With regards to In Rainbows, alt-icons Radiohead will probably be better remembered for revolutionizing how music is sold rather than how it sounds. Seven years since reinventing their own music on Kid A, the great Brits have now taken a stab at reinventing the whole music industry, distributing their latest, In Rainbows, in downloadable form from their website, over two months early, and charging ‘whatever you wish to pay’ – down to and including £0.00. But as for the record itself, it lays somewhere between their earlier pop-friendly work and later electronic-rock material: not just interesting but also enjoyable to listen to, however lacking some of the post-auditory resonance the band is so well known for.
Even before its unusual release, In Rainbows was already slated to be a different kind of Radiohead album. It is their first since completing their six-record deal with EMI (who signed them practically from their get-go). For the first time, the band had toured much of the new material before going into the studio, in a series of concerts in 2006. Their first tour in several years, it whetted the appetite of their rabid fanbase. While the band refuses to give out details of how many downloads – or what average price – In Rainbows has done, they claim to have made more money off per record than had it been sold regularly, as they avoided record labels entirely. But they’ve also called the whole new endeavor a ‘promotional tool’, for the sales of the physical CD around New Year’s.
After radically altering themselves from an MTV-hit band with Kid A, the release of Kid outtakes Amnesiac the following year (colorfully known to some as, ‘Kid B’), and Hail to the Thief in 2003, saw Radiohead doing something akin to treading water – albeit in a sea few others have even dipped their toes in. In Rainbows doesn’t try to emulate Kid A either directly, or in rebellious spirit, but plays everything more straight up.
There’s a definite drive on Rainbows, from the close-up and undistorted first single, “Jigsaw Falling into Place”, to the fuzzy and fun “Bodysnatchers”. The second-to-last and second tracks, respectively, “Jigsaw” grows and grows into a jazzed-up power, while “Bodysnatchers” has more of a catchy rhythm. Things go a little stranger on the last and first numbers, thanks to techno beats. Finisher “Videotape” is a slow, soft coda, reminiscent of Amnesiac’s “Pyramid Song” in its Myst-likeness, while opener “15 Step” is more stripped-down and laid-back, its beats more slap-like.
In between, things get prettier and higher, but sometimes limited. The melodic “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” twinkles like sunlight reflecting off a coy pond, but the easy listening “Reckoner” can slip from one’s memory. As for Radiohead’s customary shivers, the atmospheric “Nude” is more sweet than haunting, and the slowcore techno of “All I Need” doesn’t quite reach the levels of earlier work like “Fake Plastic Trees”. More remarkable are the flowing “Faust Arp”, which feels like trying to grasp quicksilver, and the relaxed alt-country strum-meets-interesting, compelling echoes, neither overdone, nor underdone, that is “House of Cards”.
In many ways, it’s probably unfair to compare and contrast In Rainbows’s distribution strategy with the record itself – just as how it can be unfair to hold Radiohead’s latest work up against their highly-regarded prior accomplishments. But nothing exists in a vacuum – though the band does a pretty good job of making sounds as if they came from that which nature abhors.