The Smile ‘A Light For Attracting Attention’: Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood Shed Weight on Radiohead Side Project
In July 2005, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood premiered a piece titled “Weird Fishes / Arpeggi” at the Ether Festival with the London Sinfonietta Orchestra and the Arab Orchestra of Nazareth. Greenwood, not only the guitarist of Radiohead but a composer of the highest regard, would go on to make a name for himself in the contemporary classical world by scoring numerous Paul Thomas Anderson films. For this number, he and Yorke jettisoned Radiohead’s rhythm section and sought orchestral support. Come 2007, a full band rework of “Weird Fishes / Arpeggi” appeared on the group’s seventh album, “In Rainbows,” in which drummer Phil Selaway pounded away to the intricate composition with a brash directness that considerably debased the tune. As it turns out, Selaway is an outstanding drummer, without whose contributions Radiohead would not be what it is. Yet, he is a decidedly “rock” drummer, and in cases like that of “Weird Fishes / Arpeggi,” this can be egregiously limiting. Step in, Tom Skinner of UK jazz outfit Sons of Kemet. When Yorke and Greenwood took to jamming with Skinner, the different percussive sensibility was so illuminating that it called for the creation of a new band: The Smile. For this side project, Yorke and Greenwood forgo the bass and additional guitar of bandmates Colin Greenwood and Ed O’Brien respectively, opting for a leaner sound. They fill out some of the resulting space with strings from the London Contemporary Orchestra and a full brass section of contemporary UK jazz players. Of course, regular Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich is at the helm for the band’s debut album, “A Light For Attracting Attention.” The record finds Yorke expressing a vote of no confidence in political leadership, but retaining hope for humanity, as he and Jonny spin largely familiar Radiohead stylings into new, jazz-informed variations.
Opener “The Same” features an aesthetic ever so slightly out of reach, one that Radiohead seems to have been approaching perhaps throughout their career. It’s a sound defined by the spaces between notes, the rhythmic overlaps between concurrent cadences. For anyone familiar with Yorke’s or Greenwood’s work, a listen to the track should vaguely but effectively get the point across. The layered work is rich yet understated, nebulous and haunting. On “The Opposite,” the band locks into a steady groove for some fun house mirror spins, as brittle but elastic guitars duplicate and diverge, blur and digress, and create crafty counterpoints in a slick math rock jam. “You WIll Never Work In Television Again” turns up the amplifiers and takes up a warped, odd structure that hearkens back to formative influences like the Pixies and Sonic Youth. Yorke’s targets on the track are the Harvey Weinsteins of the world. Among the seedy characters fueling his fire is disgraced former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Burlesconi, whose “Bunga Bunga” parties Yorke refers to, singing, “Let the lights down low, bunga bunga or / You’ll never work in television again.”
“Pana-vision” brings back the odd time signatures that Yorks has long pulled off with aplomb in the tradition of “15 Step” from “In Rainbows,” but develops in a string laden indulgence of more classic rock sensibilities that only appeared in Radiohead’s work on “A Moon Shaped Pool,” on tracks like “The Numbers.” One can hear vague echoes of Yorke’s early idol Tim Buckley in the mix. The especially groove-based “The Smoke” demonstrates the edge that Tom Skinner brings to the band in the delicacy of his sprightly jazz touch, here set to horns and an especially breezy falsetto from Yorke, with rhythms that take Escherian turns. “Speech Bubbles” brings a welcome lull, building gently with fading strings and featuring some gorgeously intricate guitar-bass interplay.
Every song until now could have passed as a Radiohead song, and while “Thin Thing,” the crowning jewel of “A Light For Attracting Attention,” could be too, it marks an exciting new direction. Skinner is at his sharpest, and Greenwood is going to town with his most alien stylings, going off on tangents in a delightfully warped and skewed work that best demonstrates the new jazz fusion focus of the outfit. “Open the Floodgates,” a track that has been floating around live since at least 2006, appears in a hazy rendition abounding with detuned synths. The opening lines of “Don’t bore us / Get to the chorus” are just the type of audience mockery that Yorke has reveled in ever since “Creep” won him a larger and, say, different fanbase than he exactly wanted. “Free in the knowledge” is a classic Yorke guitar and vocals number that stylistically could have dated back to the era of “The Bends.” We are reminded of the bit in “Karma Police” when Yorke remarks, “For a minute there, I lost myself,” as he here notes, “And this / Was just a bad moment.”
Anyone even remotely familiar with Yorke needn’t consult the lyrics of “A Hairdryer” to know that the subjects of equal likelihood are Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. Skinner’s hi-hat trickery and Greenwood’s serpentine guitar lines make for a memorable instrumentation. “Waving a White Flag” returns to the string-heavy sounds that dominated “A Moon Shaped Pool, while “We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Begins” is among the numbers that gently set The Smile apart from Radiohead. Swelling synths and a punk snarl from Yorke come alongside guitar work that only Greenwood could produce, as Skinner continually compels the Radiohead guitarist to indulge his latent jazz proclivities. Finally, “Skrting On the Surface” ends with Yorke reflecting on the fragility of life, over fittingly delicate guitar figures from Greenwood, as the overall sound achieves a new realization from the brass section.
Over the course of the album, we hear a steady stream of opposition from Yorke to the powers that be. He makes his feelings known regarding the Trumps, Johnsons, and Berlusconies. In “The Opposite,” he asks, “Can we have a next contestant please? / In this logical absurdity.”Ultimately, he reminds us that change, for better or worse, is inevitable. After all, “we’re just skirting on the surface,” “free in the knowledge / That one day this will end,” and “we don’t know what tomorrow brings.” The music of The Smile is consistent with this message. It finds Yorke and Greenwood coolly toying with new ideas within the context of familiar sounds. The outfit is a leaner variant of Radiohead, with the saved space allotted for additional string and brass atmosphere, and the music given a playful jazz fusion spin. The enthusiasm for new sonic possibilities makes itself audible, and will be matched by enthusiasm from listeners.
“A Light For Attracting Attention” releases May 13 on Apple Music.