Kelly Lee Owens Finds the Techno Soul in a Radiohead Classic
Twenty years ago this fall, Radiohead shocked the world by renouncing rock & roll — or at least making its traditional sounds and aims secondary to those of the heady techno music that Thom Yorke and his bandmates were listening to more and more of as the 20th century crashed to a halt. They weren’t the first band to trade their guitars in for laptops, but there was a subversive thrill in just how fully they committed to their new identity on songs like “Everything in Its Right Place” and “Idioteque.” They hadn’t entirely forgotten the genre where they got their start, though. By 2007’s In Rainbows, they were ready to fall back in love with warm chords and pretty words. Rock took them back with open arms, and the album won them a whole new audience that included people like Justin Timberlake.
Welsh musician Kelly Lee Owens opens her excellent new album, Inner Song, with a provocative thought experiment: What would have happened if Radiohead had never turned back from the course they began charting on Kid A? Owens’ instrumental cover of In Rainbows highlight “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” is all glacial synth tones, sub-bass rumbles, and sleek machine beats, transposing the artful guitar interplay of the original into an alternate universe of Warp Records weirdness. This version of “Arpeggi” would have absolutely blown Thom Yorke’s mind if he’d heard it in 1999, but it’s not a gimmick or an imitation. Owens is the real thing, creating a kind of sublime robot-gospel music that’s exhilarating to hear, whatever your own relationship to Radiohead’s catalog may be.
Owens clearly isn’t afraid to tangle with the biggies in the art-rock canon. Another highlight from the new album, “Corner of My Sky,” places trippy new vocals from Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale over Owens’ buzzing-brain synth symphony. She holds the stage with authority on her own, too, bringing just the right amount of ice-palace cool to her vocals on rave anthems like “On” and “Melt!” For fans of a certain vintage, though, her Radiohead cover is a special moment. It’s the inverse of British singer Lianne La Havas’ recent take on the same song; where La Havas focused in on the lyrics and melody, turning it into a slow-burn lover’s rock, Owens is all about the deepest-ocean despair of the instrumental break, turning that undercurrent of freaked-out feeling up to 11. It’s a strangely freeing sound: a cold-fusion club-music engine that knows exactly how to hit the bottom and escape.
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