you shouldn’t be afraid

estate two by radiohead

Back in October, Radiohead released their seventh studio album, In Rainbows. Unless you’re not a fan of popular music or have been living under a rock, the band released the album in a rather unconventional way. That is, you could download it and pay whatever you wanted. Since then, that option’s been taken off the table, and they’ve released the album as an ordinary CD, through iTunes, and as a “discbox.”

I downloaded it when it was first available and paid… well, nothing. I paid nothing, in part, because I knew that as soon as I heard the album I’d likely want to buy the discbox. Why? Because the box set contains not only the originally released ten-track album, but a second “enhanced” CD with eight songs and other stuff, and the original album on two, 12″ heavyweight 45 rpm vinyl records.

The discbox finally arrived yesterday. (A nice little “finishing your PhD present” for me. Hooray!)

I’m going to say upfront that I am a fan of vinyl. But I also have a Mac Mini hooked up to my stereo system which serves as a media center; the Mini’s got digital audio so I can have Dolby DTS sound for the DVD player, I can watch movies or TV shows downloaded from the Internet on the TV, and my iTunes library has about 50 gigabytes of music, or enough to play continuously for 26 days without repeating a track. So, despite the fact that I love vinyl, I’ve fully embraced this whole “digital age” we’re living in.

Why? Because I’m lazy. The fact of the matter is that with that much music, all I have to do is hit “shuffle” and am constantly hearing “new” stuff. Plus, in my last job at the camp company, everyone loved music, everyone loved different kinds of music, everyone put their music on their individual computers, and I was the tech guy in charge of maintaining those computers. So, I got a lot music over my three-and-a-half year stint there.

But, I digress. What I really wanted to write about today was In Rainbows, and specifically the experience of listening to the album on vinyl. There are a lot of people who talk about the superior sound quality of vinyl. And usually this has to do with frequency response, or what’s possible for the human ear to detect. In my not-so-humble opinion, I do believe that modern CDs and vinyl records are about the same in that department, but mp3s leave a lot to be desired because there are so many more variables at play (encoding processes, compression bit rates, etc.). But, for me, the real difference is in the soundstage. That is, the ability to hear distinct parts of music, particular instruments, and where they are in physical space relative to one another. In this department, I think vinyl is still far superior, especially to mp3s.

Furthermore, there is something much more deliberate about listening to music on vinyl. This is something you do, something you must be mindful of. I can hit the “shuffle” button on iTunes, walk away, do the dishes, hang out with the dog, get a sandwich — and the music becomes background noise. But with a record, you need to be singularly conscious of what you’re doing. You need to take great care when sitting down to listen to the disc. And in the case of In Rainbows, you need even more care because the album is spread over two records with just two to three songs per side. Which means there’s a lot of getting up and flipping discs involved. You’re forced to listen.

But what you’re forced to listen to is extraordinary. Like I said, for me, it’s all about the soundstage. “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” starts with a drumstick count-in. In the mp3 download, they’re incidental. Quiet. On vinyl, they’re front-and-center, as if Phil Selway were sitting in front of me, dead center between my stereo speakers. Toward the end of “Nude,” a crash brings in the final movement, which in vinyl sounds crisp and clear and distinct on the lower right, both subtle and huge. The ride cymbal at the opening of “Reckoner” is nothing short of spectacular. And the quality of the lower frequencies is smooth and soft and the vinyl is able to represent the bass and the drums in a far cleaner way with no distortion as compared to the mp3.

Jonny Greenwood, the band’s lead guitarist, did the music for P.T. Anderson’s latest film, There Will Be Blood. There’s a review of his orchestral compositions in the New Yorker an issue or two ago. And reading the review, several things came up for me. First, that I wish I had taken a musicology class in college so that I could talk about music is a meaningful way. As it is, I can recognize the beauty of it, but I don’t always know how to express that recognition. Secondly, it made me want to see the movie, which, despite my affinity for Anderson, I’ve been fairly indifferent about. Third, and most importantly, it made me appreciate the fact that Greenwood is a classically trained musician and that he and his band-mates are extremely well educated. I think there’s something in this mixture of natural talent and learned intelligence that makes Radiohead’s music so important, so complex, so varied and nuanced over all the years they’ve been putting out records.

