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Radiohead's 'Rainbows': Is Free Release A Potential Pot of Gold?

(Ap Photo - Mark Humphrey)

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By David Malitz
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, October 11, 2007

There's plenty about Radiohead's new album that's revolutionary. It just has nothing to do with the music. "In Rainbows," the British quintet's seventh album and the first in more than four years, delivers more highbrow, experimental art-rock that will do nothing to alter Radiohead's dual status as World's Most Revered Band and World's Most Unreasonably Revered Band.

This time around it's not as much about the music as it is about how people are getting the music.

You can't buy "In Rainbows" in stores, or at iTunes or Amazon.com. It is available exclusively through Radiohead's special Web site, www.inrainbows.com, as a free download. Or as a $2 download. Or as a $10 download. It's up to you what you pay for it. (Yesterday the site was jammed, apparently due to high traffic.) Radiohead is cutting out all the middle men -- from the suits at the record companies to the pirates who leak albums online -- and is basically telling you to steal the album. Plenty of people will take them up on that offer, but a healthy number of fans will pony up a few dollars to support the artistic process.

And the really devoted fans will splurge about $80 for the box edition that comes packaged in a hardcover book and slipcase and includes the album on both CD and double vinyl with artwork, lyric booklets, an enhanced CD with eight bonus tracks, digital photos and perhaps the band's famous recipe for tuna casserole.

It's a savvy move by Radiohead and just the latest blow to the rapidly sinking ship that is the record industry. Radiohead certainly isn't the first band to offer free music online, but this is the first time an album that was likely to debut at No. 1 is being given away as its primary form of release. It actually makes some fiscal sense, too. Most number crunchers agree that a band with a major label earns roughly $1 for every CD sold. If enough listeners donate more than five bucks, this could be an almost lucrative venture for Radiohead.

Will this business model work for acts with smaller, less fervent fan bases? (And that's pretty much everyone.) More bands surely will take the step to see -- industrial-rockers Nine Inch Nails already announced as much a few days ago -- and the impact that has on the music industry will likely be the lasting legacy of "In Rainbows."

The instant musical legacy of "In Rainbows" is simply that it's the fourth- or fifth-best Radiohead album. The scratchy electronic beats that kick off opener "15 Step" portend another album of glitchy, beat-heavy claustrophobia similar to 2000's "Kid A," but laptops play a relatively minor role here. The compositions are mostly minimal but organic; the band's post-millennial tension seems to have eased and even constantly twitchy singer Thom Yorke sounds relaxed.

"Bodysnatchers" is an exception to the minimalism, a guitar-heavy assault that results in the dueling riffs of axemen Jonny Greenwood and Ed O'Brien drowning out Yorke's pointless moaning (he actually yelps, "I have no idea what I am talking about"). It might make listeners hope for an all-rock Radiohead record, but the ensuing "Nude" would change those sentiments. It's slow and spacey, employing the deft combination of a gently funky bass line, some sweeping strings and Yorke's gentle falsetto. The hyperbole machine tends to get out of control when it comes to Radiohead, but this is one song deserving of whatever praise it gets.

Nothing else on "In Rainbows" matches that one-two punch, or even comes particularly close. Songs like "Reckoner" and "House of Cards" forget to be actual songs. They have some pretty parts, mostly provided by guitarist Greenwood, and would probably sound really trippy on a Friday night in the back corner of a planetarium with a one-hitter handy. But there's very little to grab onto and even if that's by design, it still makes for an unfulfilling listening experience.

"In Rainbows" is arguably Radiohead's least ambitious album to date, at least when compared with previous offerings. There is no great artistic leap as found on "OK Computer" or dramatic genre shift as on "Kid A." It's instead a summation of the different sounds the band has embraced over the past decade. This time around, the band is content with the medium being the message.

DOWNLOAD THESE:"Nude," "Bodysnatchers," "15 Step"


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