Thursday, October 18, 2007

Radiohead Review

So let’s get the obvious out of the way – it’s cool that we can pay whatever we want for this record. But that’s where it ends, as a cool idea. Only a wealthy band can afford this as a viable business model. And it certainly places Radiohead back in the zeitgeist, which I thought would be unlikely after the artistic stasis of their last record, “Hail to the Thief.” But that isn’t to say that “In Rainbows” is necessarily a step forward.

There is a consistency to the songs on this album that one has come to expect from Radiohead. Since “The Bends,” the band has demonstrated a high level of sophistication with arrangement and hooks. And since “Kid A,” there has been a regular use of overdubbed guitar effects, synthesizers and programmed drums. All of these are on display with “In Rainbows,” but I do not hear them being used in fresh ways or original songwriting. The one exception is “All I Need,” which is nestled in the middle of the album. It begins with a muted drum beat and is followed by a great synth bassline that reminds me a bit of “Turquise Hexagon Sun,” by Boards of Canada. Thom Yorke’s lead vocals enter next with a counter line to the bass and the layers continue to grow from there. “All I Need” is subtle, catchy and structured with a simplicity that is fattened by sound ideas which develop over the course of the song’s three and a half minutes. I would certainly place “All I Need” in the canon of other great Radiohead songs like “High and Dry,” “Paranoid Android” and “Everything in it’s Right Place.” The one slight drawback is the final drum part, which has crash cymbals washing over the other instruments.

This brings up one of my biggest problems of the album, which is the drumming of Phil Selway. I have always felt that he brings the least amount of creativity to the band. His parts have generally been adequate and tasteful, but rarely inspired. On this record, many of the songs are anchored by his drums, which establish a rhythmic motif for simple guitar lines, vocals and synth textures to play over. In order for this kind of structure to be compelling, the drums have to simultaneously invite head bopping and complement the tone of the song. As usual, Selway gets the tone right but doesn’t put his “ass” into the kit. In other words, he plays very straight. Which is too bad for the songs and for bass player Colin Greenwood, who has a great touch and often writes very interesting, sinewy parts of his own.

(As a related sidenote, I would highly recommend reading Sasha Frere-Jones’s current piece in the New Yorker entitled “A Paler Shade of White.” )

Overall, I was impressed but not particularly excited by “In Rainbows.” The songs cover ground that has been heavily tread by the band already. There is the melancholic piano piece, the melodramatic, minor-key guitar ballad, the mid-tempo britpop and the live/electronic hybrid of syncopated drum patterns. The only real development is the use of more acoustic guitar on a few tracks. It would have been interesting to hear more of that on the record, as a kind of brooding response to the oversaturated and annoyingly quirky freak-folk trend. Or even better, they could have written better songs. An average Radiohead record is still well above the best work of most bands, but why settle?

1 comment:

Tony said...

Best part of your post-obviously the Purdie link-Oh yeh...uh.