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The Radiohead Spinoff Band Gets Looser And Lighter

The Smile, a trio featuring Radiohead prime movers Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood along with ex-Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner, sounds more like a proper band than a side project on their second album. Sure, they’re a proper band that unavoidably sounds a lot like Radiohead, but with some notable distinctions—much leaner arrangements, bass parts by Greenwood and Yorke with a very different character from what Radiohead bassist Colin Greenwood might have laid down, and a formal fixation on conveying tension in their melodies and rhythms.

Their debut, A Light for Attracting Attention, was full of tight, wrenching grooves and guitar parts that sounded as though the strings were coiling into knots. This time around they head in the opposite direction, loosening up to the point that the music often feels extremely light and airy.

The guitar in the first half of “Bending Hectic” is so delicate and minimal that it sounds like it could get blown away with a slight breeze, while the warm and lightly jazzy “Friend of a Friend” feels like it’s helplessly pushed and pulled along by strong, unpredictable winds.

The loping rhythm and twitchy riffs in “Read the Room” are surrounded by so much negative space that it sounds eerily hollow, like Yorke is singing through the skeletal remains of a ’70s metal song.

There are some surprises along the way, too. A few songs veer into floaty lullaby sections, and more than half include orchestral tangents that recall Greenwood’s film score work for Paul Thomas Anderson and Jane Campion.

The most unexpected moment comes at the climax of “Bending Hectic,” which bursts into heavy grunge guitar, stomping percussion, and soaring vocals. Most anyone would have assumed Yorke and Greenwood had abandoned this type of catharsis sometime during the Clinton administration, but as it turns out they were just waiting for the right time to deploy it.

STREAM WALL OF EYES

The Smile made their debut in a surprise performance for the concert video Live at Worthy Farm, produced by Glastonbury Festival and streamed on May 22, 2021. The performance was recorded in secret earlier that week and announced on the day of the stream. The band performed eight songs, with Yorke and Greenwood on guitar, bass, Moog synthesiser and Rhodes piano. That October, Yorke performed a Smile song, “Free in the Knowledge”, at the Letters Live event at the Royal Albert Hall, London.

In January 2022, the Smile performed to an audience for the first time at three shows at Magazine, London, which were livestreamed. They played in the round, and debuted several tracks, including “Speech Bubbles”, “A Hairdryer”, “Waving a White Flag” and “The Same”. The shows also included performances of “Open the Floodgates”, which Yorke first performed in 2010, and a cover of the 1979 Joe Jackson single “It’s Different for Girls”.

In NME, James Balmont gave the London show four out of five, describing it as “meticulous, captivating stuff”. In the Guardian, Kitty Empire gave it four out of five, writing that “the Smile are most musically convincing when they stretch farther away from Radiohead”, while Alexis Petridis gave it three, saying it was “intriguing rather than dazzling, intermittently spellbinding, filled with fascinating ideas that don’t always coalesce”.

In March 2023, the Smile confirmed that they were seven weeks into recording a second album. On 20 June, they released the first single from their second album, “Bending Hectic”. Stereogum described it as an “epic that starts out soft and quiet and builds into a splendorous stomping beast”. In September, Yorke and Donwood exhibited a selection of artwork created for the Smile, The Crow Flies, in London.

The Smile released their second album, Wall of Eyes, produced by Sam Petts-Davies, on 26 January 2024. It received acclaim. It was promoted with the singles “Wall of Eyes” and “Friend of a Friend”, both accompanied by music videos directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.

On 19 January 2024, the Smile held a series of screenings at independent cinemas. The events included listening parties for the album and a selection of Yorke and Greenwood’s videos with Anderson. The band members made a surprise appearance at the Prince Charles Cinema in London and answered questions from the audience. The Smile are due to begin a European tour in March, including a performance at the BBC 6 Music Festival with the London Contemporary Orchestra.

Consequence wrote that the Smile incorporate elements of post-punk, proto-punk and math rock. Several critics likened them to Yorke and Greenwood’s band Radiohead; both acts use “warped” melodies, unusual time signatures and “vintage rock” sensibilities. The Guardian critic Alexis Petridis said the Smile “sound like a simultaneously more skeletal and knottier version of Radiohead”, incorporating progressive rock influences, complex riffs and “hard-driving” motorik psychedelia. The Uncut critic Wyndham Wallace described the Smile as “less a spinoff than regeneration, like a new Doctor Who, emerging from the same gene pool with equal gravitas”.

Pitchfork identified a “slight bounce” in Skinner’s drumming and “unfamiliar aggression” in Greenwood’s basslines. On several Smile songs, Greenwood uses a delay effect to create “angular” synchronised repeats. The critic Kitty Empire noted Afrobeat elements in “Just Eyes and Mouth” and influence from 1960s electronic music and systems music in “Open the Floodgates” and “The Same”. Reviewing Wall of Eyes, Pitchfork said the Smile was “stranger and wilder” than Radiohead, with more emphasis on jazz, progressive rock and krautrock, and allowed Yorke and Greenwood to “loosen up” after “decades refining, refusing, and reformulating the Radiohead sound”.

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