Revisionist Radiohead: A Review of ‘In Rainbows’

By Josh Korr
St. Petersburg Times
October 19, 2007

There are two great things about Radiohead’s new album, In Rainbows: the presence of actual guitars, and the price tag (or lack thereof).

There’s one not-as-great thing about it: the music.

If that’s the tradeoff for coaxing one of the world’s greatest bands partway back to the land of humans, so be it. Any blockbuster group that recognizes the ridiculousness of charging $15 for a CD and lets you pay what you wish, as Radiohead has done in a grand online experiment with In Rainbows, is okay by me.

But the same follow-their-muse impulse that led them to buck the pricing system is what has made Radiohead so frustratingly obtuse for too long.

The five Oxford chums were just another early ’90s band when a couple stabs of muted distortion turned their single “Creep” into an angsty global smash. Their next two albums, the gloriously rocking The Bends and chillier but magnificent OK Computer, turned Radiohead into rock’s great hope.

The band’s complex pop — a near-orchestral, three-guitar attack; twitchy time signatures; Thom Yorke’s soaring-yet-mumbly tenor — provided an alternative to the dominant models of the day: Guns N’ Roses’ and Pearl Jam’s blues-based riffing, punk’s three-chord pop, indie rock’s structure-agnostic noise. Guitarist Jonny Greenwood and bassist brother Colin “play octatonic scales that sprawl over four octaves,” the New Yorker‘s Alex Ross wrote of one Radiohead song — but you don’t have to understand music theory to know that Just, from The Bends, is as crazily difficult as it is catchy.

Looking to the Past

Overwhelmed by the same dilemma that tortured Nirvana and Pearl Jam — can mass success and artistic ideals co-exist — they packed up the guitars, picked up obscure electronic instruments, and leached much of the humanity out of their music. In the video for No Surprises, Yorke’s head is submerged in a fishbowl. Over the course of two albums, Kid A and Amnesiac, Radiohead invited us into that submerged claustrophobia. It wasn’t a particularly pleasant place to visit.

In Rainbows is a second step back from that insular wasteland, following 2003’s Hail to the Thief. There are many signs of life: gentle finger-picking and plaintive cello on Faust Arp; a Betty and Veronica tambourine on Reckoner; the crunchy guitar strum on House of Cards. Yorke admits to some romanticism (or caddishness) on House of Cards as he croons “I don’t want to be your friend. I just want to be your lover.” Occasionally he shucks off the vocal effects, as when he drops into a reedy baritone on Jigsaw Falling Into Place.

On the surface, the band has found a balance between the earlier guitar-heavy work and the more experimental stuff. But the reclaimed instruments can’t hide the fact that Radiohead no longer plays pop songs as such. Instead of being propelled by chord progressions, structure and melodic movement, the songs now float along on repeated or droned musical phrases, layers of atmospheric effects, and Bjork-like background chanting.

15 Step starts off with drummer Phil Selway and a computer sharing a trip-hop beat, then adds a casual sliding guitar line that repeats a bunch of times; some children’s cries and a ghostly synth moan provide the bridge. A dirty riff ignites Bodysnatcher off like a classic Radiohead rocker, and there’s a head-snapping freakout at the end. But afterward, it’s hard to recall what happened in the middle.

Missing Memories

Like much electronic music, there’s not a lot to grab onto. A fiendish guitar figure repeated 50 times doesn’t hit the brain the way an absurd solo or thrilling chorus does. Yorke’s sing-chanting on Jigsaw Falling Into Place is reminiscent of latter-day Bob Dylan: interesting, but not as compelling as straight-up tunes.

Good for resident genius Jonny Greenwood to subvert verse-chorus-verse structures if that’s what grabs him, but he should realize there was nothing embarrassing about his once-spellbinding guitar work. Good for the band, too, to challenge the industry’s outdated pricing practices. It’s hard to get frustrated when their hearts are so clearly in the right place artistically and commercially.

Though I respect and appreciate Radiohead’s approach, what I really want to hear is more of those octatonic solos.

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