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Well, as per an earlier post, yesterday, October 10th 2007, Radiohead released their latest album for download. It will later be available for distribution through both traditional CD means and a collectors edition diskbox as well. I pre-ordered the diskbox myself and was pleased to find that it also included access to the download so I wouldn't be waiting until sometime in December perhaps to listen to this new album.
This is not going to be a full fledged review of In Rainbows because I've only been listening to it for a few hours now and haven't really formalized my thoughts yet, (I will say that it was both surprising and incredibly intriguing, and that on first listen I was really digging it). Instead, I thought I'd take a look back over the now almost 15 year career of this band and discuss one of my favorite songs from each album.
1: "You" from Pablo Honey
Way back in 1993 when this album was released, Radiohead was just another alternative band with some roots in the post punk era. This song is a good example of that fact as it's a rock song with distorted guitars that sound like guitars and everything. Overall, I would have to say that this is my least favorite of their albums, but that's misleading because it's still good, just very overshadowed by what would follow. This song though, I really like. It has a good riff and follows the alternative style of softer verses and huge guitar based choruses. Dismissing it as simply another grunge song though is misleading as there are some intricate guitar layers going on throughout behind the quasi cryptic lyrics. This song is also a great example of how amazing Thom Yorke is as a singer as when he lets loose and wails in the middle of the song, it's a total outpouring of emotion, something that would be key to the band's later works, but would take on a far different form. Maybe it is a humble beginning for a band that would become one of the most progressive in the world, but if you trace their musical progression through their albums, none sound completely out of place. This song is part of their alternative beginnings, but also hints at things to come.
2: "Street Spirit" from The Bends
This is one of my all time favorite songs and the rest of the album is pretty amazing as well. With an delicate riff that seems to hang in the air over which Yorke's vocals sweep, it has a sense of atmosphere and weight to it like so many of their later songs. There are subtle layers of sound, and even layers of vocals that all work together to create something lush and rich, but not necessarily symphonic. It's hazier than that, more dream-like, but not uplifting or necessarily ethereal. When they first debuted the more sweepingly atmospheric arrangements of the less guitar oriented Radiohead, this song is one of the ones I pointed to as a sign that they always had that kind of sound in some way. There's also a sense of melancholy that seems to permeate every aspect and subtle nuance making the lyrics that much more haunting and intense. One of those perfect storm type of songs in my opinion where just everything works perfectly.
3: "Electioneer" from Ok Computer
This is another all time favorite of mine (this entire album is really), but it's almost at the opposite end of the spectrum from the previous one. A rocker with a great twisting, quasi punk riff all fuzzed out and rough, it's one of the harder songs they ever wrote. There are elements of their progressive nature throughout it though including haunting sounds that sweep and shift in the background, as well as the riff itself, which is rock and roll, but not just straight forward. Cap all that off with a screeching, twisting, noisy solo as the song sort of blows apart towards the end, and you have a something quite substantial and compelling. Some might view this song as a slight return to their early alternative roots, but I don't see it like that. Although it is a rock song, it's feel is more connected to the post punk noise rock sound of Sonic Youth, than Nirvana in my mind. There's also a connection between this and later works like "I Might Be Wrong" in there somewhat hypnotic pulsing riffs, perhaps why I connect this song more with their progression forward than backwards. It's debatable though and in either case it's a killer rock track.
4: "Optimistic" from Kid A
A floating, dreamy rock number with a catchy guitar riff that is thick sounding with far more layers of sound than are evident on the first listen. It's a very haunting song, but not in the same way as other tracks from this album or the one that followed. It seems to dance the line between the melancholy the and uplifting. I especially like the lyrics and vocal delivery on this number. Some lines are a little child-like..."big fish eat the little ones"... but when delivered in Yorke's unique wail, they seem to say more about life than the most complex poetic images ever could. That is something I see in many, if not all Radiohead songs: lyrics that in just about any other setting might sound completely absurd and fall short, but in the contexts they put them in speak volumes. This song is a great example of that, and it's catchy and compelling to listen to as well... great track.
