“Wonderful audience!” Menny More exclaims. Adapting the old adage that you dress for the job you want, not the job you have, he bounds around Brooklyn’s Metrotech Commons outdoor stage in a brilliant all-white ensemble, while slight but steady rainfall collects in the tarp over his head and laps at the edges of monitors wrapped in garbage bags. His wonderful audience: A polite cadre of Thursday lunchbreakers huddled beetlesque beneath their black umbrellas. Appreciative, but a bit soggy and dour. So as the Easy Star All-Stars shift from spacey dub reggae to an ebullient ska bounce, he lets ‘er rip with a song of cheerful optimism.
“Shell smashed!” Menny More beams. “Juices flowing! Wings clipped! Legs are going! Don’t get sentimental! It always ends up drivel! One day! I am going to grow wings! A chemical reaction! Hysterical and useless! Hysterical!” And after a rousing chorus of “Let down and hanging around/Crushed like a bug in the ground,” he gives way to a rousing trombone solo. Hysterical.
The All-Stars—a loose collective of NYC reggae big shots clustered around the indie label Easy Star—unleashed a massive crossover coup with 2003’s Dub Side of the Moon, a track-by-track Caribbean hijacking of Pink Floyd. Result: Unprecedented sales (for indie or reggae, and certainly both), coupled with jovially grudging critical praise. “The majority of reviews said, ‘This is something I wanted to hate—this is something that sounded really stupid, sounded really hokey,’ ” admits Easy Star co-founder–executive producer Eric Smith a week later at an East Village cafe. “We pretty much won everyone over with that, and particularly Pink Floyd fans.”
Thus, late August brings us a sequel: Radiodread, a full reggae rebirth of Radiohead’s OK Computer. Though Menny did a fabulous job with “Let Down” live, on record it’s recast by none other than Toots & the Maytals—the original record’s prettiest moment transformed into the ambitious remake’s most delightfully jarring reinvention.
This is a tough sell, and the Easy Star brain trust knows it. “There is a lot of suffering and pain in reggae,” Smith notes. “It’s a struggler’s, it’s a sufferer’s music. The casual fan sees reggae as a summer, spring-break-type music, and that’s really far from what it’s about. We like some of the darker areas of reggae, and one of our concerns with combining those two was, we’d have a really, really dark album on our hands.”
And they do. Both Smith and All-Stars producer-arranger-guitarist Michael Goldwasser concur that the Dark/Dub Side experiment meshed oddly but beautifully: few chord changes, universal messages, and a few easy spots to drop a quick laugh. (Bong hits replace the cash register dings of “Money,” for example.) But after a solid half-year tangling with Computer‘s avalanche of chords, time-signature stunts, and macabre imagery, Goldwasser sounds triumphant but still a bit bewildered. “I have to say that many of the guest artists who sang on the album came to me saying, ‘Michael, what do these lyrics mean?’ ” he says over the phone. “They’d never heard anything like this before. They were really bugged out, but they all really got into it, once they could grasp it.”
Indeed, Kirsty Rock gamely salutes “the unborn chicken voices in my head” and “kicking squealing Gucci little piggy” from the mighty “Paranoid Android,” before hyperventilating horns trace the paths carved by the original’s atonal guitar anti-solos. And from Horace Andy’s relieved car wreck survival tale “Airbag” to Morgan Heritage preaching voodoo economics on “Electioneering,” Radiodread‘s vocalists make opaque cries of technological dread seem warm and almost human. (As for “Fitter Happier,” none other than Menny More translates Computer‘s self-indulgent monotone robot monologue into Jamaican patois—the phrase “a pig in a cage on antibiotics” rolls almost joyfully off his tongue.) At the rainy Brooklyn gig, the All-Stars also unveiled a re-spun “Climbing Up the Walls,” OK Computer‘s most claustrophobic dirge, and made it seem like a perfectly reasonable reggae ballad to hear in a Brooklyn park on your lunch hour.
Ultimately Smith hopes the Easy Star versions transcend karaoke and stand on their own: “When they work the best, you’re saying, ‘Wow, this is a reggae song,’ ” he explains. That doesn’t happen too often on Radiodread, but its most awkward culture clash moments are its most admirable and fascinating. Regardless, they’ve already converted one fan: Thom Yorke. The Radiohead frontman heard the Toots version of “Let Down” backstage at a recent Philadelphia gig and announced its excellence onstage later that night. To a presumably wonderful audience.
Smith and Goldwasser scored free tickets to Radiohead’s two-night stand last week at Madison Square Garden Theater, where Yorke did not repeat his praise. But Wednesday night’s show reasserted why his band deserved such an outlandish tribute: They deployed the rad guitar freakouts of their/our youth (let’s see the Easy Star guys write horn charts for “My Iron Lung”) while turning insular, arty studio jams like Kid A’s title track into arena-stomping triumphs just as visceral. “He’s a bouncy little fella, ain’t he?” noted my companion as Thom did his jittery jitterbug dance routines—Menny More would be proud.
New tunes made up a full third of the set, and like college freshmen fleeing a 4 a.m. dorm fire, they emerged in various states of undress and confusion, some fully formed, some barely realized. At least a few will emerge on record sanded down to a bone-chilling beauty, and one’s already there: “Videotape,” Thom pounding out a hypnotic piano loop that pulls guitars both lilting and hostile into its ascending orbit, a stirring ambient drone that slowly morphs into a full-blown rock anthem. Outstanding. It would make a terrible reggae song.