It's possible to hear Radiohead's In Rainbows, in the craftmanship of its 10 songs and their essential tunefulness, as a conservative piece of work. Thom Yorke's vocals and Phil Selway's drums lead into "15 Step," followed by the off-kilter, technical sparkle of Jonny Greenwood's guitar riff and the tumble-down entrance of his brother Colin's bass line. On "Bodysnatchers," it's the other way around, a guitar riff kicking it off and bringing along the drums, then the bass. In other words, it's really only rock and roll, sorta. The guitar intro to "House of Cards" reminded me of an old Sam Cooke demo, for crying out loud.
Which isn't to say Radiohead doesn't take spooky, minor-key-modes-of-alienation turns. Just listen to the bridge on "Bodysnatchers." But, as in that song, it resolves back to muscular riffs and melodies that approach, at times, sweetness. (The end of "Nude" is a lone, almost angelic falsetto, backed by strings.) For all of In Rainbows' signature bleakness ("The infrastructure will collapse," Yorke sings on "House of Cards." Eeek!), there's reverie too.
In Rainbows arrives laden with expectations, or at least lots of curiosity, as a novel attempt to be a pay-as-you-like, digital-honor-system release. It's easy to listen for those overtones in the fundamental cautiousness of the album (album? MP3 collection?). But you can also hear the band's gift for synthesis as it recapitulates its own phylogeny, particularly its rock roots and other (generally melodic) influences like Brian Eno ("All I Need"), prog rock, Pink Floyd, and the Beatles ("Faust ARP").
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The rambling menace of the band's last album, Hail to the Thief ("We Suck Young Blood," "Drunken Punch-Out at a Wedding"), is mostly missing. Radiohead is often discordant and mournful (and sometimes the band is on this album), but the surprise of In Rainbows is the warm vibe. It even sounds at times — egad! — like hope.