There’s never been anything “business as usual” about Radiohead. Beginning with their first release and continuing through their musical evolution they’ve challenged the notions of what a rock band should sound like. Now they’ve taken on the industry, the very mechanism that has forged and enshrined the means of music distribution. Radiohead challenged these traditional avenues when they released In Rainbows as a digital download. Furthermore they allowed fans to decide what or if they wanted to pay for the music. Was it a reaction to leaving their long time label EMI, a clever promotional campaign for their new album, or were they really experimenting with a new form of distribution? Whatever the reasons behind the move, Radiohead is now offering the release in standard (at least for the moment) compact disc form.
Now that the distribution hype is over what do we think of this album from a band that is arguably the most influential British quintet of the past decade? If you’re a hardcore Radiohead fan then this record should feel instantly familiar and comfortable. The band doesn’t break new ground but instead have gathered together songs that have been part of their repertoire for years. The first 2 tracks, “15” and “Bodysnatchers,” were featured during the band’s 2006 tour. “Arpeggi” was originally debuted at a concert in March of 2005. Some songs date back to the heady days following the release of OK Computer.
So what would prompt Radiohead to finally gather up these songs and release them as a new album? It seems the band has been in a state of extended lethargy or ambivalence about the recording process that began in August of 2005. A new producer, Mark Stent, replaced longtime producer Nigel Godrich after early frustrations in the studio. The band left the studio the following Spring without a finished project and began touring. When they returned to the studio in September of 2006 it was with Godrich and the focus fell on the songs the band had been performing live. Although there has been some tweaking in the recordings of these songs this is material that fans will recognize.
As for theme, Thom Yorke is the master of isolation, alienation and even desperation. During the recordings Yorke dealt with severe health problems; perhaps this contributes to the wild abandon in his performance, as if time has become a pressing issue. And yet his vocals have never been more beautiful or seductive, especially on the soulful “Nude,” the Nick Drake-like “Faust Arp,” or sublime “Reckoner.”
In Rainbows features layers of guitars, strings, piano and electronic wizardry. The band moves seamlessly between subtle melodies and searing rockers but mostly this is a quiet, dreamy affair. Radiohead hasn’t broken new musical ground but they continue their legacy as one of rocks most unconventional purveyors of gorgeous electronic rock.
WYEP celebrates the very best of 2008 during December by revisiting albums from our top 10 of the year. Pick up your copy of Radiohead's In Rainbows by going to wyep.org/store.