Rock & Roll Feature: Radiohead Plays the Colors of In Rainbows

This is the fourteenth in a series of Rock & Roll features I'm writing for this site. I'm a rock and roller, so this column is a way for me to feature a different album that I like, from different genres every month.

Seeing this is the first Rock & Roll Feature of 2008, I thought I would discuss an album that I think will end up being one of the most influential of the year when all is said and done. Although officially released via the band's website back in 2007, I think Radiohead's In Rainbows will end up being a major force in revolutionizing the music industry in the new year, if is hasn't been already. It just so happens that it is being released to stores today, January 1st 2007, as well, but the real reason I've chosen it for this feature is not because of it's unique release approach or store release. Instead, it is because I think this album is one of the band's best, as well as one of the most exciting albums I've ever heard.

Radiohead may be the most adventurous band to come out of the alternative era, or at the very least the most adventurous band that receives mainstream press. Their ability to shift styles and create progressive sonic landscapes puts them up there with bands like Pink Floyd and the Beatles in terms of innovation and compelling compositions in my mind. This album further solidifies those feelings even more. The band's innovative online release technique of "pay whatever you want" has been well discussed and documented by numerous sources, including me, so now it's time to talk about the musical aspects of this album.

In the past, Radiohead albums have shocked and surprised with styles completely unique and completely unlike what anyone expects from them. This album seems to hearken back to some of their previous works, but at the same time sound completely new and pushing in directions this band hasn't gone before.

Starting off with "15 Step", a drum and drum machine driven piece with touches of jazzy guitar and the traditional intricate wordplay from Thom Yorke, it's obvious that the band has not completely abandoned the creative energy of electronica from albums like Kid A and Amnesiac. Songs like "Idioteque" especially come to mind with this one. "Bodysnatchers" is one of their best songs of all time in my opinion. It's a "Radiohead rocker" in that it's got a great fuzzy guitar riff and a killer driving beat, but is still progressive enough to be unlike any other rock song out there. The band even seems to channel a little of their progressive punk roots on this song with a bit of noise rock thrown in ala "My Iron Lung". "Nude" moves in a completely different direction. Symphonic and melodic, complete with sweeping string parts and hauntingly melodic vocals over it's jazzy, swaying beat and guitar work. This one grows as it progresses with additional elements to create a very atmospheric track that is packed with emotion.

There are a lot of symphonic and atmospheric elements on this album, but there are still surprises that change that atmosphere, giving it a slightly twisted edge. Take "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi" with it's delicate, interwoven guitar layers. This track also has that atmospheric touch, but as it builds layers upon layers, adding drums and additional sweeping vocal touches, it seems to be getting more soaring. Suddenly though, it pulls pack to a sort of sinking minimalism before returning again, except that this time it's sort of melancholy and melodic darkness that creates this very heavy landscape of sound. There are still touches of the original mood, but the center has definitely shifted towards night. "All I Need" is another darker feeling track, with a bit of a bluesy edge... well blues filtered by Radiohead. I especially like the hauntingly minimal chorus of this song, but the intensity is only pushed skywards as additional parts come in, making for a moody, but also dreamy, cacophony of sound.

By comparison to the tracks that precede it, "Faust Arp" begins rather tamely, with just a simple acoustic guitar parts. This song grows into something more surreal though with orchestrated string parts that create this overarching melodic progression. "Reckoner is my favorite track on this album and an excellent climactic moment. Beginning with a variety of tinkling and spontaneous sounding percussion, there is a subtle guitar part added before Yorke's vocals come in. The vocal parts are more melodic color than anything else and as piano parts and string parts are added that melody is emphasized and pushed creating these harmonic swells. The song pulls pack to simple guitar and vocals (and cool surround sound backing vocals), with then symphonic sweeps of strings before surging back into the original rhythm. When I first heard this song I was just blown away completely, it's like a perfect melodic storm, with simple movements that are incredibly emotionally striking.

"House of Cards" has a subtle, slow pulsing beat and more great vocal word play, this time drenched with echo and reverb. Strings surge again, but more distorted this time. In fact this entire song seems slightly distorted and twisted, but the vocals cut through, especially at the end where simple high pitched syllables ring out amongst the thick mix. Minor tinged acoustic guitars start off "Jigsaw Falling into Place", but again it's the sweeping melody and vocals that slash across the guitar and driving drums that really make this song great. As Thom sings the actual lyrics over this backdrop, they're rhythmic but more atonal and spoken word, creating a great contrast. There's a cool upward melodic progression to the break as well before the song kicks back in. It builds with additional colors and layers of sound, strings and guitars, creating a very dense mix as the main vocals get higher and more urgent before the abrupt end... another standout amongst amazing tracks.

The album concludes with "Videotape", a slow piano driven ballad that starts out pretty minimal, but builds with march like drums, backing vocals, stuttering percussion and other tonal parts that thicken up the entire mix. There's an interesting mix of straight beats and poly-rhythmic drum machine pulses to this one as well, echoing those opening electronic blips from "15 Step" with which the album opened, bringing everything full circle.

As you can see, there is a diversity to these songs, as well as plenty of moments that recall earlier Radiohead tracks. I'm not normally a fan of such symphonic compositions, but I think I'm normally put off because they sound so fake and produced. This album doesn't suffer from that sterility and sounds very organic and alive. Although there are electronic dance-eqsue beats, sweeping symphonic strings and some hypnotic guitar parts, there is still a lot of motion to the album. Parts seem to surge and recede, never standing still, giving even the more droning tracks a very emotional and organic feel, even more so than they have in the past. Although at times the mix feels more sparse, there are actually more parts. It's not necessarily minimalistic, but there is just more space, not necessarily actual space either though, but just the illusion of space, and more movement making for very dynamic songs. That isn't to say that Radiohead hasn't sounded dynamic or organic before, it just seems far more prominent on these tracks, making the entire album more intense and even spontaneous sounding.

When I purchased this album, I went for the diskbox, which includes a second disk with 8 more tracks. These tracks fit in with the original album perfectly. The first one, "Mk1", even continues with the same piano melody from "Videotape", creating a unique two disk concept album feel. In fact, there is a concept album feel to the entire work, like each song is just a different "shade of the rainbow" but all part of the same stellar event as the skies part and the sun shines through the rain, adding another element of depth to an already incredible work. I won't go through the songs from the extra disk one by one, but lets just say I highly recommend this expanded version of the album if you can afford the somewhat expensive cost.

Overall, I think this album is one of Radiohead's best... a great bend of styles that sound immediate, dynamic and compelling. I like all there previous albums too, but I think each one sounds completely unique, this one included. If you're a fan of the band, I cannot believe you haven't heard this album already... it was released for free and all, but maybe pick up the diskbox if you can. If you're not a big fan of the band, this is as good a time as any to check them out as I think Radiohead is one of the most exciting bands, and In Rainbows is one of the most exciting albums, of modern times.

Also, in case you missed my previous post about Radiohead broadcasting a performance of songs from this album on TV and the Internet today, (12 A.M. EST), you can check that post out here... it has all the times and where to watch this broadcast if you missed it: Exclusive Radiohead TV Broadcast to Start the New Year

The album isn't available as a download online anymore, but you can still pick up the diskbox here:

And you can pick it up from Amazon directly here: In Rainbows


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