When it comes down to reviewing your favorite band in the world, it can be difficult to separate the sheer excitement of receiving new music from actually giving the tunes a critical listen. This is the case with Radiohead, who made their seventh album, In Rainbows, available for download today. This album is huge for a variety of reasons, ranging from their fuck you to the music biz by releasing it themselves, to the "name your own price" purchase for the digital download, to simply the fact that it is a new Radiohead album.
Giving fans just a week's notice about the new album becoming available sent music nerds around the world nuts. New Radiohead? In one week? Released without a label? With so little time to absorb the information, deciding whether or not to purchase the boxset rather than the download, checking out the tracklisting for both, it has been enough to give die-hards panic attacks. In one week, Radiohead has emerged once again as one of the most important bands around, and have easily returned as one of the most talked about on the interwebs.
I have listened to In Rainbows on repeat since I received my download code early this morning, trying to work my way through the complexity of a Radiohead album to give this an accurate review rather than a string of sentences comprised of yours truly gushing about the importance of this band. As a longtime fan, Thom Yorke and his bandmates have been a fascinating group to watch grow and change since the release of their 1993 debut LP, Pablo Honey. Their sound has shifted from the balls to the walls noise pop noise of that infamous chorus on "Creep" to the Aphex Twin-inspired electronic bleeps of "The Gloaming."
Few bands that sell out arenas have covered as much experimental ground as Radiohead. So what form have they taken for In Rainbows? Surprisingly, they have stripped away most of the gadgets and electro-wizardry for their most stripped down record in a long, long time. Some have compared this as a return to The Bends or OK Computer, although I disagree with that completely. This is a different sound, much cleaner, with Yorke's vocals pushed further to the front than we've heard from them before.
This is one of the only tracks on In Rainbows that looks back to the experimental beats of Amnesiac and Kid A. Fans will recognize this from the band's previous US tour, where they debuted several songs that appear on this album. While the song has a bit of an electronic feel, drummer Phil Selway plows through the complex beats with ease. With some electro-hand claps and a fairly simple grooving bass line and Jonny Greenwood's slick guitar work, the track sways back and forth from a straightforward track to a dance beat driven masterpiece. The way Radiohead is able to switch gears seamlessly throughout the course of one song shows just how fucking brilliant they are.
Yes, a rock track! Guitars take center stage, with Yorke and Greenwood plugging their axes in, bringing back a similar vibe to certain moments on Hail To The Thief. Songs such as this allow you to sit back and remember what a talented bunch of musicians these guys are, with Colin Greenwood's steady bass, tossing in a sick run of notes when a small window of opportunity arrives. Toss in his brother's mind-melting guitar solos and you have what is simply a classic Radiohead track. Thank God they haven't lost the rock side of their various musical personas.
Dedicated fans have been waiting for a long, long time to hear a true album version of "Nude." The results were so worth the wait, creating what is one of the strongest songs on In Rainbows. This downtempo ballad creeps forward with fairly minimal instrumentation; nothing more than an electric and acoustic guitar, bass, drums and an earful of some of Yorke's best vocals to date. Rather than relying on synths to add washes of color, Jonny's string orchestrations ease in for the occasional boost of spin-tingling emotion. This is a stunning song and easily one of the finest recorded tracks in the band's impressive catalog.
I was a bit apprehensive about this track, as a "leaked" version of the song was much more minimal than the one we first heard during Radiohead's previous tour. Fortunately, this one is about what I expected, with a double-time drumbeat that pushes along Jonny Greenwood's rolling guitar melodies. This track slowly builds over the chorus of five minutes, never losing the pulse of the guitar part, which does switch over to keyboards for a few moments. The final minute switches it up, easing in to a bit of a slightly more aggressive sound. The drums get a bit harder, the guitars get a bit crunchier, all setting us up for what might be the best song on the album, "All I Need."
"All I Need"
I didn't expect this at all. Live it was very good, but on tape it is one of the biggest songs they have recorded. It begins fairly minimalistic, with Selway's precise, downtempo drumming and a slightly distorted bass. At nearly two minutes in, some of the Nigel Godrich magic arrives, adding in waves of static noise, sounding a bit like a digitalized cymbal. Then comes the piano chords and the strings, followed by an all-out audio assult of crashing drums and Yorke's soaring vocals. This shit is huge, cinematic, and some of the most powerful music you'll hear. The production is so clean and glossy, yet still remains aesthetically Radiohead. Amazing.
After the chilling roller coaster of "All I Need," "Faust Arp" gives us a couple of minutes to catch our breath. This short track puts Jonny Greenwood's orchestration in the spotlight, supporting Yorke and an acoustic guitar.
Selway kicks this off with some strong beats, once again reminding us how essential his skills on the skins are to Radiohead. Yorke keeps his vocals in the upper register, backed by layers of vocal harmonies. When this song gets mesmerizing is at the bridge, where Yorke's harmonies join with Greenwood's orchestral ear hug from the string section. There isn't much else going on with "Reckoner," but between the beat, the strings and Yorke's voice, anything else would be overkill. Yorke said early on that this was a minimal album, and for Radiohead, less is definitely more.
"House Of Cards"
This didn't stray far at all from the live version they introduced us to, keeping the same chilled guitar part gently strumming throughout the course of the track. Yorke's vocals are bathed in echo, pushed along by a bit of noise that sounds like the cross between an orchestra and wind. Yeah, that description sounds a bit fucked up, but hey, it is musical noise. Unfortunately, this is the one track that falls a bit flat, especially when compared to the cinematic awesomeness of "All I Need" and "Nude."
"Jigsaw Falling Into Place"
Although I wouldn't categorize this one as a rock track, it is one of the most "rockin'" tracks on In Rainbows, picking the pace up a bit and bringing some of the electric guitars back in. Yorke puts a bit of edge back in his vocal delivery, but the band never slams the clutch down to put this sucker into fifth gear. It feels like it wants to just erupt towards the final minutes, but the band holds tight to the reins, never allowing the song to take off. Just when you think a mad Greenwood guitar solo is about to kick the door down, Radiohead surprises the listener by making it acoustic instead. Predictability has never been one of their strong points, and that is why I love them so.
Radiohead wraps up In Rainbows with another live favorite, "Videotape." The steady piano chords and unique stomp of the drums makes for an interesting conclusion for this LP. It is like the calm after a storm, with beams of light pouring through the gaps of the clouds. Although far from complex, the drum effects and Yorke's subdued vocals are just enough.
So my final thoughts on In Rainbows are, obviously, that Radiohead is still at the top of their game. Proving that they are just as relevant as their were when they turned the alternative rock world upside down with OK Computer ten years ago, Thom Yorke and his trusty bandmates have offered up one of their most straight-forward and easy to digest releases to date. Few bands have the consistency that they do, keeping them as one of the most important bands of our generation. Accessibility and experimentation don't work well together unless in the hands of a master musician, and with Radiohead you have five of them.