Who knew Radiohead’s two leaders had fan service like A Light for Attracting Attention in them?
The Smile’s reputation precedes them: Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead convened with British jazz dynamo Tom Skinner and made an entire album with Nigel Godrich, six years after the last Radiohead album.
In terms of recent Radiohead, I prefer the underrated King of Limbs’ twitchy Flying Lotus-style breakbeat abstracts to the soulful, universally beloved In Rainbows by a little. But some of the biggest Radiohead fans I know didn’t enjoy nodding off to A Moon Shaped Pool and became convinced that their favorite band might never get them excited again.
Most reactions to Atoms for Peace or Thom Yorke’s solo albums have been polite, and even the rapturous praise for Greenwood’s film scores can’t turn them into the average rock fan’s idea of replayable good time. Still, nothing has ever before suggested that any of these folks would change course or cater to other artistic desires. The Smile are allegedly named after the evil poker face of your corporate colleague or somesuch, but Yorke’s lyricism here is literal enough that maybe they’re named after the expected reaction to his return to something resembling rock.
Artist: The Smile
Album: A Light For Attracting Attention
Label: XL Recordings
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
The biggest obstacle in the way of the Smile’s debut from being what most critics are calling “easily the best non-Radiohead album by the participants” or whatever is the fact that, no matter what you’ve read, these aren’t really songs with melodies or anything of the sort. You’ll remember these tracks by sound and feel, speed and groove. “Open the Floodgates” is not the next “Fake Plastic Trees.” You’re far more likely to find yourself singing along to Yorke’s undervalued solo debut The Eraser, which is dry and brittle like Bjork’s Vespertine but plenty catchy, or even “Lotus Flower” from The King of Limbs, before you attempt to karaoke the most memorable tracks on Attention.
With that disclaimer out front, yes, this very well may be the best thing you’ve heard Yorke and Greenwood do in almost 20 years, if you’re willing to ride Skinner’s grooves, which are the best thing here and Phil Selway should watch his back. Skinner’s drumming first appears on track two, “The Opposite,” after luxuriously queasy opener “The Same,” as the lone thing you hear for 23 seconds straight up, at once the funkiest thing you’ve ever heard on a Thom Yorke record, at least in a breathable organic sense. “Kid A” and other rhythm excursions have swung in the sense that Kraftwerk was a major influence on very young rap music.
This swings in the sense that a jazz drummer of world-class chops is rocking the fuck out while the second-best thing about the record, Jonny Greenwood’s spidery in-and-out-of-pocket playing, demonstrates considerable command of switching between tightness and chaos. “The Opposite” is a great jam, but a song it ain’t. Even the full-speed-ahead rock that follows on the excellently titled first single “You Will Never Work in Television Again” isn’t much of a song. It’s a brilliant construction of chords that tense and release in rhythmically brilliant circumstances though, chorus-free post-punk where the hook is just each time the cymbals splash in. There’s rock moves too: “Take your dirty hands off my love,” Yorke sneers. Lyrics aren’t just free-associated nuggets; this is the rare rock album where a jazz influence inspires everyone involved to edit themselves better rather than lose the composition’s marbles. Legible anger towards Harvey Weinstein and Trump can be made out.
The frontman performs on this album like he hasn’t in ages, but he doesn’t bend the compositions to his will. He just James Browns them from the front, howling and falsettoing and mooding and texturing from the mic to drive home the gripping settings his bandmates have jammed into existence. And lord do they grip; try Skinner’s thin-razored “Freddie’s Dead” skitter across “A Hairdryer,” a Trump diatribe that begins “shame on you,” and pulses with as much evil as it does molten funk. Or Greenwood’s blurping hi-pass-filtered whatever (synth? Guitar?) that will hypnotize you through all 4:30 of “Thin Thing.”
That’s not to say the Smile lacks subtlety; try the stately piano chords of “Pana-Vision” or the gorgeous, Yo La Tengo-inspired organ of “Speech Bubbles” or the fuckable trip-hop of “The Smoke.” And “Open the Floodgates” would’ve fit perfectly on Another Green World if that synth patch was invented in 1975. Mainly this band just has more colors, textures, and dynamics in their palette than Radiohead has since the considerably more downcast Amnesiac, which is why literally no one cares if they can hum it.
No Radiohead album has ever actually sounded like this, but you know it’s a hell of a “side” project when you wish they would. And it’s certainly no more than a few steps away from sounding exactly like their famous forebears at any given time, a true exercise in making the familiar fresh with just a handful of twists that didn’t sound hard to come up with. They do sound hard to play, however. In 2022, a band of A-list arena-fillers emphasizing chops that isn’t Phish is nearly miraculous in itself. Give it a few years and we might sing along to the Smile after all.
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