Wooden Elephant [Aiofe Ní Bhriain, Hulda Jónsdóttir (violins), Ian Anderson (viola, arrangements), Stefan Hadjiev (cello), Nikolai Matthews (double bass)
Backlash Music [59’29”]
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
What’s the story?
The quintet Wooden Elephant releases its take on Radiohead’s seminal album Kid A, second in its reworking of game-changing albums that commenced in 2016 with Björk’s Homogenic then continued in 2018 with Beyoncé’s Lemonade, on the enterprising Backlash Music label.
What’s the music like?
When it appeared in autumn 2000, Kid A not only redefined what even as forward-thinking a rock band as Radiohead was capable of, but also topped the mainstream charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Thus, an album as artistically radical as it is commercially successful such as violist Ian Anderson has made it his mission to reassess. Each of the musicians plays a range of sundry instruments (what improviser Jamie Muir would have deemed ‘allsorts’), yet they are extensions to the already inclusive string sound on which these ‘arrangements’ are based.
After the gradual merging into focus then rhythmic and melodic clarifying of Everything in Its Right Place, the subdued moodiness of Kid A is afforded a ruminative treatment which reveals an unsuspected poise in the melodic line and whimsical twist to the accompaniment. The rhythmic obsessiveness of The National Anthem gives rise to an invigorating textural workout that spills over into mayhem towards the close (who needs an orchestra?) – and to which the video’s Jarmusch-like interplay of drink-stirrers with woodland inhabitants offers an intriguing complement. A siren-song reverb from wine glasses then segues into How to Disappear Completely whose brooding eloquence and lilting gait make it a highlight now as then, while Treefingers is no less arresting given its ethereal emergence and timbral finesse.
The propulsive syncopation of Optimistic effects a vibrant and soulful – if, in this context, relatively straightforward – response, with the hymnic preamble then stealthy integrating of rhythmic and melodic elements across the course of In Limbo satisfying in its immediacy. Nor is there anything predictable about Idioteque with its plaintive unfolding set against a pulsating undertow that drives towards a febrile close, out of which the lucid melodic profile of Morning Bell is maintained from its tentative arrival to its sudden disintegration. It duly remains for the aching pathos of Motion Picture Soundtrack to provide a heartfelt ending; here with its (unintended?) postlude, which is often tracked as Untitled on digital versions of the original album, serenely dissolving into a melange of ricocheting chordal patterns.
Does it all work?
Almost always. Something that was never quite a rock album has provided ideal material for an ensemble that is not quite a string quintet, Wooden Elephant taking full advantage of this stretching of musical and conceptual boundaries to come up with what is an absorbing listen in its own right. Just occasionally the ensemble’s interplay evokes those bluesy harmonies of Quintette de Hot Club de France, but this serves to throw the more experimental aspects of its approach into provocative relief. Nor does the vividly defined sound leave anything to chance.
Is it recommended?
It is. This is an ideal opportunity to reconsider a key album from the turn of the Millennium, finely interpreted by a sympathetic and resourceful ensemble. Wooden Elephant is giving a performance in Potsdam this November, with hopefully further hearings to follow in the UK.