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Radiohead’s Trippy Return Rivals Pink Floyd, Neil Young: Review

Thom Yorke
Thom Yorke of Radiohead plays `Give Up the Ghost' and other acoustic songs in a solo set at the Big Chill Festival in England, 2010. Yorke's band has released ``King of Limbs,'' a studio album featuring some of his material. Photographer: Mark Beech, Bloomberg.

Thom Yorke has been spooking audiences in his solo concerts with a new song called “Give Up the Ghost.”

Yorke’s quavering voice sounds like Neil Young pretending to be a banshee. The falsetto “don’t haunt me, don’t hurt me” gets more terrifyingly beautiful with each repetition.

The song’s a highlight of “The King of Limbs” -- the new album by Yorke’s band Radiohead -- that’s a collection of fragile charm, skewed dance beats and Pink Floyd-style trips.

The perverse Britons have sprung the album on the world earlier than announced via an Internet download. That’s not surprising since its 2007 predecessor, “In Rainbows,” also bypassed the record companies. This time, there’s no “pay whatever you want” option. Purchasers visiting Radiohead’s website have to find their way past preachy statements about saving ocean stocks and trees. (The title “The King of Limbs” refers to a famous oak in Savernake forest, England.)

The website also offers a video of Yorke doing a jerky dance to the tune of the single “Lotus Flower.”

“I’ll set you free,” he promises, as his voice floats above dissonant drums. Yorke’s unworldly singing sounds equally disconnected from the music on the opener “Bloom,” amid its washes of synthesizer and Eno-style ambient piano.

The lyrics are so terse and oblique they could mean almost anything, which I guess is the point.

“You stole it all, give it back” might be a comment about bankers or politicians on “Morning Mr. Magpie.” Yorke goes on to say his melody has been stolen, so he might simply be making a comment about plagiarism or indeed magpies.

Vinyl Music

The eight songs last just 37 minutes, though there are clues that more material will follow. The closer is called “Separator,” as if it marks a break between discs, and a planned box set is due in May with two 10-inch vinyl records alongside the CD, giving room for extra music.

This latest outing isn’t the sort of mainstream rock with which Radiohead started its career -- 1993’s “Pablo Honey,” distinguished by the hit “Creep,” the excellent “The Bends” from 1995, and 1997’s overrated “OK Computer.”

Nor is “The King of Limbs” a work of pure experimentation such as the bold “Kid A” or its less successful follow-ups “Amnesiac” and “Hail to the Thief.” It’s closer to Yorke’s solo effort “The Eraser.”

This is no masterpiece, just a likeable collection of quiet charm, worthy of repeated listening.

Rating: ***.

What the Stars Mean:
*****      Exceptional, classic
****       Excellent
***        Good
**         Average
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless


Prices depend on country. An MP3 digital download only is $9 and a better quality WAV is $14. To include the box set that ships in May add $39. The single CD version out in March is priced about $11.

(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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