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I walked into Stinkweeds Record Exchange in Tempe last week and was stunned by what I heard. Hail to the Thief, the new album by British art-rock giants Radiohead,was blasting from the store's speakers. I recognized the drum machine distortion that closes "Sit Down. Stand Up" immediately; it was something I'd been listening to on my computer illegally for weeks. The album, however, isn't scheduled to come out until June 10, and, according to the band, may not even be finished.
But there at the record store the new song set played loudly for a dozen or so early-evening customers to absorb. I wondered what gave, since at indie shops you're more likely to hear a six-year-old Yo La Tengo B-side.
The clerk, it turned out, received a burned copy from his brother, who, like me, had downloaded rough studio versions of the record that were leaked onto the Internet in late March. Several of the songs are clearly not mixed, and lack the tense polish the band's groundbreaking discs usually receive. On a few songs, singer Thom Yorke's eerie falsetto is buried deep beneath the guitars and bass, and the arrangements sound abnormally sparse without the keyboard and drum adjustments.
But the rough sound didn't put off the Stinkweeds cashier. It's just human nature, he said, that makes him play the stolen recordings, even if better versions may soon be available. People want to be the first to own something dear to them, he rationalized. Hail to the thief, indeed!
My encounter at the record store was not an isolated one. Hail to the Thiefplayed recently as the wallpaper to a game of Trivial Pursuit at a colleague's central Phoenix home as The Hunchback of Notre Dameplayed on a flat-screen television (my office mates are cooler than yours!). It also blasted from the speakers of an SUV in the parking lot outside last month's Coachella Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California -- odd since Thief'sherky-jerky, unsettling and unmistakably dark songs, some of which trickle along like tree sap, are not the stuff of Dave Matthews/Pearl Jam beer-soaked tailgating. Several days later, a buff bouncer at the Bash on Ash in Tempe, who was working a hip-hop show featuring local roughnecks Realism and Cutthroat Logic, peeped my black Radiohead concert tee shirt and immediately gushed about the record, about how he couldn't wait to hear the actual release.
Here in the Valley and, judging by the intense response to it on fan sites across the Web, everywhere else, the premature Hail to the Thiefhas blossomed into an intense part of geek culture in short order. Thanks to high-speed connections and the instant gratification of blatant online piracy, Thief is a show-and-tell exam of how cool we think we are. That's not without good reason -- the new songs are fascinating. There's enough substance to them on their own to ignite obsession on multiple listens. They force you to pay attention. Yorke's lyrics about political corruption ("2 + 2 = 5"), the slow death of civilization ("The Gloaming") and bitter relationships ("Punch Up at a Wedding") are matched by equally evocative arrangements -- an itchy funk for the grotesque "Myxamatosis," downbeat, sophisticated guitars for the laments "Sail to the Moon" and "Scatterbrain." Thiefis also the band's most flexible album in years, so that each song, much like a mid-period Beatles record, unfolds like its own unique creation; a few songs receive the guitar dramatics of The Bends(1995), while others use even weirder tape looping than Amnesiac's (2001) "Like Spinning Plates."
Like my new friend the Stinkweeds clerk, I'm a huge fan of the record already. As you may expect, the band and its label, Capitol Records, are pissed off about this development. Capitol has gone so far as to offer a download of "There There," Thief'sfirst single, on its Web site (the pirated and legit versions are only subtly different, but the added resonance to the bass and drum machine on the latter is significant). On the Radiohead Web site, guitarist Jonny Greenwood equates the leak to an admission of laziness on the band's part -- "The songs are good on the recordings, which you can hear," he writes. "But we worked on them after this point until we were happy with them. This is why we're pissed off -- we didn't give up on them in February (which is what you're hearing) and it's just a shame that, to your ears, we did."
Chimes in Jonny's older brother and Radiohead bassist Colin: "It's like having your house done over half way through having it done up. All the attention is gratifying, but we want it when all our hard work's done and the best it can be. Until then, this is all just unhelpful noise."
Unhelpful? Granted, if it were my intellectual property, I'd be irritated about the whole episode, too. But as with the band's spacy 2000 record Kid A, which also was leaked in the weeks before it hit stores, I can't help but feel the proliferation of the Thiefjunk will only help to boost sales. Radiohead records are about the only real "events" left in popular music -- works so unique or so bizarre they inspire debates about what it all means and how out of their gourds these guys must be to dream it up. In this case, the new album will be a virtual doubleheader. I can hear the coffee-house chatter now about how much different the versions of "The Gloaming" are from one another.