Thursday, October 11, 2007

In Rainbows - in three parts

As I just downloaded my copy of the new Radiohead yesterday, I though I would share a triptych of sorts containing my thoughts on this new release.

Part 1 - Distribution

I think it’s great that the band took the whole process into their own hands. By recording it on their own, and choosing to distribute how they wanted to, it gives them much more control over the how they are represented.

I know some things I have read online have essentially called this a controlled leak of the album, but I don’t think that quite fits what they are doing. First the big thing is that they kept under wraps just how complete the album was despite giving regular updates on their blog. Second by not resigning with a major label it kept too many cooks from entering the kitchen. Is it a truth that albums get leaked all the time nowadays? Yes. But why are they leaked? Because it is a product of a giant corporation with thousands of employees and the possibility of one of these—or many of these—people leaking a copy to the outside world is fairly high. I think some of the negative reactions to this method of distribution can be looked at as being stuck in the traditional mode of music distribution. I will be the first to admit that this won’t necessarily work for all bands and I am not expecting the music industry to fall apart or evolve overnight, but I think that it is interesting in showing the possibilities. Imagine if bands like U2 began to do this?

To come full circle, Radiohead is able to release this album then to their fans when they choose to do it (not waiting for the optimal time for the record label’s profits) and letting the fans decide how much its worth to them is a great plan. I personally choose to pay 5 pounds which equated to $10 US, or about what I would pay for an album on iTunes or a new release at Target or the local record shop.

Part 2 – Sound quality

I do have one gripe in all this though and it is the quality of the download. I paid my money in good faith based on a certain expectation of quality and feel that the 160 kbps files do not live up to that expectation. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Johnny Greenwood stated that:

“We talked about it and we just wanted to make it a bit better than iTunes, which it is, so that's kind of good enough, really. It's never going to be CD quality, because that's what CD does.”

Personally I think this is a cop out. If you want to be picky about it I could argue that the DRM free music Apple does provide is encoded at 256 kbps. Since you downloaded it as a zip file there wasn’t much of a limitation on what the size of the file could have been.

Part 3 – The music

Regarding the music, I think it would be very hard for Radiohead to release something I didn’t like. That being said I do find this to be something a departure from recent work in that it feels more stripped down and “simple.” Kid A and Amnesiac were both very experimental in their approaches which seemed to be a great counterpoint to the songwriting. Hail to the Thief seemed to be a perfect marriage of this new experimentalism within a more “rock” format which again allowed the songs themselves this space to expand and grow in.

In Rainbows seems a little more stripped down in approach and production and I am not convinced that this serves the songs as well as it could. I know it is bad probably bad form to compare the solo album to the group album but I feel that if you combined the production of The Eraser with In Rainbows it would be more complete.

As for individual songs:

Bodysnatchers is at once a reminder of the rocking numbers of Hail to the Thief and also Bends/OK Computer-era, which is interesting as Nude is from that earlier era but has been updated nicely.

Faust Arp feels like the weak link in the chain for me. It isn’t a bad song but the production being all strings and acoustic guitar just doesn’t feel like it fits in with the rest of the album. It feels more like b-side material.

Luckily, in my book at least, it is followed up by the strongest song on the album Reckoner. With its melancholy guitar melody, delicate vocals and understated guitar and drums, it is just gives me chills.

House of Cards is frustrating in that it reminds me of something/someone and for the life of me I can't think of who it is.

All in all a pretty strong album from a group that shows no sign of losing steam and instead a continuous stream of innovation

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