Monday, October 15, 2007

I woke up on Wednesday having forgotten about Radiohead and In Rainbows because, to be honest, although I respect them I’ve never really cared for them. But then the BBC breakfast news confronted me with the visual identity of their new album and a female music journalist talking about how bands make their money off touring rather than selling CDs these days, and I was reminded that today was the day and I could pay whatever I wanted for digital files of Radiohead’s new record (+45p). So I turned my computer on, opened a browser, searched “radiohead”, clicked a few links, entered a few details, and downloaded In Rainbows for the sum of 1p (+45p).

I got halfway through the album’s ten tracks on my walk to work. Each time I passed another pair of white earbuds I wondered if they were listening to the Radiohead album too. Pre-‘release’ hype had seemed almost non-existent outside the environs of messageboards and other online music communities; several people who I would have expected to know of the existence of In Rainbows actually knew nothing. Until the day of its ‘release’ maybe almost nobody knew anything about In Rainbows. Certainly no one outside Radiohead and their inner circle knew what it would sound like.

I use the word ‘release’ tentatively because this is not a release; with a ‘discbox’ containing a double CD and double vinyl available in December (for £40) and a ‘proper’ CD release in January, what the download version of In Rainbows amounts to is a leak, in the same way that any unscrupulous sort lets any advance promotional copy pass around Oink and beyond before proper release. The twin ironies are that Radiohead’s leak is a; lower quality (at 160kbps) than many other leaks, and b; earning them money. Presuming, of course, that you opted to pay them money for it; choosing a sum of £00:00 for the transaction is entirely possible. I know people who have paid, or donated depending how you look at it, several pounds for a ‘copy’ of In Rainbows. With no label and no manufacturing or distribution costs to get in the way, Radiohead are probably doing very well from this supposedly audacious move, although they’re under no obligation whatsoever to let us know how well.

But enough conjecture about the marketing of this. “15 Step” opens In Rainbows with an electronic beat, a sleight-of-hand tactic revealed as a faint, a joke even, as it transmutes to live drums inside 30 seconds. Sampled crowds of children, buffers of unidentified synthesiser, guitars, drums, bass, vocals; strangely I am left humming “2+2=5”. “Bodysnatchers” growls threateningly with nastily amplified guitars and wailing, but other than this the mood is atmospheric, understated, and calmly repetitious; the electronic synergy that seemed to reach an apex on “Backdrifts” sucked away in favour of a more orthodox instrumentation. I am most often left humming “Scatterbrain”.

“Faust Arp”, for instance, is a brief pastoral illusion, strings like Robert Kirby painted for Nick Drake, guitar playing not like Drake at all, nor melody; instead of melancholy folk we have mechanised repetition in the way Yorke sings, neither essentially or physically beautiful in itself, but thought of as such due to context.

“All I Need” mingled with the early-morning sounds of a brand new shopping precinct as I walked to work through the city again the next day; jackhammers and an outside broadcast by a local radio DJ attempting to hide his perfect ‘face for radio’ with trowled concealer and a leather jacket making a perfect symbiosis with Thom Yorke’s meticulously studied performative ennui. Yorke, once again, sings not of people or events or emotions but of vague feelings and sensations, the kind of oblique urban wretchedness and alienation we are used to; he is an animal locked in a hot car, an insect crawling away from sunlight, a befumed commuter stuck in traffic, a bystander lost in the 21st century, still. Vaguely disgusted, vaguely afraid, vaguely confused. He has talked about the lyrics being frightening, but the music here is so often low-key, warm and delicate, and the words so indistinct and indirect, that I am unconvinced.

“Nude” also approximates beauty, perhaps more effectively by not playing on context, with gentle basslines, filigree repetition of guitar figures, and cooed vocals. “Reckoner” is genuinely beautiful though, recalls the way “Rabbit In Your Headlights” recalls “New Grass”; the only problem being that I have never felt that Yorke actually meant or felt what he was singing in the way that Mark Hollis did; the lyrics “versed in Christ should strength desert me” from Laughing Stock sand-blasted with an openness and feeling that Yorke has conscientiously avoided ever since “Creep”, his intellect and ego presumably embarrassed by such a crass and vulnerable expulsion of emotion. Even “Videotape”, the piano-ballad closer, is oddly impersonal, its whirring percussion and wearied tone unconfessional.

Thom Yorke will never again write anything that might be deemed a hook or a chorus, but it’s nice to hear Phil Sellway actually get to play drums again, because he can, and well; likewise it’s nice to hear Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brian both thrash and caress guitars and Colin Greenwood play an organic, if clean, bass guitar. It’s not quite a stripped-back “live in a room” aesthetic, but it’s as close as we’re likely to get. Probably, possibly, in many ways, the record that casual fans wanted them to record after OK Computer.

Which is to say that In Rainbows is a modern rock record from an intelligent, arch group who are keen to posit themselves as something more than a rock band, and sounds like such; more linear than anything since Kid A but still at several removes to anything on The Bends. Seven albums into their career, Radiohead were never going to launch another paradigm-shifting missile at the heart of popular culture; for all their talk of anti-consumerism, their product is meticulously quality-controlled, packaged, marketed. In many ways they have reached the point, musically, where they are just a band making music; now largely playing it together rather than deconstructing it alone. What marks them out is the methods they construct for themselves to operate in. What still frustrates me is that, no matter how well I can recognise the artisanship of their craft, I know I will be seldom drawn to listen to In Rainbows for either pleasure or catharsis. After fifteen years, I still don’t know what Radiohead are for.

And now that the 'review' bullshit is over... I don't like it anywhere near as much as I like the Caribou record. Or Electrelane. Or Patrick Wolf. Or 65daysofstatic. Or Acoustic Ladyland. If I was clever I'd tell you why.


Monday, October 15, 2007


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Nick Southall was born in southwest England at the tail end of the 70s, and is the youngest of three brothers. He has a degree in popular culture and philosophy and has written about music for Stylus Magazine, The Guardian and Drowned In Sound, amongst others. He likes red wine, expensive headphones, spicy food, and the Hungarian national football team of the 1950s. His favourite record is the last one he listened to. You can contact him by email via sickmouthy @ gmail dot com should you so wish.

All material copyright Nick Southall 2006/2007/2008

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