Radiohead underwhelms

In the interest of taking a break from reviewing esoteric bands from bizarre niche genres, I sat down this week with a freshly downloaded copy of Radiohead’s new album, In Rainbows. Because you probably know a little bit about the band already and I don’t have to do the usual rundown of what they’re about, I’ll offer a little historical perspective on this album’s distribution to contextualize my listening of the album.

In a word: free. That’s right, at a cost of zero dollars and zero cents, I downloaded this album from the Web site www.inrainbows.com. You, on the other hand, could pay significantly more . . . but only if you choose to. The band is offering consumers the option of paying as much as they choose, entering their total in a payment box. This method offers a revolutionary new method for making music consumption driven by eager listeners like myself.

Despite my belief that the method of release is revolutionary and an indicator of the future direction of the recording industry, listening to In Rainbows itself underwhelmed. Radiohead became known as a special band because they defied formulation with every record they released. There is no quintessential Radiohead song, or even album for that matter. From humble beginnings on Pablo Honey, up through their release prior to In Rainbows, Hail to the Thief, Radiohead presented radical sounds while still retaining a huge audience. Later albums involved experiments in electronic production completely unforeseeable given their original configuration and style. Listen to “Creep” and then a later track, like “Sit Down. Stand Up,” off Hail to the Thief and think about the progression evident. Listen to Kid A and then think about the fact that it sold more than a million copies, and you begin to understand why when Thom Yorke joked about being “The Beatles for a week,” there was a ring of truth to it.

In Rainbows is good. But it breaks with the evolution seen in prior work. Yes, there are some neat experiments in glitch-style drum production on “15 Step,” some cool guitar effects, some odd meters, and nice string orchestrations. But these aspects fall short of impressing, partly because expectations for In Rainbows are so high. There are some beautiful moments on the album, but Radiohead could have moved in riskier directions in the music. After all, it is this propensity for boldness that elevates the group’s music above the largely unremarkable pop rock created by their contemporaries. Yorke performs well on most of the songs, but his lyrics sometimes come off as trite (from “House of Cards:” “I don’t wanna be your friend / I just wanna be your lover”).

Griping aside, this is a good album, and its shortcomings are only prominently evident considered in its place in the band’s discography. In fact, there are a handful of tracks that make In Rainbows well worth the 1 to 2 minutes it will take to download. “Nude,” a song that Radiohead has played live in various incarnations since 1997, is absolutely gorgeous. Its gripping sparseness builds as the band layers minimal aspects that converge in beautiful swells, with a great performance by Yorke. The aforementioned glitch drumming on “15 Step” works well, making the track exciting and a remarkably effective opener. In “Reckoner,” we are treated to an airy break beat over which Yorke’s sings in beautiful falsetto, a voice all the more appreciable when the rhythm section drops to incorporate strings. The last track on the album, “Videotape,” opens prominent and unprocessed vocals over cycling piano and developing drum experimentations, closing the album well.

In Rainbows is a record worth getting, but I suspect it will be remembered more for its cultural and economic effect on record distribution than its actual content. If I had shelled out the 40 pounds (they’re English), for the collector’s edition of this album, I’d probably be pretty bummed, but since I got it legally for nothing, I certainly cannot begrudge it a spot in my library next to the greater works of the band.