Thom Yorke continues to be a fascinating vocalist. While Radiohead's (well, his) lyrics are often quite telling and profound, sometimes it's what he does when he's not singing actual words that's even more interesting. Here, numerous instances find Yorke blendering vintage Michael Stipe-ian wordless mumbling and a polite nod to the Sufi wailings of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan with his own blissed-out falsetto. Witness the scat-growl at the end of the skittish "15 Step," the woos and oohs on both the moody "Nude" and the (more understated) 21st-century-style Wall of Sound for "Reckoner," and the drama evoked during the churning second half to the jazz-in-a-vacuum of "House of Cards." Yorke often chooses to get lost in the song and the vibe, and you end up riding the tiger right along with him.
In Rainbows bursts with confidence, even if "15 Step" has Yorke wondering, "How come I end up where I started?" But the instrumentation on the distorto-driven "Bodysnatchers" eventually overwhelms his vocals in that mix. Yorke moans as the guitars swell, then he spits out "I see them coming" before the track crashes down on him. "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi" could practically sit at the right hand of the Velvet Underground's tranquil "Jesus" - thanks mainly to Jonny Greenwood's laid-back chordings - until it, too, experiences wordless, syllabic rapture and ascends into a swirl of keyboards and guitar lines. In one of the track's more lucid moments, Yorke muses, "Why should I stay here?" (Asked and answered, Thom: The proof is in this album's tasty pudding.)
Strings govern the instrumentation on the second half of In Rainbows, as in the busted balladry of "All I Need" (which also features glockenspiel, Phil Selway's insistent cymbal crashes, and lazy, retro synth burbles that LCD Soundsystem would approve of). They're also in the subdued, acoustic-oriented tone break that is "Faust Arp" and the jog-then-run pace of the acoustic, bass-burning "Jigsaw Falling into Place." Everything crests with the somber, minimalist "Videotape," which had previously surfaced in late 2006 in a solo video showcasing a shut-eyed Yorke at the keyboard. This snapshot view of what might be worth remembering as one faces the ultimate judgment - framed by plaintive piano, staccato cymbal taps, and thuddy percussion - ends the album quite fittingly.
In Rainbows dexterously showcases Radiohead's continuing evolution. It chronicles a band comfortable in its own chameleonic skin, a band now truly free to follow its own muse. Where will they go next? It's up to them.
ADDENDUM: Would I have preferred a higher rate than 160 kbps for my listening experience? Absolutely. A certain amount of detail is indeed discernible, but I do expect to find even more aural pleasures once I get the "real" CD and vinyl delivered to me. I'll report back if there are any dramatic sound-quality swing-shifts.
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