Oct 012020

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

Everything in Its Right Place coversIt’s 20 years today since Radiohead first perplexed us with the lyrical mantras, “Everything in its right place,” “Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon,” and, of course, “There are two colors in my head.” It’s a significant anniversary, as who could forget the first time they heard track 1 of Kid A?

“Everything in Its Right Place” was, in the absence of a single to promote the fourth Radiohead album, the initial indication that the most revered British rock band of the ’90s had not only downgraded coherent lyrics, but also guitars, traditional song structures, crescendos, and anything, really, that might sound good in the car with the windows down. Now they were hellbent on something altogether different. Something introspective, hypnotic, and electronic. Something composer Steve Reich and cover artists from Frightened Rabbit to Robert Glasper would demonstrate to be not so much rock, as minimalism, indie-folk, and jazz.

The song has traveled a rocky road to classic status as a result of its unclassifiable nature, while spawning in the region of 25 cross-genre reinterpretations. To the multitudes previously won over by “Paranoid Android,” “Karma Police,” and the whole angsty, proggy majesty of 1997’s OK Computer, it was a shock. To adherents of the band’s earlier, surging, arena-friendly hits like “High and Dry,” “Just,” “Fake Plastic Trees,” and particularly “Creep,” it was a kick in the teeth. For while there was nothing new in witnessing a rock group go nuts from the pressure of huge commercial success and fame, as had Nirvana on the brutal In Utero opener “Serve the Servants” in 1993, none had appeared to cast off their fairweather friends by dropping practically all of their most powerful musical weapons. None had sought to express what they really felt by taking up synthesizers, adopting a strange time signature, and singing about sucking lemons.

“Everything” alone divided the critics in 2000, who quite reasonably assumed it to be a Thom Yorke affair rather than a group project, with the singer indulging a new love for digital technology in collaboration with producer Nigel Godrich. It’s a “weirdly hymnal dreamscape of ambient keys,” said one reviewer (a good thing, I think). Another asked, “Whose crackling old keyboards were those?” (bad). Then there was the accusation that it was a “messy and inconsequential doodle” (definitely bad). But once the furor died down, it was obvious that Yorke and co. had set a new bar with the song, having instilled it with plenty of meaning and significance, thank you very much.

It’s hard to say exactly what is so darn consequential about the track, and why so many artists should want to cover it, but it has a lot to do with its mellow yet eerie keyboard opening, adapted from Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” of 1965. It also pertains to the arresting sound of what seems to be an android having a fit, but which is actually Yorke’s voice manipulated through a Prophet 5 synthesizer. Plus there are Thom’s impassioned falsetto vocals over seemingly random, nonsensical phrases repeated over and over, all conveying his feelings of stress and alienation as a consequence of relentless touring and promoting. He sings initially of perfectionism and control, sure, but it’s clear that everything is not in its right place. In fact, if he’s been “sucking a lemon,” he’s been pulling a dour face for most of the time, with his mind in a scrambled state. “What is that you tried to say? / What was that you tried to say?” he goes on to implore, as glitchy machine noises and processed human sounds skitter and swirl around him.

“Everything” is, effectively, the aural equivalent of an anxiety attack, or at least an episode of severe mental disorder. Director Cameron Crowe was quick to recognize this when he used it to ominous effect in the opening scene of the 2001 psychological thriller Vanilla Sky, where the Tom Cruise character confronts the fact that he is disconnected from New York reality (don’t ask me to explain the plot!). The possibly superior live version, meanwhile, goes further in creating the impression of emotional trauma, as evidenced on the I Might be Wrong album of 2001. We hear Jonny Greenwood, lately of lead guitar, take up a strange toy called a Korg Kaoss Pad KP1 and accompany the real Thom with some downright disturbing improvisational looping of his sampled vocals, while the rest of the band play a fuller part in laying down a house groove that intensifies dramatically on the outro. It all adds up to a deeply harrowing sound. Which you can dance to.

