Sybarite5 – Everything in Its Right Place: Radiohead Remixed [TrackList follows] – Concert Artists Guild/CAG Records CAG109, 42:25 [11/7/12] ****:
(Sami Merdinian, Sarah Whitney – violin; Angela Pickett – viola; Laura Metcalf – cello; Louis Levitt – double bass)
The blending of pop and rock with classical music has been around a long while. The Kronos Quartet began to break down so-called barriers between musical genres in the mid-‘80s when they restructured Thelonious Monk, Jimi Hendrix and Bill Evans for a chamber music quartet approach. Since that time, various string groups have created a huge audience for crossover classical. The best musicians who work in this territory combine virtuosic talent with a risk-taking and original vision. The worst cases simply retread rock music with amped-up bows and resin. One of the newer ensembles which are doing it the way it should be is Sybarite5, a string quintet with a repertoire which encompasses Bach to Dave Brubeck and Astor Piazzolla to Mozart. Violinists Sami Merdinian and Sarah Whitney, violist Angela Pickett, cellist Laura Metcalf and double bassist Louis Levitt formed in 2009 at the Aspen Music Festival. In 2011, Sybarite5 became the first string quintet chosen as winners in the 60-year history of the Concert Artists Guild International Competition.
The result of that recognition was the quintet’s sophomore album, Everything in Its Right Place: Radiohead Remixed, a 42-minute project on the Guild’s imprint. The ten-track outing focuses on material by popular British alternative rock group Radiohead. This idea is not unique. In 2009, Los Angeles-based Vitamin String Quartet (LA studio musicians who do new versions of rock, pop, and country songs) issued a tribute record in response to Radiohead’s In Rainbows. The Vitamin String Quartet concentrates on the mainstream pop and rock marketplace; Sybarite5 firmly connects to modern classical listeners. To those outside the classical music scene, it might be a small distinction. But the aims and intentions of Sybarite5 are different than crossover acts such as the Vitamin String Quartet or likeminded Apocalyptica, the Finnish quartet who also attracts rock fans. Sybarite5 members discuss their ongoing work in a short, online promotional video which also includes excerpts from various endeavors. Sybarite5’s concert schedule has garnered much acclaim; their classically-sharpened expertise and passion have mesmerized crowds from Alaska to Florida. But their recorded output has fallen below the radar of most people, which is why it is as good a time as any to reexamine Everything in Its Right Place (available as either compact disc, digital download or limited-edition LP), even though it came out in late 2012. This review refers to the CD version.
The objectives of presenting a dynamic performance style with a redefinition of what chamber music can mean, is immediately implied on the opener, “15 Step,” (from the In Rainbows record), where the expressive arrangement constantly moves forward and develops, with a rhythmic introduction led by Levitt, who creates a beat by tapping his bridge and lightly striking the instrument’s belly, near the f-holes. There is also involved interaction between the different string instruments which sometimes provides an abstract declination. The title track is considered one of Radiohead’s finer moments, a key piece on their 2000 Kid A album. Sybarite5 does not shy away from Radiohead’s disquieting neo-techno sound. While not abandoning chamber music traditionalism, the string section manages to echo the tune’s skittering beats and tastefully dark sonic surface while also emphasizing a draught of elegant lyricism. The quartet captures Radiohead’s somber spirit during a live rendition of the appropriately textural “Motion Picture Soundtrack” (which concludes both Kid A and aptly ends Sybarite5’s Radiohead tribute).
Probably the most well-known composition is “Paranoid Android,” a substantial hit from Radiohead’s 1997 release, OK Computer. The number is a complex, multi-segmented cut which appeals to other musicians; it was markedly covered by pianist Brad Mehldau. [ZBS Foundation had the term earlier, in their Ruby the Galactic Gumshoe audio dramas…Ed.] Sybarite5 replicates the taut melodic and muscular tone, and the strings hint at singer Thom Yorke’s vocal alterations, from sweet falsetto to fierce sneer. It is here where Sybarite5 showcases a musical brilliance. Subsequent listening reveals subtleties which become more apparent, such as intricate rhythms (noticeably, an odd time signature and multiplex syncopation) and discomfiting dissonance. Sybarite5 translate two tracks from Radiohead’s 2001 undertaking, Amnesiac. “Packt like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box” and “Pyramid Song” veer wildly apart, akin to what Radiohead did on Amnesiac. “Pyramid Song” is wonderful, warm and conventional, with a gentle sway. The melodic edge is forefront and engaging. “Packt like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box” bares discord and divergence. The strings emulate the clamor of conflict and commotion. The rest of the material also harnesses Radiohead’s adventurous determination and motivated experimentation.
Recording engineers Michael Mermagen and Steve Lemke supply a skillful auditory balance between moments of disharmony and beauty, friction and attraction, despite sessions spread between Aspen, Colorado and New York City. And this venture could not have been accomplished without Paul Sanho Kim’s eight liberal arrangements, abetted by Adam Schoenberg and Sybarite5 (who both did one apiece). Classical music can sometimes be perceived as a formalized, refined type of music. Sybarite5 proves chamber music can be thinking people’s music which can also interest folks who appreciate progressive and passionate music.
TrackList: 15 Step; Everything In Its Right Place; Paranoid Android; Videotape; Weird Fishes; No Surprises; Packt like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box; Pyramid Song; 2+2=5; Motion Picture Soundtrack (Live)