Revolution starts with 'Rainbows'

October 12, 2007


British art-rockers Radiohead made history Wednesday when they issued their seventh album, "In Rainbows," as a "pay what you think it's worth" digital download, challenging the way the mainstream music industry has done business since 1894, when a German company first began marketing gramophone records.

There's no denying this was a revolutionary act. The only question is whether the correct analogy is to the Boston Tea Party, a defiant rebellion signaling the start of a long and difficult fight, or the storming of the Bastille, the final nail in the coffin of the old regime.

Distinguished by bandleader Thom Yorke's slippery falsetto, Radiohead formed in Oxfordshire and first made its mark with the 1992 single "Creep." That grungy hit and much of its first two albums, "Pablo Honey" (1993) and "The Bends" (1995), sounded very much in step with the alternative times, albeit with more of a psychedelic swirl. But with "OK Computer" (1997), the group crafted a futuristic epic contrasting the promise of online communications with the encroaching alienation of the digital age. From that point through "Hail to the Thief" (2003), it has stood as one of the most creative forces in rock, with 20 million albums sold worldwide.

With its last release, the band fulfilled its contract with Capitol/EMI, and many observers assumed it would simply sign a new record deal. Instead, after two years in the studio, the musicians have made their new music available via under an ''honesty box'' policy whereby listeners pay whatever they think is fair.

This means people can download the 10 songs for free -- and many are. But according to the band, two-thirds of the nearly 1 million fans who've accessed the music have chosen to pay an average price of about $10.

For years, many major-label artists have complained that record companies unfairly inflate the price of new CDs, with most of the profit going to the corporations instead of the musicians. Concerned about the future of that business model, the labels have aggressively fought online file-sharing, going so far as to sue thousands of their own customers. Meanwhile, artists have increasingly questioned why they need a record company at all when technological advancements have eliminated the major problem of distribution: Where CDs once had to be trucked to stores, new music is now just a mouse click away.

Radiohead hasn't entirely abandoned the business as usual: It's still represented by a New York publicity firm trumpeting its sounds; its Web site is also selling an $80 deluxe boxed version of "In Rainbows" due in early December, and the group is planning a conventional CD release in January. But it is the first platinum-selling band to gamble its financial future and artistic reputation on file-sharing, and if it succeeds, it will be the clearest evidence yet that downloads soon will replace conventional album releases -- and that musicians may themselves take on much of the work currently done by record companies.

As noted earlier, the cultural upheaval caused by technology has always been the major theme of Radiohead's music. Yet while I appreciated the impressionistic lyrics championing humanism and deriding globalization, and understood how the music reflected those issues by contrasting organic stadium rock with computer-driven electronic bleeps and gurgles, Yorke's vocals were a major stumbling block: His singing just sounded like one more alien element in an already harsh Martian soundscape.

Thankfully, Yorke's vocals began to mellow and grow much more nuanced on his first solo album, "The Eraser" (2006), and on "In Rainbows," he sounds more soulful and human than ever. What's more, the occasional bombast of Jonny Greenwood and Ed O'Brien's guitars and Phil Selway's drums has been dialed back, providing for a more effective counterpoint to the electronic accents and the most noticeable new addition: beautiful orchestration from what producer Nigel Godrich describes as "specially fabricated electro-acoustic" strings and woodwinds employed in arrangements influenced by the 19th century composer Hector Berlioz.

As a result, songs such as the rollicking "Bodysnatchers," "Faust ARP," "Jigsaw Falling Into Place" and the lovely "House of Cards" are the most instantly accessible Radiohead tunes since "Creep," while "In Rainbows" plays as the group's freshest-sounding and most innovative disc since "OK Computer."

And it's fitting, given the back story of this release, that it all builds to a song called "Videotape," a surreally optimistic suicide note (or is it?) named for another once-futuristic but soon-to-be-extinct format.

"No matter what happens now/I won't be afraid," Yorke sings. "Because I know today has been the most perfect day I've ever seen."