October 18, 2007

Record Review: Radiohead

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Abruptly ending the longest recording drought between albums in their illustrious history, the Oxfordshire quintet Radiohead have once again returned to the forefront of the alternative rock music scene. The band displays their consistent innovation with their electronically distributed seventh LP: In Rainbows. Radiohead forge some of their older live staples into more polished incarnations, as well as compress two years of recorded work and experimentation into an economical forty-two and one-half minutes. In Rainbows marks the band’s most accessible record in an extensive catalogue of music. The combination of stellar musicianship, impressive fables, solid mastering and instrumental flourishes, help to seal In Rainbows as an artful exercise in juxtaposition — an impressive feat for an album that for the most part is being regarded solely as a sea change in the music industry.
In Rainbows kicks off with the 5/4 timed beat-heavy opener “15 Step,” a song that stirs up memories of Thom Yorke’s recent solo album The Eraser, until it shifts into rolling jazz melodies provided by lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood. Yorke’s haunting vocals take center stage as he traverses existential crossroads, wondering, “How come I end up where I started? / How come I end up where I went wrong” — on top of a heavy bass line and a mixture of electronic and real drums. On “15 Step,” and for the rest of the album, drummer Phil Selway and bassist Colin Greenwood (Jonny’s older brother) maintain a solid rhythm presence that helps to keep the album’s extravagances solidly grounded. Such is the case on the next song “Bodysnatchers,” the most aggressive sounding track on the album. Guided by dueling guitars and Yorke’s spacey sounding vocals, the song accelerates unrestrained before it ultimately collapses into a wave of down-struck acoustic chords, as Yorke muses, “Has the light gone out for you? /Because the light’s gone out for me.” There is a distinct shift in Yorke’s songwriting on In Rainbows, as it is very straightforward for the majority of the songs, in comparison to the more cryptic nature of his past lyrics.
The album standout “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” starts with distinctive high-hat and snare drumming as Yorke’s plaintive sigh signals the commencement of the already-stated guitar arpeggios. Jonny Greenwood adds ethereal ambience through his Ondes-Martenot playing, creating a warm resonant backdrop for Yorke’s timid voice, as he “follows phantoms/ to the edge of the earth,” if only “to fall off.” Surreal songwriting and song structure coalesce in the final minute, as the song closes on a series of fading melodies.
The latter half of the album relies on heavy orchestration and light instrumental touches, as the record plunges into expansive sonic territory. The atmospheric “All I Need,” opens with ambient strings, before marimba beats later chime in halfway through the ballad. As the track personifies worries about being overlooked as “the next act/ waiting in the wings” or a mere “picture/ lying in the reeds” a sudden burst of piano and cymbals closes the song dramatically, segueing into “Faust Arp.” Heavily layered “Faust” concentrates itself around gorgeous orchestral string selections and open picked guitar that are synched with Yorke’s rolling stream-of-consciousness imagery. The following song “Reckoner” features a nucleus formed around Yorke’s disarming falsetto, the only vocal register he uses on the song, as tambourine beats and violins envelop the listener.
Radiohead sticks with the theme of affecting acoustics on “Jigsaw Falling into Place.” The intricate and rich fingerpicked guitar work sparkles before the song descends into a hypnotic sounding coda, as Yorke’s hysterical vocals sound off with the utmost urgency as “all blurs into one.” “Videotape” provides a fitting close to In Rainbows, as Yorke mulls over Goethe allusions with a backdrop of minor piano chords and a morose drumbeat. While stuck somewhere between “the pearly gates” and “Mephistopheles just underneath,” the “Videotape” becomes a melancholy memory, a means to say bye, and an apt conclusion to the malaise filled album.
What started as a series of recordings in rural England solidifies itself as a solid collection of songs, under the guidance of producer Nigel Godrich. Though released at middling 160 kbps bitrate, much to the chagrin of audiophiles worldwide, the strong-layered production still shines through on the melancholic anthems. More impressive is the album’s staggering number of downloads, 1.2 million so far, after solely being distributed through Radiohead’s e-mail service/ online shop W.A.S.T.E (named after the Tristero Organization’s underground postal service in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49).
Holistically, Radiohead can be most content with piecing together a wide breadth of musical elements and literary allusions in a gripping manner, as In Rainbows proves itself a dazzling spectral affair.