Thursday, October 11, 2007

Somewhere Over The Rainbow

"In Rainbows" is distinctively Radiohead, from the guitars to the voice, rhythms, and song structures. For a band that has been so innovative over the years, that is both a good and bad thing. On the positive side, you know what to expect, and they deliver – we love that Radiohead sound. On the negative side, they are doing very little that is "new" for them, whereas each of the last several albums has been such an extreme departure from its predecessor. Is it fair to fault them for that? I don't.

Bottom line, this album contains some amazing music. As an example, "15 Step" is an extension of what was started back with "Idioteque", combining ambient sounds, jazzy guitars, bass accents, and Thom's voice with an off-beat electro-rhythm to keep the song moving, and somehow it all works beautifully. "Bodysnatchers" returns the band back to an aggressive rock sound, with the two guitars noodling over a distorted bass line and straight-ahead drumming from Phil Selway. "All I Need" is simply stunning in its simplicity and soundscape – the bass once again holds the song together as is so often seen in Radiohead's music. Finally, I think that "Videotape" will soon be regarded as one of the great songs in their catalog. It is haunting and heartbreaking at once, typical of the great album closers of earlier albums ("Street Spirit", "The Tourist", "Motion Picture Soundtrack"). I also hear some of Thom's most poignant lyrics coming from here:

"This is my way of saying goodbye
Because I can’t do it face to face
I'm talking to you from [videotape].

No matter what happens now
You shouldn’t be afraid
Because I know today has been the most perfect day I've ever seen."

However, given the strength of some of the songs, I think what the album lacks is just that – the "album". To me, this is a collection of songs rather than a complete album like "The Bends", "OK Computer", "Kid A", or "Hail To The Thief". Those albums require starting from the beginning and taking a journey with the band; this album does not have that feel. Consider this test: what are the ramifications if the song order were to be switched? On earlier Radiohead albums, the album would almost certainly not "work", the order was crucial. On "In Rainbows", however, save for "Videotape" closing the album, I see no issue with moving songs around – they simply lack the flow that is necessary to bring an album together. In addition, the songs lack a consistent style or sound, with styles ranging from jazzy to rock to electronic to even folk (yes, folk) on "Faust Arp". Yes, that demonstrates the musical skills of the band members, and, yes, each of these individual songs may be strong on its own merits, but, as an album, you look for consistency to connect each song to its neighbors, and "In Rainbows" does not do this.

How do you grade a Radiohead album? It's like evaluating students in the honor classes versus those in the regular classes – while the grading scale is the same, the meaning of a grade in one cannot be equated to the other. They are held to different standards. Therefore, while I would give this album a solid "B", we must all keep in mind that this is a "B" in the honor classes – better than most, but not quite a Radiohead masterpiece.

And now, back to "Videotape".


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