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Snap Judgment: Radiohead's 'In Rainbows'

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Radiohead_lLet’s get a couple things straight before I tackle my insta-review of THE MOST IMPORTANT ALBUM OF ALL TIME OMG:

1) I did not, to my knowledge, hear any of these songs before 10:22 AM, when I downloaded them — with the exception of “Arpeggi,” which is only technically half a song (“Weird Fishes/Arpeggi”) and which I heard a couple months ago, thanks to an emergency session of Take Five that someone made me do. I have never really understood why people would rather illegally download crappy versions of songs (or watch blurry YouTube videos) ahead of time instead of waiting for the album-quality experience the artist intended, but then, I’ve never gone looking for my Christmas presents in the closets beforehand, either.

2) I did not stay up all night, waiting for my download to arrive. Much like my friend Maura over at Idolator, I hit the sack about an hour before my email arrived, at exactly 2:40 am. In my younger days, I used to stand in line outside Tower Records on Monday nights to pick up new music at midnight on Tuesday. That was fun. Sitting on my couch in Queens, obsessively checking my BlackBerry for new messages while watching the second re-run of SportsCenter? Less fun.

3) I paid £10 (that’s British pounds) for my copy of In Rainbows, despite the fact that I could have downloaded it for free. This is because when I got to the Radiohead site and was asked to punch in a number, “10 pounds” seemed right. My colleagues have since informed me that 10 pounds equals 20 American dollars; I’m fine with that, strangely, and not just because I can expense it. I’m fine with it because I know there are plenty of asshats out there who aren’t paying for the album — and on top of that, aren’t even downloading it from Radiohead themselves but instead going to OiNK or some other illegal-downloading site because they’re so stuck in their music-stealing ways they can’t stop themselves, even if the music can be theirs for zero dollars legally — and I’m more than happy to make up for their asshat ways. This issue probably deserves a longer post of its own, but I’ll wait until we see how the pay-what-you-will experiment shakes out.

Okay, enough prologue. After the jump, I actually talk about the music!

I am a fan of Radiohead, stretching all the way back to Pablo Honey. I will agree with the consensus that OK Computer is probably one of the greatest albums of my lifetime, but I kind of think I like The Bends better. And everything from Kid A onward is rather a blur to me, as I am the type of gal who likes it when you sing her a song, not just throw a bunch of nifty sounds into a blender with some ice and pour them on her feet.

So the clicky-clacky kiddie-playground soundscape of In Rainbows’ first track, “15 Step,” scared me a little, right up until track 2, “Bodysnatchers,” came on, and I felt my toes tapping immediately. Why, I do believe that might be an actual rock riff! I’m not saying the song is verse-chorus-verse, or that I can understand a single word Thom Yorke’s fuzzed-over voice is saying, but it’s a song with purpose and direction that builds to an actual climax and contains what appear to be guitar solos. It is my favorite track on this album by far, after one listen — remember, this is a snap judgment, people — and possibly my favorite thing Radiohead’s cut this century.

Up next is the cinematic “Nude,” which the context clues — swirling synthetic strings and layered vocals — lead me to believe is a love song. The aforementioned “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” starts pretty and loops around like bubbles with sinister ulterior motives. “Faust Arp” is a gorgeous gothic folk number; “Reckoner” has the kind of beat Moby wishes he was still brewing (in between pots of tea), but there’s a dampness to it all, like the drumline’s being held against its will in a leaky basement. “I don’t want to be your friend, I just want to be your lover,” Yorke sings in “House of Cards,” a bluesy little number where he shockingly reveals that if he wanted us to know what he was saying, he could make himself understood just fine. And the whole thing ends with the dour piano of “Videotape,” Yorke’s voice floating over the keys like a gray balloon. I forgot that the guy has one of the most unique voices in music — it’s usually so cluttered up with crap. Here, his tenor gets a couple minutes to shine, before a ghost chorus comes in and steals the show, and the album ends like it began, clicking and clacking into the foggy, half-lit distance.

My biggest complaint? There is way too much high end on this album for my tastes. Nearly every song is masked behind a curtain of treble noise, high hat cymbals, and whatnot — like someone is constantly turning over one of those stupid rain stick things right next to the microphone. I’m not sure this will bother anyone else, but it makes me nuts and makes songs like “Reckoner” very hard to listen to.

But overall, I really do think this is a very good Radiohead album, possessing all that which makes Radiohead Radiohead these days — someday the knobs are going to fall off if you keep fiddling with them, Thom — but also a decent glob of what used to make Radiohead Radiohead, i.e. the tight, effective writing of actual songs, songs with beginnings, middles, and ends. I’m now on my third listen — yes, time does pass while blog posts get written — and already, I like “15 Step” better. In fact, In Rainbows may just be the balance I’ve been questing after all these years, ever since that one time I tried to walk around the East Village on a gray post-9/11 day with Amnesiac playing on my Discman and I got so freaked out/frustrated that I literally threw the disc away when I got home because I don’t like my music to double as regression-hypnosis therapy, thank you very much. This does not, however, mean that when I want to listen to a Radiohead album, I am going to grab this one first. Most likely, I will return to my friend The Bends, and blast “Black Star” for the millionth time, because it makes me feel something other than, like, chilly. I suppose we’ll find out.

So, PopWatchers — your turn. Did you download In Rainbows? If so, how much did you pay, and what was your logic behind the dollar value? And now that you’ve had a couple hours to digest it, what do you think?