The Radiohead side project most likely to be mistaken for Radiohead brings together Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood with Sons Of Kemet’s Tom Skinner
It’s been six years since Radiohead last released an album, 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool. In that time, we’ve had a couple of Thom Yorke solo projects (including new music for the BBC show Peaky Blinders), some Jonny Greenwood film scores and Ed O’Brien‘s debut effort Earth. Yet none of those side projects really had the magic that Radiohead could create as a unit.
Until now, that is. The Smile are probably the Radiohead side project most likely to be mistaken for Radiohead. It’s no surprise really, given that the band consists of Yorke and Greenwood, with Sons Of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner. And, just to complete proceedings, long term Radiohead collaborator Nigel Godrich is on production duties. The result is a record that harks back to vintage Radiohead, while adding in new, experimental, slightly jazzy elements, courtesy of Skinner. It’s fair to say that, as an experiment, it’s a big success.
The most comparable Radiohead era that The Smile fall into is something between Hail To The Thief and In Rainbows – sometimes downbeat, synth heavy and full of lush orchestration and, at other times, full of fire and fury. Skinner’s influence can be heard most obviously on the visceral You Will Never Work In Television Again, packed full of howling guitar riffs, kinetic drumming and Yorke spitting out lyrics seemingly inspired by a #MeToo monster, with talk of bunga-bunga parties and “girls slitting their wrists”. While Philip Selway is obviously no slouch when it comes to drumming, it’s exhilarating to hear Skinner’ style meshing with Yorke and Greenwood.
There are also nods to earlier Radiohead eras in the sombre ballad of Pana-Vision, while Free In The Knowledge’s intro even recalls Fake Plastic Trees momentarily, but The Smile really catch fire when they go off into hitherto unexplained territory. The Smoke is anchored by a nagging bass riff which becomes almost dubby, before brass instruments pitch in to add another dimension. Opening track The Same has an uneasy tension to it, despite being hushed, while The Hairdryer is drenched in a restrained, skittish energy that seems on the edge of exploding, but never quite does.
Thin Thing is the centrepiece of the album, full of hyperactive beats from Skinner and increasingly disorientating sound effects with Greenwood piling on the reverb. At the other end of the scale is Open The Floodgates, a stately ballad that, yes, could be an outtake from The Bends and even features a sardonic opening line of “don’t bore us, get to the chorus”. It’s a rare moment of levity on an album that otherwise sees Yorke railing against his twin demons of political corruption and environmental apocalypse.
Radiohead obsessives will know that latter track as it’s been around in demo form for a number of years, as has closing track Skrting On The Surface. That is reworked here as a languid, jazzy number which brings the album to a somewhat dreamy close. Unlike those other Radiohead solo and side projects, you can easily imagine The Smile appealing to more than those aforementioned obsessives. As a soundtrack to these unsettling, rather terrifying times, you won’t find many better composers than Yorke and Greenwood.