aural pleasure 

In Rainbows
Radiohead
(Self-released)

It’s kind of funny that every Radiohead album released post-Kid A has been heralded as the group’s “return to rock” — as though Thom Yorke’s dips into electronic music and jazz have only delayed what we really want to hear: more versions of “High and Dry.”

Held against that invisible yardstick of “rocking-ness,” later Radiohead albums have invariably disappointed those few wishful thinkers who never made it past The Bends. So it will come as a relief to some that In Rainbows, the Oxford quintet’s seventh full-length album, could wear the “return to rock” crown a little more comfortably than almost anything else after OK Computer.

But only a little.

Beyond the renewed emphasis on guitars and rhythm (welcome back to the drums, Phil Selway!), and despite the lack of a discernible chorus on the entire album, the thing that makes Rainbows really rock is the sheer confidence radiating from every track. Radiohead have cast off their need to reinvent themselves (“Anyone can play guitar, sure — but how many people can play the ondes martenot?”) and just let the computer chips fall where they may. In short, Radiohead is a fitter, happier, and more productive band than ever before, and their songwriting has been energized because of it.

Where the overlong Hail to the Thief sounded tentative and divided itself between “traditional” songs and laptop freak-outs, Rainbows succeeds in blending all these ingredients (and a few others) into a tighter, more emotionally complex work. Album opener “15 Step” strikes the perfect balance between Kid A experimentation and instrumental jamming, as nervous 5/4 laptop bleeps give way to warm acoustic drums and a pseudo-Caribbean guitar line. “Bodysnatchers,” with its punk snarl and a buzz-saw riff that recalls a sped-up “Electioneering,” could be a one-off from the Pablo Honey era (if it wasn’t so well-constructed, that is).

Radiohead has also finally recorded a studio version of “Nude,” a song from the OK Computer era that was previously known as “Big Ideas (Don’t Get Any).” Ten years in the making, the song showcases Yorke’s sweetest singing on the record, aided by beautiful string arrangements by BBC Composer in Residence Jonny Greenwood.

Lyrically, Yorke is as vague as ever — though Rainbows seems to deal less with government spooks and more with the ghosts of relationships. For every romantic gesture (“I’m an animal trapped in your hot car”? That’ll get the ladies, Thom) and sign of hope (the incredible album centerpiece, “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi”), there’s marital infidelity (“House of Cards”), and the ultimate break-up: death.

Their best album closer since “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” “Videotape” pits a beautiful cyclical melody against a sinister tape loop as a weary Yorke shuffles off the mortal plane, singing, “No matter what happens now / You shouldn’t be afraid / Because I know today has been the most perfect day I’ve ever seen.”

Yorke rarely volunteered this kind of bald sentiment before, but this album is full of them. With In Rainbows, Radiohead have stepped out from behind the wizard’s curtain, and finally seem ready to engage their audience without any tricks up their sleeves — just the magic that comes from the right people playing music together.

If that doesn’t rock enough for you, you’ll always have The Bends.

— Chuck Kerr

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Ripe
Ben Lee
(New West)

Remember how at the end of The Matrix, Keanu Reeves, so confident in his newfound powers, flexed and warped time and space around him? This is a common motif in comic-book culture: At the pinnacle of the superhero’s journey, he reveals himself, and the world can only marvel at his effortless strength.

That’s what it’s like listening to Ben Lee’s latest, Ripe. After spending half his life penning songs and selling records around the world, the LA-based Australian singer-songwriter has achieved a musical presence that doesn’t ask to be heard, or even demand it. It’s just impossible not to stop and listen when these pristinely crafted pop songs come on, because the man behind them is at the pinnacle of his journey and might just be able to achieve his dream of changing the world with one great big musical hug — if, you know, anybody listens.

Like his last album, Awake Is the New Sleep, Ripe is, er, ripe with optimism and love, but this time around we also get a whole lot of sex, too. It’s hard to imagine the awkward-looking Aussie as the nympho these bouncy, joy-filled tracks suggest, but he clearly has it on his mind and it’s kind of sweetly sacrilegious and sweetly profane at the same time. “Sex Without Love” features a chanted chorus as contagious as an STD, and, along with “Birds and the Bees” — a dueling duet with a sexed-up Mandy Moore — epitomizes all that is best about Ripe.

The rocked-up “Just Say Yes” pretty much sums up Lee’s life philosophy — “Love is a reason to exist” — while the acoustic title track is a poem on tape about going after what you want that should lift your spirits just in case Lee’s hilarious “What Would Jay-Z Do?” wasn’t enough to get your laugh muscles working.

Long story short: Ben Lee wants to save the world with pop music. Join the revolution.

— Cole Haddon


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