MAYBE IT was all a publicity stunt: abandon the record label and allow the music to be distributed at (potentially) near-zero cost to consumers. Maybe this was a rope-a-dope into keeping everyone from noticing that one of the titans of Rock & Roll just released a flawless album that is easily their most accessible to date. I describe it as “accessible” not to engage in back-handed snobbery: I’m not some frigid hipster offended by the fact that I may hear a Pussycat Dolls song during a Heineken commercial (and then reflect on how the hordes of fanny-packed-unwashed will never hear Xiu Xiu’s de/reconstructed homage to “Don’t Cha”). In this case, “accessible” is an unqualified compliment.

In Rainbows is accessible precisely because it is such a well-focused product. This, the seventh record from the band, follows a run of obscure “statement” albums that the Radiohead entity has produced (starting with 1997’s OK Computer and culminating with the lingering, earthy Hail to the Thief). Undeniably, OK Computer and Kid A were, and remain, their masterpieces. Kid A is apt to contrast to In Rainbows. With Kid A, Radiohead melded hints of pop melody with an extensive array of electronic tinkering. The lyrics (like all the other epic bands of the past 20 years, Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana, PJ Harvey, Interpol, etc.) were variations on the themes of isolation and existential estrangement, but the aggressive experimentation and austere feel had the effect of alienating the audience itself. At the time, the _Village Voice_ encapsulated the tension between the _Kid A_ artifact and its reception:

Maybe Radiohead had to destroy rock in order to save it, or maybe they had to destroy themselves in order to save themselves. In any case, with Kid A, they’ve given their core constituency the biggest, warmest recorded go-f***-yourself in recent memory, a follow-up to OK Computer‘s artistic and commercial breakthrough that rejects as much of its form, method, sound, and scale as they’re capable of rejecting. It’s . . . really different. And oblique oblique oblique: short, unsettled, deliberately shorn of easy hooks and clear lyrics and comfortable arrangements. Also incredibly beautiful.

But, in my opinion, the Kid A haters were wrong and have rightly suffered at the hands of history. Mastering and appreciating that record brings incredible rewards. Granted it’s not a record you warm up to, but the aura of disengagement that Radiohead created with their arrangements is, in itself, spectacular and spellbinding.

And, yet, for all my love for Kid A, In Rainbows is an entirely different creature: it is a concise, limpid distillation of all the attributes of the group that make them the most vital Rock & Roll superstar group of the past twenty years. And for the first time since The Bends Radiohead have crafted a record that eschews grand gesture and concept and simply display themselves as a group of capable musicians as well as ambitious artists. The orchestration, instrumentation, and lyrics are knitted together in controlled four-and-a-half minute bursts. In Rainbows feels like Radiohead insisting on taking one long, deep breath, relaxing, and, despite their laconic sensibilities, just making a Rock & Roll record.

Accordingly, an indispensable album-corollary to _In Rainbows_ is easy to identify: Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky. The similarities are striking. While _Sky Blue Sky_ features more instrumental posturing (which is what you must do if you’ve got Nels Cline playing guitar), they are both records that are indicative of outstanding prowess. Since Radiohead aren’t enamored with ‘70s free-form rock and are highly clinical and tech-savvy in their production proclivities, both bands sound fantastically disparate (and both records are must-buys). Yet both records feature bands that just play with each other and are comprised of solid songs that remind the listener of the best attributes of the respective groups.

Sure, without pursuing the goal of creating another aural monument to the corpse of Rock & Roll, In Rainbows fails to imbue the same sense of awe that one could feel on “Karma Police,” “Idioteque,” “Pyramid Song,” and “Where I End and You Begin (The Sky is Falling In.).” But despite there not being any robust single that defines the record, the songs are consistently excellent. It starts with “15 Step:” quintessential Radiohead with sparse snare and programming and a guitar lick that kicks-in and bends the rhythm into a rolling groove. “Bodysnatchers” asserts itself as an aggressive second track and resolves into “Nude,” a nuanced and spacey ballad that’s been in the repertoire since OK Computer, but never included on any full album. The center cuts are diverse in sound, but efficient in production: “All I Need” builds to a thrilling, cacophonous climax at which point it gently collapses into “Faust Arp;” “Reckoner” features more beat-play.

The record closes with a thrilling three-song cycle that leaves no question that Radiohead are still at the height of their powers. “House of Cards” begins with the lyric, “I don’t want to be your friend/I just want to be your lover” and synth-warped orchestral loops swirl around a simple guitar riff. “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” follows and is the epitome of Radiohead’s ability to blend austere instrumental precision with an eye on creating a stunning piece of chamber pop. In Rainbows closes with the stark, lyrically elliptical dirge, “Videotape.” Most likely the lyrics are yet another rumination on technology and finitude, but the simplicity of the piano chords and Yorke’s delicate whine coalescing into ambient programming elevate the song to the realm of the sublime.

In Rainbows is an exquisite affair. This record feels like a band playing together instead of trying to conceptualize some sort of statement as “artists.” And what makes In Rainbows so memorable in the current musical environment is that Radiohead ditches the excess. Other groups that have developed post rock sensibilities in the wake of OK Computer (like Sigur Ros, Twilight Sad, Mogwai, and Explosions in the Sky) have a tendency to linger on their compositions. They find a beautiful progression of chords, place it on top of a blistering percussion set and just jam for minutes. That’s great, but there is an art to editing that is just as important as the feel of a melody. And that’s where In Rainbows triumphs: there isn’t an ounce of fat on this record. No filler. No dithering. No meandering. It is controlled. It is precise. It is the antidote to post-rock bluster: no shaggy edges, just clean skill.

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