A killer live song, then, and one that has gone on to occupy a key place in the Radiohead canon, “Everything” has been covered by a variety of innovative artists. It won’t have harmed its appeal that another star of the Vanilla Sky soundtrack, Paul McCartney, gave it a public seal of approval in 2007, when he hosted a BBC Radio 1 program to celebrate the station’s 40th anniversary. He featured the song as one of just 15 tracks that either “got him into music,” “inspired him,” or were his “current favorites,” being particularly enamored by its distinctive synth sound. This was before another shaper of musical history, Steve Reich, took an interest. The minimalist composer reworked the song as part of his 2014 album, Radio Rewrite, having found here “a constant repeat of three diatonic chords,” and an opening series of chords that stands out as “one of the classics in Western music.”

The five tracks featured below are good reinterpretations rather than good rewrites. They are, however, equally demonstrative of the remarkable richness of “Everything” to musicians beyond the rock tradition.

Brad Mehldau Trio — “Everything in Its Right Place” (Radiohead cover)

In many ways, American jazz pianist Brad Mehldau made the natural next step with the Kid A track in 2004, when he reinterpreted it for his Anything Goes album. He recognized the Herbie Hancock influence, certainly, and was in any case renowned for incorporating pop and rock into his repertoire. He transformed “Everything” into a jazzy instrumental piece, with a stupendous gear shift at the 3:20 mark, where he showcases what critic Mike Hobart calls “bittersweet left-hand melodies” and “clusters of dense mid-range chords.” Moreover, as a thrilling live draw internationally, he made Radiohead amenable to audiences at the New Morning jazz club in Paris. Who could have predicted that?

Robert Glasper — “Maiden Voyage/Everything in Its Right Place” (Herbie Hancock/Radiohead cover)

Amazingly, two further American jazz pianists, after Mehldau, have covered “Everything.” Michael Wolff did it in 2006, and Robert Glasper did it in 2007. It’s Glasper, though, who offers the best, most epic version. Like Mehldau, he excels at fusing jazz with other genres of music, often with Grammy-winning results, and he effortlessly interweaves Radiohead with Herbie Hancock on this track from the In My Element album. It’s a mash-up, basically, with Glasper totally owning those somber opening chords of Kid A on Rhodes piano. This is before he cuts loose with his energetic, free-floating style, interposed with some really cool transitions.

Osunlade with Erro — “Everything in Its Right Place” (Radiohead cover)

Jazz is one thing, but how about a Yoruba version of “Everything in Its Right Place”? It sounds crazy, but it did actually happen, on a single for BBE Records in 2006. US musician-producer Osunlade thought the Kid A opener would gel nicely with the highly evolved drumming sound of the Yoruba people of Nigeria, Togo, and Benin, with New Jersey singer Erro supplying the vocals. And he was right! It’s a song about a guy losing his mind, yes, but this time in unison with some incredibly inventive rhythms.

Scala and Kolacny Brothers — “Everything in Its Right Place” (Radiohead cover)

Choirs performing songs by the likes of Nirvana, U2, and Muse are usually horrible, horrible things. Yet we should be lenient when it comes to this cover of “Everything” by Scala and Kolacny Brothers, a group consisting of 20-30 Belgian women, together with a conductor and piano player. They garnered much acclaim in 2010 for an emotional 2002 reinterpretation of “Creep” (when it featured in a trailer for The Social Network), but this cover from 2006 tops it. It’s sinister and unsettling as a consequence of its layered voices that build in intensity and complexity, aided by technological blips and distortions. In fact, it’s strangely compelling.

Frightened Rabbit — “Everything in Its Right Place” (Radiohead cover)

Scottish indie band Frightened Rabbit delivered a glorious cover of “Everything” on the heels of their highly acclaimed second album, The Midnight Organ Fight. This was for the 2009 Radiohead tribute album, Every Machine Makes a Mistake. Specializing in unflinching songs of heartache, grief and loss, they brought their own raw sound and anguished vocals to the track, showing that it could work perfectly well without the weird electronics. It’s the hypnotic acoustic guitars, impassioned harmonies, and crashing percussive effects that instead instill it with a chilling quality. That industrial noise in the background helps, too. And those Scottish accents.

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