The Great (Live) Albums is our new bimonthly column taking a look at some of the best—or at least most interesting—live recordings in pop music history. How do these odd documents fit in to an artist’s overall discography? What do they teach us about the history of rock? Let’s find out!
I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings, Radiohead (2001, Parlophone/Capitol)
Writing about music is new territory for me. I’ve always been a fan, of course. But until now my blogging background has centered solely on the topic of movies. The truth is, when I pitched Great Albums Majordomo B. Lambusta on the idea for this column, I honestly wasn’t sure if I could pull it off. After all, I’m not really a musician (unless fumbling Peavey-practice-amp covers of “Miserlou” count) and I don’t know anything about music theory (just what I remember as third-chair French horn in our awful high school’s awful band, 20 long years ago.)
I was afraid I wouldn’t have the vocabulary to properly unpack what it was I actually liked about the albums I’d be writing about. But now that I’ve done it a bit, it’s clear that thinking critically about music really isn’t that different from thinking critically about film. And when writing about movies, the thing I’m most drawn to is atmosphere. The same goes for music.
Atmosphere—how a piece of art feels and whether or not that feeling is clearly and consistently sustained—is way more interesting, in my opinion, than characters or plot. It’s why I revere filmmakers like David Lynch and Terrence Malick. Their stories may make little logical sense, but they make perfect emotional sense, honing in on indescribable psychological states and acutely reproducing them with pictures and sound.
This, I think, is also why I love Radiohead. The Oxford eggheads—frontman Thom Yorke, multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood, guitarist Ed O’Brien, drummer Phil Selway, and bassist Colin Greenwood—are fucking great at conjuring atmosphere, using dense soundscapes and atypical song structures, along with nonspecifically ominous word-salad nonsense lyrics, to summon an all-encompassing vision of nerdy, numbed-out dystopia. Such world building is achievement enough in the studio. But it’s the band’s ability to stay true to each song’s sonic intent while simultaneously injecting an extra layer of twitchy, thrilling energy for live performance that truly strikes me as impressive.
I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings—released in 2001 and collecting performances of seven Kid A and Amnesiac tracks, plus one comparatively upbeat acoustic outlier—presents the best of Radiohead’s prescient early-‘aughts future-panic in one slim, approachable package. It also, not for nothing, TOTALLY ROCKS.
Recorded at various dates along the band’s 2001 tour, I Might Be Wrong—named after the world-destroying Amnesiac track that absolutely crushes here—falls into a unique live-album subgenre. It’s neither a condensed survey of a single performance (as was our last entry), nor a cherry-picked selection of tracks spanning the group’s entire career. It’s probably best to think of Wrong as a “best-of” this particular tour/era: arguably Radiohead’s peak as a commercial force, critical darling, and—most importantly—concert draw.
The album opens with everyone’s favorite itchy-sweater funk banger, “The National Anthem.” The thing that really strikes me about this leadoff track (and throughout the record) is the separation in the mix. Far from being crushed into the same static-soup sound-wave spectrum, Radiohead is able to reproduce the studio track’s bottom-end crunch while foregrounding the song’s persistently creepy, Theremin-esque high tone, sustained high in the atmosphere for basically the song’s entire runtime.
Track #2 is the titular “I Might Be Wrong,” which might as well be a Big Black song for all its metallic grind and muscular pessimism. I’m also not sure if that’s actually Phil Selway playing the kit or some sort of mechanical contraption, but either way it’s the kind of drum sound that, past a certain volume level, can really put a lot of stress on the sternum.
Wrong then stretches out for a moody two-song suite of mid-tempo dread: “Morning Bell,” and “Like Spinning Plates.” On Amnesiac, “Plates” unspools as a Twin Peaks-inspired backwards-masking nightmare. But here, the band plays it straight, unearthing a beautifully sad piano bed for Yorke’s unprocessed voice to soar above. I’ll always prefer this version of “Plates” to its studio equivalent, which I think holds true for all of the Amnesiac tracks represented here, if not necessarily those from Kid A.
After the electro-minded “Idioteque” the album’s peak moment finally arrives: a discursive an improvisatory “Everything in Its Right Place,” stretched out to nearly eight minutes of looping and layering, pitch-shifting Yorke’s voice to create a buzzing locust-swarm chant of the lyric, “There are/Two colors/In my head.” The effect is utterly hypnotic. If anything, it reminds me of modernist composer Steve Reich’s early tape-loop milestone “It’s Gonna Rain,” forebodingly reinvented for the new millennium.
“Everything” gives way to “Dollars and Cents”—sort of an aural callback to the “Morning Bell”/“Like Spinning Plates” one-two punch from earlier. And then, something completely different to wrap things up: the simple, sweet uplift of “True Love Waits.” Featuring some heavy stadium-amplified acoustic strumming and Yorke’s folkie crooning, it’s an odd button to end the record on. Especially since the song wouldn’t appear on a proper Radiohead album until 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool, and in a much different form. But it’s a cathartic end to 35 straight minutes of doom and gloom—a breath of fresh air, gulped down deeply and appreciatively. In other words: atmosphere worth breathing in.
-Matt Warren (@mpmwarren)