November 1, 2007

In Rainbows, a Skeleton Review

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Two weeks ago, Radiohead released its new album In Rainbows online, making it available at any price the downloader was willing to pay. This was a nod by what has been called the most important band of our time (although it doesn’t have much competition) to the sprawling impact of the Internet and free downloads. So, to honor you, Thom Yorke and British bandmates, I present a review of “In Rainbows” from the perspective of the over-connected college student.
The vantage point isn’t much of a stretch. Thanks to Shakespeer, the Macintosh version of the infamous downloading behemoth DC++, I was free to exercise my right to download as granted by the band (and by Cornell computer science students). However, I waived my right to name my own price and begrudgingly accepted the $0.00 automatically charged by Shakespeer. Unfortunately, Shakespeer shut down midway through my download, and I was only able to salvage six songs out of their original order. But in today’s world of democraticized information, who’s to say what was original in the first place?
But I digress. The first song I downloaded, which happens to be the first song on the album, was “15 Step.” This is Radiohead at its most experimental-the song opens with a quick but plodding techno bass and gives way to a cool, light guitar, an echoed vocal effect that is used in later songs and, most weirdly, a chorus of kids. The song ends abruptly on a minor chord, reminding the listener that the wildly original sound can still retain some of Radiohead’s flagship melancholy.
On my iTunes, “Faust ARP” followed “15 Step.” Like “15 Step,” “Faust ARP” is a title that completely baffles me, which I think means that it’s artistic. The violin in “Faust ARP” is stirring, methodically swaying up the scale. The strength of the violin nicely complements Yorke’s uncannily airy voice, and the song contains my personal favorite lyric: “You’ve got a head full of feathers / you got melted to butter.” Fellas, feel free to whip that one out when you’re looking to both woo and befuddle a certain someone.
“Reckoner” and “House of Cards” are two weak showings. The former has some great music, but Yorke’s voice, by this point incomprehensibly high, is distracting. In “House of Cards,” it’s the lyrics that take away from the overall quality. The song opens with, “I don’t want to be your friend / I just want to be your lover.” So that’s where Justin Timberlake’s lost notebook went.
“Jigsaw Falling Into Place,” a more acoustic rendering of “Faust ARP,” has some nice movement, but the uncharacteristically low vocals, played on top of equally deep music, make for a muddy song. The final song on my, shall we say, filtered version of “In Rainbows” was “Videotape.” Its music haunts in a way that can only be pulled off by skeletal piano, and the halting percussion, which sounds more like an adjacent machine than a planned track, adds to the chilling effect.
Overall, In Rainbows should be a welcome CD both for seasoned Radiohead veterans and for bandwagoners who, like me, have just discovered the band that it was really cool to like about three years ago. Armed with this release, we can now seem at ease in the hallowed halls of indie record stores. But then, if we’re all just downloading In Rainbows anyway, what’s the difference?