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Radiohead's new album: Not easy, but rewarding

Thom Yorke of Radiohead in performance


The King of Limbs Radiohead (Self-released)

For most people, the phrase "headphone music" suggests a throwback to the sort of trippy, effects-laden productions that became popular once rock bands discovered both hallucinogens and stereo panning. Tell someone today that a new release is ideal for headphone listening, and the response you're most likely to get is a sarcastic, "Wow, man, that's really heavy."

Nonetheless, "headphone music" makes a pretty fair description of Radiohead's eighth effort, The King of Limbs - and not just because the album, which is currently available only as a download from the band's website, is obvious iPod fodder.

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Unlike the band's breakthrough albums, OK Computer and Kid A, there's nothing broad stroke about the eight tunes collected here. These songs don't reach out through the speakers and grab you by the collar; instead, they expect their audience to have the patience and focus to hear the structure in the shifting soundscapes, or to recognize when melodies function as rhythms or rhythms as melodies.

In short, they ask us to listen as closely as if we were studying for a test - even if we're the ones who will end up grading them.

That probably isn't the smartest approach in the insta-pundit world of Internet media, nor did Radiohead do much to ensure that the fans and critics would take their time when digesting the album. Not even five days passed between the Facebook posting announcing the album and the first downloads from the band's website, and the earliest reviews offered mostly confusion, with a number of critics complaining that the songs lacked choruses, that there aren't any guitar songs, and that - horror of horrors - it didn't sound much like the band's previous albums.

Of those three points only the last one is valid, but it takes some effort on the listener's end to recognize that. For one thing, the band's component parts - guitars, bass, drums - are often electronically altered or replaced with synthetic versions. Even singer Thom Yorke has his vocals sliced, diced and digitally scrambled.

Hence Codex, which on another album might have been a hypnotic piano ballad like Pyramid Song from Amnesiac, instead becomes a slippery symphony in pastels with Yorke's falsetto soaring above a thrumming electronic pulse. Likewise, the acoustic and electric guitars that flesh out Give Up the Ghost get pushed to the side as Yorke's repeated phrase, "In your arms" is distorted and processed until it almost sounds like a slide-guitar lick.

Sure, there are songs, such as the dubstep-inflected Feral, that are genuine abstractions, but most of the material is, structurally, fairly conventional - provided you listen carefully enough to follow the thread. And while it's true that the lyrics sometimes verge on indecipherable, Yorke's exaggerated delivery seems to argue that the words themselves are less important than how their syllables fit into the melody (an approach likely to confound much of the music media).

The King of Limbs isn't an easy album, nor is it likely to be every fan's favourite. But those who admire the musical audacity of Radiohead's past few albums will find much to adore - especially the parts that take a few days under the headphones to figure out.

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