RADIOHEAD > In Rainbows

With the buzz dying down considerably for Radiohead’s first label-less, “free” release (the album download is still free; the picture-disc will put you down a pretty penny), there is no question that this is, in fact, areal Radiohead album of extremely high quality and not just some lame Internet promotion. 

Label: ATO/TBD
Rating: ★★★★☆

With the buzz dying down considerably for Radiohead’s first label-less, “free” release (the album download is still free; the picture-disc will put you down a pretty penny), there is no question that this is, in fact, a real Radiohead album of extremely high quality and not just some lame Internet promotion.
For those of us who’ve grown up Radiohead fans, we know that there has been a definite learning curve: Pablo Honey (1993) surprised few with its straightforward Brit pop, but managed to rope in a following of post-Nirvana alt-heads, with the help of guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s pre-chorus crank-crank on the single “Creep.”

In between, we got The Bends (1995) and one step closer to greatness. Did we see it coming? No. And then, OK … well, you know what happened next.

The band that composed everything from OK Computer to In Rainbows realizes, arguably more than any other rock act out there, that music is a limitless art form: that it should stretch the imagination, far beyond the boundaries of chords, lyrics and beats. (Pink Floyd did just that on Dark Side of the Moon; OK Computer is its 20th century counterpart.) None of these albums is perfect, of course. (Is there ever such a thing in music?) But the finished product always seems to challenge its listener-make us listen 10 or 20 times before we even begin to get it. And we come away feeling as though we were back in Bach or Mozart’s time period, hearing the next great concerto or sonata for the first time.

This is partly due to the fact that Radiohead embraced the digital age before it was cool to do so-the band’s sound is up-to-date but not in a gaudy, obvious way like the latest Britney Spears single or a J-Lo dance remix. Stealing Thom Yorke’s line, it’s an OK computer sound.

Further, Radiohead has been able to make a near-flawless transition from accessible pop to keyboards and electronic beats and whacky meters, because Thom Yorke and company have never stopped writing good songs-and this is even more apparent on In Rainbows, a seamless mash-up of the many Radioheads that have been unearthed over the years. There is the Pablo Honey-era raw crunch and laundry-cycle riff of “Bodysnatchers,” doubled with Jonny Greenwood’s maniacal lead guitar antics; the electro-jazz plus thuddy beats of Kid A on “15 Step,” the close relative of Amnesiac‘s “Pyramid Song” on the album-closing “Videotape,” and the OK Computer-esque bizarro-metered acoustic ballad “Faust Arp.”

Finally, the songwriting can only be as good as the singer of the song, in my opinion. In this case, I’ll refer to the frontman as the “three Thom Yorkes,” the high-octave, choir boy (on “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” and “Reckoner”); the reserved Oxford gentleman (on “All I Need” and “Faust Arp”); and the techno-ballroom glam-bot (on “15 Step” and “Jigsaw Falling Into Place”). His voice is the best choir you’ve never heard.
In sum, it’ll be a while before you find another freebie this valuable. No dollars makes sense to me.