Tuned In To Music

Reflections from a lifetime

Review: Radiohead, In Rainbows

Both professionally and musically Radiohead is in a place all their own.  As everyone who pays attention to popular music knows, Radiohead released “In Rainbows” as a digital in rainbowsdownload in October of 2007 and invited people to pay whatever they wanted for it.  This threw the already freaked-out greed machine that is the music industry into a panic.  The album was made by the band without a record company contract and the pay-what-you-want download was carried out without record company involvement.  No one knows how many times the album was downloaded or what, if anything, most people paid for it and the band isn’t saying.  The download was stopped in December.  Radiohead retained ownership of the songs and music and licensed the album to record companies who then released a single disc retail CD in different countries around the world in late December and early January.  The CD entered most charts at Number 1. 

Very few bands who are sought by record companies have the confidence, financial resources or marketing power to make a record without record company support.  The few bands that do are ones with a long history of mega-success and very few of these have the motivation to do the hard work that making a new, creative album involves without a record company flogging them to meet their contractual responsibilities.  Of the very few that have the fame and motivation, who has the balls to try?  Radiohead.

So, how’s the music?  Like Bjork, Radiohead have moved beyond the typical structures and categories of popular music.  Their songs don’t fall comfortably within any of the standard genres like rock, electronica, indie or whatever.  They often don’t even bother with typical chorus-verse-break structure.  The result is music that the listener can’t comfortably approach through the well known methods and structures of familiar categories.  Like most of Bjork’s CDs,”In Rainbows” is art music that demands attention.  And as has consistently been the case with Radiohead, “In Rainbows” repays that attention if you are willing to give it. 

Vocalist Thom Yorke is still anguished, terrified and forlorn and he still wails his angst to the world.  If you didn’t like Yorke’s vocal style on some of Radiohead’s more accessible music you’ll probably not like “In Rainbows”.  Many of the tunes on the CD are mid to slow tempo creations that are deftly layered with both instrumental and electronic accents, flourishes and embellishments that are never intrusive and always contribute to the song.  Radiohead is very good at this sort of thing.  The fairly consistent tempos can prove a problem.  If you have not listened enough to become very familiar with the record, all the songs can run together into undifferentiated background ambiance if you’re not paying attention. 

A good deal of critical attention goes into interpreting Yorke’s lyrics.  “He’s marginally happier than before”, “he’s marginally more freaked out than before” and so on.  I’m not as interested in lyrics as most of the critical press seems to be; for me lyrics sink in slowly while I’m listening to the music.  Being primarily concerned with the music, I didn’t download “In Rainbows” because I thought that a band like Radiohead would care a good deal about the sound quality of their work and the sound quality of MP3 is so poor I didn’t want to ruin the album by becoming familiar with it in the MP3 format.  How does it sound?  Good but not spectacular.  This is multi-layered music and for the most part individual bits are clearly articulated and differentiated from the accompanying music.  At times it gets a little flat and the sound engineeering doesn’t stand out but overall it’s well recorded.

I think “In Rainbows” is a CD that’s easier to admire than to enjoy.  It’s thoughtful music that repays careful attention but it’s not light in tone or lyrical content.  It’s not the kind of thing you’re likely to put on while you work around the house unless you’re a doom-infused mope.  On the other hand, if you’re feeling thoughtful and a bit anxious about the state of the world and want to devote your attention to music, it may be just the thing.

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02/03/2008 - Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews

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