And since I can’t talk very well about music, I have to go back to words. What Thom Yorke is able to say in so few words, strung out over four or five minutes, is inexplicable. And of course by “able to say” I don’t just mean the actual words he uses, but how he uses them and all their subtle implications. In “All I Need,” what else is there to say but “I am all the days that you choose to ignore/You are all I need”? Or the internal psyhcological argument of “Nude”; “You’ll go to hell/For what your dirty mind is thinking.” Another reason to buy a physical copy of the album, rather than merely downloading it, is to get copies of the lyrics. Not only do they add a whole new dimension to the songs since you can’t always tell what Yorke is singing, but the way in which the lyrics are presented, atop the artwork and design, perfectly justified typesetting, strung out and spaced out, they are as much a part of the art of this album as anything else.

This is amazing stuff.

To end in their own words:

No matter what happens now
You shouldn’t be afraid
Because I know
Today has been the most perfect day
I have ever seen

5 thoughts on “you shouldn’t be afraid

  1. Wow! Nice piece of writing there, Doctor. Please to be bringing this “Radio Head” album in the digital format when you visit the great northwest later this month!

  2. Absolutely I can be bringing digital formats of music to the great northwest! And please to be suggesting any new music from you to me, too…. er um something… hehe

  3. First of all, I have to belatedly thank you for posting about the Radiohead album when it first became available last year – I bought it and I think it’s great!

    Personally, I can’t really tell the difference between CDs and records – I don’t think my stereo equipment is good enough to tell the difference. Mp3 is a vastly inferior format (at least the lower resolution ones are, and I would include 160 kpbs in there) – the worst is the horrible digital sizzle in the top end. Cymbals suffer the worst in my opinion.

    I have one criticism of the soundstage idea – sometimes recordings are done with the intent of duplicating the spatial location of instruments in relation with each other, but since Frank Zappa’s “Freak Out” and the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s” (in the case of pop/rock music anyway), the studio came to be considered an instrument in itself and wasn’t just a transparent representation of reality. Jimi Hendrix is probably another good example of expanding the role and use of the studio. So “soundstage” to me sounds a little too literal. Maybe “stereo field” or how about “space-time continuum”?!!!

    Good point about the “deliberateness” of records – my record player just keeps spinning in the inner groove when it’s over, so it requires mindfulness to not let it just spinspinspin. I have to admit that I don’t listen to records much these days, but part of it is because my tastes tend to clash with my wife’s…

  4. Totally agree. To all of it! Yeah, I think maybe back in 1987 vinyl was superior to CDs, but that isn’t true anymore. And mp3s lose a lot. Even if you’ve got a really good set-up.

    I like stereo field or space time continuum! (But mostly because I like the double-U in continuum!) That’s really what I was going for anywhere. Audiophiles talk about the sound stage, but you’re right. It’s really the field, the way the music was originally recorded, particularly in this post-Sgt. Pepper’s world. (haha) Speaking of, read somewhere that John Lennon added 30 seconds or something a high-pitched noise to the end of that album that only dogs can hear that was lost when they switched to CDs. If it’s true, I’d love to test the theory with my dog, but I haven’t ever seen Sgt. Peppers in a record shop.

    Ah well!

  5. Yeah could not agree more I am a HUGE Radiohead fan and agree that the new album is a piece of recording and musical genius. What I particularlly enjoyed about the release was the fact that the album was released quite spontaneously and made the world of fat music companies and their executives run around like headless chickens.
    Honestly the madness is never ending. It was like they had only just heard of the internet!?!?!?

    I saw Radiohead recently and they were immense! I can only say good things. Peace to yourself

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