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Music: Radiohead - In Rainbows

Artist: Radiohead
Album: In Rainbows
Label: none!
Released: 10/10/07
Purchased From: inrainbows.com
Price: Whatever you want (I paid $10.91 with the credit card transaction fee included)
Purchased on: 10/01/07

Review: It must be a stroke of artistic irony.

A joke.

Why else would Radiohead finally include a 10+ year old song, originally called “Big Ideas (Don’t Get Any)” on their newest album, In Rainbows? Now called “Nude,” the song opens with the lyrics, Don’t get any big ideas / They’re not gonna happen.

Oh Thom Yorke, you silly man. Your actions betray your words.

As posted to every music website, blog and e-mail home to Grandma, Radiohead not only has a new album, but also a new way to distribute their albums. For those of you in the dark, here is the gist… Fans pay whatever they think the band (sans record label or middle man) deserves for their creative output. Fans charge that decided upon amount to their credit card (plus small transaction fee). Fans receive e-mail with link to download .zip file full of ten new songs in .mp3 format (free of copy protection, downloadable from multiple computers, encoded at 160 kbps). While guys in tight t-shirts who spend too much money on stereo systems and aftershave may be upset about the audio quality, I assure you that you can’t hear the difference… because, as of this writing, there is nothing else to compare it to. For now, this is the album… audio quality and all.

Taking donations for your music or other art may not be a new idea, but it is most certainly a big idea for a big band like Radiohead. Instead of crunching the numbers and breaking down the percentages in an attempt to figure out what determines the value of a piece of music in it’s rawest and most ethereal form, Radiohead simply decided to let the fans decide. A simple announcement on the band’s website gave way to a full wave of interactive marketing and collaborative pricing as people began discussing what they were going to pay. Of course, there is the special box set with all of the extras and trimmings for a flat £40 (about $80) for those of you who are intimidated by such consumer freedom.

Enough about the distribution and sale, though. This story of anarchistic capitalism has been splattered over every business daily and regular newspaper. Rest assured, Radiohead’s pockets are lined just fine, but how is the aesthetic market doing?

After the seizure-laden melodies of Radiohead’s 2003 release, Hail To The Thief, it was hard to know what to expect… that is… if you have not been paying attention. In Rainbows is short, sweet and slow to reveal itself on first listen. The album erupts with the kinetic rhythm of “15 Step,” a song that questions thematic circles as well as musical ones with lyrics like, how come I end up where I started / how come I end up where I went wrong. Driven by a synthy drum beat, the song as starting point and self-referential musing is reminiscent of “Hail To The Thief (HTTT)’s “2+2=5.” When the song ends, so do any reference points.

The sometimes universal and sometimes cliche themes of love, life, lust and death are omnipresent throughout “In Rainbows.” From the life affirming full on rock assault of “Bodysnatchers” to the no-regrets reflection of the drum machine backed piano dirge, “Videotape,” all of the best staples of Radiohead’s music are included on this album in layers that reveal themselves only after repeat listens. There are even a few surprises, such as the drum & bass rhythm of “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” and the strings backed hip-hop beat on the most direct (and slightly deranged) love song on the album, “All I Need.”

Many of the songs on “In Rainbows” come off as somewhat familiar and that is exactly where much of the album’s magic resides.

“In Rainbows” is Radiohead’s most fan friendly album for more reasons than its DIY pricing. The songs on the album are not new to most people who have been following the band since their popular and critical masterpiece, “OK Computer.” While songs like “Nude” have been around in one form or another since the mid-1990’s, most of the other compositions on “In Rainbows” have had a public life of their own. “House of Cards” has been available as a fuzzy downloadable recording online for at least a year. Others have been leaked and released in various fragments and stages as well. Additionally, anyone who caught the band on their 2006 tour had already heard a handful of these songs in their embryonic live versions.

Instead of hiding in a studio until everything was perfect, as they have done in the past, Radiohead decided to try out their newest material as they birthed it and let it evolve. The end result feels more like the culmination of a collaboration than a packaged product for one to consume. The free-of-restraints (both physical and digital) format of “In Rainbows” only adds to this sensation. Fans were there to hear the first sketches, to cheer and comment and discuss with each other in forums both public and private. Songs evolved and so did the band.

“In Rainbows” is the closest thing to a collaborative album that I have seen come out of the music industry. It doesn’t resort to gimmicks (Zaireeka, etc…) and everything about it, from its composition to its distribution, is appreciative of the people who have made Radiohead who they are… the listener.

One only has to look at the story of this album to see why Radiohead is one of the most important rock groups creating music today. Their creations deserve attention and “In Rainbows” deserves multiple listens, dissections, responses and discussions in anticipation for what might come next.

Rating: 4.5 / 5

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