Radiohead, In Rainbows (TBD Records, 2008)

I've never really been sure what to make of Radiohead. They were originally presented as the British answer to Seattle grunge when "Creep" hit MTV in 1993, but their ambitions were bigger than that. Influenced by the art rock of the seventies but remaining firmly grounded in the present, the band has created its own unique style that defies any sort of categorization. Nobody else sounds like Radiohead, it's not clear that anybody else would even know how to sound like them, and they like it that way. When they brought in Nigel Godrich to co-produce their recordings with them, starting with their third album OK Computer in 1997, Radiohead became the most talked about current band in rock. They have now held that distinction for over a decade. I never really jumped on the bandwagon, though. I'd hear individual songs on the radio and wonder what the big deal was. Their songs aren't the kind that will grab the attention of somebody only casually listening.

Of course, that's the wrong way to listen to Radiohead. Their albums are meant to be listened to as a whole, without any distractions, because the appeal of Radiohead comes from their sonic textures and superlative production standards. Simply put, nobody in rock is making better-produced recordings than Radiohead. When you consider what The Beatles accomplished with four-track analog equipment, it's a rather embarrassing commentary on the state of the music industry that with all the technological advances of the last forty years, only Radiohead has managed to advance the art of recording rock music any further. But they have advanced it.

Radiohead's new album In Rainbows will not get officially released until the end of the year, but it has been available online as a download for over a month now. The music has a little bit of everything. "Bodysnatchers" features the driving guitars that were conspicuously absent from a couple of Radiohead's more recent albums. "All I Need" is backed by electronics, while "Faust Arp" features some orchestration coupled with a pair of acoustic guitars. The soulful "Reckoner" is driven by a great sounding, heavily echoed drum track. And as always, all the songs are topped off by the eerie voice of Thom Yorke. The sound of In Rainbows lives up to the high standards that Radiohead have set for themselves. People who like to listen closely for the little details, or who appreciate what goes into producing a record, will find lots of sonic treats here.

Still, I can't escape my initial hang-ups with the band. The whole of In Rainbows is far greater than the sum of the individual parts, but I think part of the reason for that is that the individual tracks are only OK on their own. Radiohead are unquestionably elite recording artists, but I'm not so sure that they're elite songmakers. If you ask me to come up with a particularly noteworthy lyric or melody line, I don't think I could do it.

So on one hand, In Rainbows is another feast for the ears from the band that currently defines the state of the art of rock recording. On the other hand, if you're looking for a great song rather than a great recording, this might not be the best place to start.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

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