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RADIOHEAD — IN RAINBOWS

Rewarding music and unique CD packaging

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Last October, Radiohead released its new album on the Internet with a risky pay-what-you-choose option, and the marketing strategy apparently was a major success. But despite the numerous downloads, In Rainbows (TBD) also made a splash this month in its physical form, selling enough CDs to hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart.

No matter the form, it’s a rewarding collection of music from a band still at the top of its game.

Radiohead has never been a very pop-oriented or idealistic band. The sometimes razor-sharp (but obscure) lyrics by frontman Thom Yorke have tackled the bleaker aspects of the human condition. The new disc confronts alienation, answered prayers, depression and obsession with the most mellifluous melodies in rock music today.

In “15 Steps,” the opening cut, the Sisyphean narrator intones the repetitiveness of life. He climbs “15 steps/then a sheer drop/How come I end up where I start up?”

“Reckoner,” one of the more up-tempo cuts on the disc, alludes to the album’s title and perhaps the band’s pragmatic view of life as a short bittersweet affair: “Because we separate like ripples on a blank shore/In Rainbows.”

“Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” is a tale of obsession and one of the highlights of the album. The subtle guitar and drum effects are used to perfection, wrapping the lyrics in a sublime aura that echoes “How to Disappear Completely” from Kid A.

“All I Need” is about the dark side of an answered prayer. The main character is disconnected, yearning for a relationship of value. “I am a man who just wants to share your light,” he pleads. But in the end, he resigns himself with “I only stick with you because there are no others.” This is about as close as Yorke and the band get to a drippy love song.
Confusion and angst abound in “Bodysnatchers,” and the song ends with the defeated lyric “I’m a lie.”

The closing track, “Videotape,” is perhaps the most chilling song on the album, concerned with a dying man (“When Mephistophilis is just beneath/And he’s reaching up to grab me”) recording a message that will be played after he is gone. “This is my way of saying goodbye … I won’t be afraid.”

The actual CD packaging is unique in that it consists of one piece of paper, and the package houses the CD (and booklet with lyrics) and two stickers (front, back and two edges) that the buyer can place in a regular jewel case.

The quality of the musicianship is top-notch. Yorke is in especially fine form, his voice occasionally soaring over the music, or echoing from a dark hallway. Jonny Greenwood‘s quirky arrangements using guitar, strings and an obscure instrument called an Ondes Martenot (a keyboard similar to a theremin) adds to the band’s unique sound.

Some of the tunes sound as if they were composed in a mental asylum by characters out of Edgar Allan Poe. Many of the band members are multi-instrumentalists, and this illuminates the density and complexity at the core of the group. With repeated listenings, the music seeps into the pores and stays there.

— By Donald Gavron