The Smile perform at The Anthem on Nov. 23, 2022. (Photo by David LaMason)
Don’t call this a side project. I mean, there’ve been “side projects” before, but UK band The Smile is really more than the sum of its parts.
Of course, there’s Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood — famously of Radiohead — and Tom Skinner of the Sons Of Kemet, but listening to the band’s debut A Light for Attracting Attention, you get the sense that this isn’t some stop along the way sort of thing; it’s a record that’s been on repeat in this house (or mostly in the car) to the point of delirium. With frequent Radiohead producer, Nigel Godrich, at the helm, A Light for Attracting Attention is an eclectic mix of some of the best parts of what you might find from the aforementioned band – poignantly poetic lyrics, polyrhythmic lines of guitar — but with an sense of exploration, improvisation, and space that Skinner brings from his work with Sons Of Kemet.
It’s a record that can, in one moment, be a wall of cascading sound and in the next moment open and breathy.
Personally, one of my most anticipated shows of the year happened to be one of the last of 2022 with The Smile hitting The Anthem on Nov. 23 to a packed house. And as the massive room began to fill up, you could feel a sense of excitement. And why not? This was the first time since Radiohead’s 2018 tour for A Moon Shape Pool that both Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood had performed together near DC or the surrounding area.
Multi-instrumentalist and composer Robert Stillman opened the evening with a brilliant series of compositions that saw him looping his saxophone along with synthesizers and other instruments as weaved soundscapes that felt both grounded in the traditional and at the same time unmoored, floating through space.
As The Smile took the stage, the band started with the syncopated rhythm of “The Same” as Jonny played piano while Tom manned the keys and Thom took to the mic, guitar at his back. “We are all the same… Please!,” Thom sang as the curved backdrop of lighted bars flashed and pulsed on the stage.
Speaking of stage lighting and set up, it was incredible as the red light of the next song, “Thin Thing,” changed in a burst of stroke into a frenetic blast as Jonny thrashed about, playing off the off-kilter beats of Tom Skinner just to turn on a dime as Thom sang “Our echo doesn’t hear us / Anymore / Hanging on a cloth edge / By its fingers” just to jump right back into the fray as the lights flashed to the manic rhythm.
Watch the official music video for “Thin Thing” by The Smile on YouTube:
The Smile, like the projects each band member has been in before, have songs that are like their own ecosystem — confined to a degree in their own pop song structure but complex and surprising at times. Some of my favorite tracks on the album (of which there are many) go from punk-styled thumping to songs like “Free in the Knowledge,” with its ambient washes and acoustic guitar. As the band started on the song Jonny took to the piano as Thom strummed “we won’t get caught like that…” It was one of the highlights of the evening (also of which there were many) with a conventional 4/4 arrangement but with a melody that sticks in your head without a hope of leaving any time soon.
Each member of the band traded off on instruments, as Thom played that circular bass line on “The Smoke” as Jonny played guitar but then changed up as Jonny would take to the keys or Tom would then go from his drum kit to synthesizers. And then there was the addition on several numbers of Robert Stillman — who opened the evening with his own compositions — played saxophone on several songs. As they have in other stops along their tour route, The Smile played a number of new songs (I know. Technically they are all new songs, but these are NEW new) that sounded great and gave hope to a soon-to-follow second LP.
After an amazing set, the band came back out for the encore and ending with a song from Yorke’s solo work called “FeelingPulledApartByHorses,” which had a decidedly heavier groove to it than I recall and seemed to cap the set off perfectly.
The Smile continue their tour through North America, but I’m hoping this is just the tip of the iceberg!
The setlist included:
Free in the Knowledge
Waving a White Flag
Read the Room (new song)
We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings
Bodies Laughing (new song)
Skrting on the Surface
People on Balconies (with Robert Stillman) (new song)
The Smoke (with Robert Stillman)
You Will Never Work in Television Again (with Robert Stillman)
Open the Floodgates
Colours Fly (with Robert Stillman) (new song)
FeelingPulledApartByHorses (Thom Yorke song)
Here are more photos of The Smile performing at The Anthem on Nov. 23, 2022. All photos copyright and courtesy of David LaMason.
And here are photos of Robert Stillman, opening for The Smile at The Anthem on November 23, 2022.