job of paying "indirect tribute" to Radiohead by having an album filled with songs of high quality.
Smoke and Mirrors tells us that it is possible for an artist to pay tribute to a band like Radiohead using original instrumentation, lyrics, and atmospheres. It also tells us that an artist as talented as Smith can pay tribute to every Radiohead album lyrically, instrumentally, and atmospherically without us ever doubting that this is "his album." It is also a beautiful reminder that an artist as talented as Smith won't be playing for Tiny Cities that much longer. After listening to Smith's original and indirect tribute to every Radiohead album we are only left with one question of minimal importance: does he even listen to those guys?