Put your euros where your headphones are

Radiohead celebrates its victory over the recording industry with gazes at shoes, navels

Becky Lang

At midnight on Oct. 9, countless music critics, starved of advanced copies, found themselves sitting under a blacklight in their underwear, downloading Radiohead’s new album “In Rainbows.” The reviews that followed were sloppy, collective discussions that were usually along the lines of “the most inventive work since ‘Kid A,'” or “I kind of liked ‘Recokoner.'”

Radiohead

ALBUM: “In Rainbows”
LABEL: Independent

Fans got a rare chance to listen to the album without knowing how many stars it received in “Rolling Stone,” or which to-the-decimal rating “Pitchfork” bestowed upon it. To add to the power trip, they also got to exercise their psychic abilities by predicting the market value of the CD. In other words, they paid however much they wanted. Most paid between zero and four euros for the album, but at 1.2 million sales on the first day alone, the band probably earned enough to buy a yacht, or at least more bandwidth for their clogged distribution Web site. The best part is that the majority of the money didn’t have to be split between EMI and Wal-Mart.

The overwhelming success could have something to do with Radiohead’s rare place at the vertex between music aficionados and casual radio listeners, along with bands like the Flaming Lips and Modest Mouse, but it’s hard to deny that the distribution model works well on the Titanic deck of the recording industry. Radiohead isn’t retiring solid copies completely, but offered an $80 vinyl box set and plans to release the album on an undetermined label in early 2008. Sorry to Limewire and Kazaa, but the less legal middleman of peer-to-peer services won’t be erasing profits either. “In Rainbows” embraces our guilty love of Internet leaks, so devotees can save their Hail Marys for more serious thefts.

The album didn’t lose any painstaking detail by being recorded outside of Capitol Studios, possibly because the band made it at their own pace over the course of four years. The vocals still sweep like hidden walls behind the soundscapes, and the lyrical imagery about elephants in the room and blackbird pie provides quality morbid animal metaphors. The first track, “15 Step,” exemplifies the discordance in moods between instruments that creates their characteristic sense of melancholic dissociation.

The best track is probably “Nude,” a string-laden, face-buried-in-a-pillow rant whose bass travels forward while delays send the guitar backward. It slowly spreads into its own territory until the vocals break in, sounding like spirit voices echoing in seashells. Thom Yorke’s vocals even crescendo into the exact melody that the Little Mermaid sings into the ocean.

“Faust Arp” catches Radiohead’s handle on the sing-song, reeling from apathy into lullaby-like moments that suggest a way out from their seemingly self-accelerating circles of isolation, only to get caught up once again.

The CD is perfect for ushering insomniacs to sleep. “Reckoner” is an ear bath of long notes stretched into gentle tambourines, but tracks like “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” are pleasant to the point of sounding suspiciously Coldplay-like (which is ironic, considering Coldplay could easily be described as a suburban Radiohead on Prozac).

“In Rainbows” might be a better accessory for nighttime tea than a blacklight. As far as the development of Radiohead’s sound, this album unpeels the thematic layers that made “Hail to the Thief” an artistic statement and opts for a slightly mundane but shimmering minimalism.