5: "Dollars and Cents" from Amnesiac
At first a bit of a delve into some form of lounge jazz, this song also has some massive sweeping textures that creative a very dynamic melody behind Yorke's vocals. The backing rhythm is quite progressive on it's own but when melded with these almost pure tone sweeps, it seems to eschew in a series of swells with vocals echoing back and forth in multiple layers. In fact, the vocals are one of my favorite parts of this track, but I doubt they would work as well without such a lush backing. There is so much going on that when it finally fades at the end, it's as if you've been on a sonic roller coaster that surged and receded in a series of all encompassing musical movements. Some songs seem very linear in how they start and end, even progressive songs. This is not one of them, it seems to swirl, push and pull as if alive in a very dynamic dance between vocal layers, the jazzy rhythm and the atmospheric sounds. Definitely up their as one of their finest moments in my mind.
6: "A Punch Up at a Wedding" from Hail to the Thief
I don't know where to start with this track... I just like it so much. It's disjointed feeling base and subtle piano lines make for a very distinct feel, but it's somewhat amusing (not necessarily in a funny way though), social comment lyrics really make it great. I love how they use a quasi story to comment on people in general, almost calling out society and saying "What's wrong with you?!", but in a subtler way. I wouldn't call it angry necessarily, more sad and upset at first wrapped in what is almost a story with a slight surge of anger in the chorus. This is one of my favorite tracks to analyze, first, because I like just about everything about it from lyrics to music, and second, because it's slightly absurd, but also very relevant and applicable in the generic sense. All of that happens over top this bluesy piano laden rhythm that's pretty catchy, with some screeching guitar elements off in the background for atmospheric effect. It makes the song seem both grounded and slightly ethereal at the same time... a good contrast that when combined with the lyrical content really works well.
7: "Reckoner" from In Rainbows
When I first listened through the new album, this song absolutely floored me. Opening with some primal, tribal-like percussion over which a subtle guitar rhythm drifts, the song does drive forward, but not necessarily building at a particularly rapid pace. Then the vocals come in, these floating, haunting, sweepingly melancholy lines from Thom that really hang in the air with such an aching urgency. It builds with layers of keys and harmonized vocals that push the atmospheric quality up and up until it suddenly pulls back in the middle to just backing vocals in each side of the stereo image, and lead voice over barely audible guitar parts in the center. Then with symphonic surges of strings it goes back into the original feel. This song is one of those that seems like pure emotion captured for to me. The percussion makes it almost trance-like and hypnotic and Yorke's vocal work is stellar and pushes everything skyward. It's both a sad and an uplifting song, like that moment of beauty after the harshest storms when the sun breaks through and streams through the clouds. Absolutely fantastic in conveying a specific feel to the point where it almost doesn't even matter what the lyrics are saying. Instead the actual words are just the icing on the cake that complete the sonic landscape. An incredible composition in my opinion... stellar through and through.
Bonus: "Everything in it's Right Place" Live from I Might Be Wrong
Although it was a pretty short album, Radiohead's live album is worth picking up if you haven't already. I know I was certainly curious as to how some of their more experimental and atmospheric arrangements would translate to the stage and it delivers with some great moments. This track works great live with two things really standing out. One is the vocal effects used to create this multi layered, multidimensional vocal track that sounds very organic when it is far to easy too sound sterile when employing such techniques. The second thing actually has nothing to do with the band at all, but is the audience clapping along at the opening of the track after the somewhat improvised beginning. I don't know what it is about it, but that clapping is just the perfect addition and seems to make it drive forward that much more, like of living drum pulse, adding to the already hypnotic feel over which Yorke's vocals arc. Great song for sure, but this live version is even better in my opinion, really creating a great atmosphere and adding emphasis.
Looking at these 7 (8) songs, the sheer diversity is amazing, and this is only a small swatch of the Radiohead catalog. If you're new to Radiohead that can be a little daunting as their early work is so completely different than their more recent albums. I find all of them satisfying though, each one having a specific place in my collections, and I can't wait to hear what they come up with on the bonus material from their newest release and whatever may follow that.
All of these albums can be found in most major outlets, although Pablo Honey can be a little difficult to find depending on where you look, and In Rainbows is available for whatever you wish to pay on the band's website. You can check that out here, if you haven't already: http://www.inrainbows.com.
Also check out the band's website. It's an interesting collection of material, blog entries, cryptic images and the general artistic exploration you've certainly come to expect from this band if you've been listening as long as I have: http://www.radiohead.com/deadairspace/