A Review: Angsty Rainbows: An Unfortunate Oxymoron from Radiohead

I recently downloaded Radiohead's new album, In Rainbows, which you can purchase on their website for whatever you wanna pay for it. The fact that this scheme is working at all has impressed me. I haven't seen any burned DVD versions of In Rainbows being passed around. No, people seem to be going to their website, and paying a reasonable amount of money to download the thing. Napster went down in flames because free music is like crack. Apparently Radiohead attracts a more moral universe. Somebody should write to Randy Cohen.

Part of the trick for the American downloaders is probably the fact that no one knows how to convert pounds to dollars, and since the website asks for pounds (and who has the time to hit the "conversion" button, anyway?) we're all paying more than we realize. (7 pounds U. K., which is what I paid for the download, translates into over 14 dollars, U. S.: not bad for Radiohead, since they're [yes, Radiohead is a plural noun, I swear, just check their website] getting back one-hundred percent of the profit, with no loss to a bloodsucking record label.) I'm putting my money on the very real possibility that this is an important precedent: within another year we'll be seeing the online distribution of albums by U2, and maybe the Beastie Boys. (Is Rage Against the Machine still putting out albums?) Anybody with a decent following and a website will follow suit. Mark my words.

So much for economic foresight. I give the album itself a B+ for musical cahones. But, Majel, what's not to like? It's thoroughbred Radiohead, after all.

I like to think that every rock star singer is either a trained guitarist, or a trained pianist first and foremost and that the character of his or her band takes on the general flavor of that instrument. The argument works for, I dunno, Coldplay, but breaks down the minute you really think about it (Björk?) Still, I continue to think it's a useful heuristic. The advantage Radiohead has--according to this somewhat lamely totalizing framework--is that it's got both: Greenwood's guitar PLUS Thom Yorke's piano = a distinctively ... guitar-iano [sic?] sound. Play any reasonably knowing Radiohead fan 2.6 seconds of any track on In Rainbows and she'll/he'll nail it in as much time (as I did in a basement café at the University of Chicago one week ago). But this is also what puts the album a bit on the boring side. When OK Computer came out I was floored; with Kid A, doubly floored; and Hail to the Thief ... don't even get me started. Most successful music groups find a good, edgy, distinctive sound and stick with it throughout their more or less successful careers. Radiohead has managed continually to remake itself musically on its albums. Each has had a *different* good, edgy, and distinctive sound. And, better yet, the band is such a kick in live performance that the CDs they put out--as well-produced as they are--are more like test cases for their live shows, which tend to be at least 9 times as exciting, and equally musical.

Maybe, if you had the time, you could Google the lyrics to In Rainbows and that would draw the moody, vaguely happy gist of the album into focus and shore up the moxie it lacks. I frankly don't have the patience for this. Thom Yorke has never uttered a single, legible poetical phrase as far as I can tell, but this has never hurt the albums he creates. With In Rainbows, I can only assume the poetry tends toward the wrist-slashing, bag-over-the-head, anti-corporate despair that has been their trademark for the last--what, decade?--since Yorke's lyrics are yet again predictably opaque. But who cares about lyrics? With apologies to my ethnomusicological training, one still looks for *something* distinctive about the music ITSELF. (Yes, Philip Bohlman, I said it, and I mean it.) The live string orchestra sounds nice (even though it's not quite new: we heard it on Kid A and elsewhere) but Beck did it better on Sea Change. The old, recycled "wussy guitar ballad" sound (as some reviewer I read put it years ago) is just old, and recycled.

To cut to the chase, this album is married with kids, just like the band. They're still great musicians--and don't get me wrong: there isn't a track on the thing that is poorly produced or unmusical. For any other group, In Rainbows would be genius. But I expect more from Radiohead than married & comfortable. Sorry, guys: if it's resting-on-the-laurels from here on out, you'll get no more internet pounds from me.


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