The Smile ‘A Light To Attract Attention’ Album Review

Photo: Alex Lake/The Smile

I used to think Thom Yorke would sing about a distant but perfectly plausible future, sketching the logical conclusions to which our worst tendencies can lead us and brandishing charged allegory like a warning like a writer of dystopian novels does. Maybe it was all the robots and computers making references to George Orwell and Douglas Adams or 20th century belief Ok calculator‘s Paranoid Android were touted, but it seemed like a doomer trip, a laser focus on all the worst possible ways the present could turn out. 25 years later – now that we machines often convince that we are human and it is possible to buy groceries via artificial intelligence – songs like “Fitter Happier” seem like sober assessments of a rapidly digitizing but somehow increasingly fragmented world. I think the story is that, as easy as it may be to play Yorke off as some sort of misery with a penchant for the macabre, all that’s talked about wolves and piggies and fire and witches is just a melodramatic framing of the larger ones Message is A corrupt, power-hungry elite that gamble for money just sucks, no matter how good or bad we feel about the state of the world at the time.

Still, it’s always irritating to see that guy scared. on A light to attract attention – the debut album from The Smile, a trio consisting of Yorke, Jonny Greenwood and drummer Tom Skinner of London jazz quartet Sons of Kemet – Thom finds himself once again chillingly attuned to current fears about climate change and government abuses. Opener “The Same” feels like a bookend to the looming revolution by the end amnesia‘s “You and Whose Army?” This time, Yorke begs us to try to get on the same page: “People in the Streets,” he purrs, lending a dark urgency to the lyrics by punctuating them with a choppy “Please!” / We are one, equal.” It’s your archetypal Yorke and Greenwood production. Foreboding notes build suspense and amble through changes that signify growing anxiety. Homage to the thief‘s “2 + 2 = 5” does the same, as does the ominous “Last I Heard (…He Was Circling the Drain)” from Yorke’s solo album animaand the jerky “Before Your Very Eyes…” from the side project Atoms for Peace. attention benefits from an author with distinct musical signatures and from the bond of bandmates who have spent much time building a musical language and just as much time distorting and deconstructing their own processes. Skinner gets something else out of them, however: a feisty, earthy rock album that stands in striking contrast to Yorke and Greenwood’s work on 2016 A moon shaped poolwhich honored the same fascination with baroque music and acoustic instruments that shaped Jonny’s soundtrack work. attention is the brighter star in the expanded Radiohead universe – perhaps even the brightest – because the music balances beloved old sounds and new ideas, while the lyrics hint at modern day horrors.

A quality this record shares with much of the Rockstars in Residence back catalog is the feeling that a song is a musical puzzle that this group of players intends to solve before us. “Pana-vision” plunges us into an eerie, soaring vocal and piano figure, then introduces horn and string arrangements that deliver a powerful low-end that contrasts with the singer’s lonely wails. “Thin Thing” lays out a latticework of arpeggiated guitar notes that, in a not dissimilar fashion, resolve into a chugging rock routine for the entire band Homage to the thief‘Myxomatosis’ patiently sells you a riff that initially feels pretentious and intentionally dull. The Smile plays evil tricks on accessibility, teasing soothing melodies from uncomfortable patterns. The tension between the rhythmic games and the emotional payoffs they often guard is the beating heart of A light to attract attention, an album that shifts from nervous uneasiness to moments of calm, a mirror of the experience of going about your day-to-day business while being rocked by bad news. As the gnarly rockers give way to ballads like “Free in the Knowledge” and “Waving a White Flag” early in the album, attention starts reaching for the sad songs Yorke spawned in the mid-’90s, like “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”, “Lucky” or “Bulletproof… I Wish I Was”.

More fascinating than the path A light to attract attention Frames and reframes Yorke’s and Greenwood’s pet noises are the many places where the smile continues to branch out. “The Opposite” follows the tension of “The Same” with slick, mutant funk that’s beginning to resemble the flashy, highly technical vamps of early ’80s King Crimson records. On the album’s back cover, the exquisite “Speech Bubbles” settles into a sleepy acoustic groove reminiscent of the sombre, mature contemporary sound of Sting’s “Fragile”. The rippling synth notes that accompany the portly “Open the Floodgates” feel like the Steve Miller Band’s “Space Intro.” Fly like an eagle. As much as The Smile is a product of its members’ unique musical idiosyncrasies, it also references punk, progressive rock, folk, metal, jazz and afrobeat. It delivers the expected eclipse and doom in unexpected ways. “Thin Thing” sings about being burned and pulled apart, then the band plays a loud riff that could fit on a Fu Manchu album. The dour “Waving a White Flag” mixes synths and strings like Depeche Mode’s “Little 15.”

It’s fascinating to hear what Yorke and Greenwood come up with outside of Radiohead’s confines and how Skinner pushes the duo in different directions. While he’s in every way the nimble, precise hand of Radiohead’s drummer Philip Selway, Skinner loosens it up as Brazilian jazz player Mauro Refosco — a Red Hot Chili Peppers partner with a master’s degree in percussion — lends Atoms for Peace the necessary musical Nagel gave subtleties to the polyrhythms amok plays with. This is the first time the pair have ever collaborated on a side project, and it’s no surprise they’ve strayed into familiar musical ideas. The Smile was an excuse for the longtime collaborators to work together during lockdown in 2020. Is the need to work in smaller groups also the reason why this band seems to be working with fewer toys than usual? When performed live, the Smile employs a leaner, more traditional setup than the vast array of musical arcanas favored by Jonny Greenwood. Glastonbury was all guitar, bass, drums and some keyboards. Greenwood plays guitar mostly and doesn’t happily hop from ax to Moog to glockenspiel to Ondes Martenot or whatever antique technique he’s into that day. It gives these songs a primal feel, best exemplified by rockers like the blistering “You Will Never Work on Television Again” or the emphatic “We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings,” where the band moves in lockstep behind the singer moved as he rapped in a snarling malevolence not seen since “My Iron Lung.”

While The Smile does its best to throw the listener off course with unexpected twists and devious changes, Yorke takes care of them confidently and carefully like a tamer. He dances over the dizzying guitars of “The Smoke” with impressive ease; the howls and screeches of “You’ll never work on TV again” fit the message perfectly. “Television” is an example of the overall mood A light to attract attention, which lingers between seething anger and burnout. The spiky rocker’s lyrics express his disdain for film and TV industry moguls like Roger Ailes, the late Fox exec who left his own company after a mountain of sexual assault allegations, and Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister who did this was charged with sex with underage girls in the 2010s. Elsewhere, the album seems certain that we will all die boiled alive in a climate catastrophe. “The Smoke” sounds like a play-by-play of a home evacuation in the midst of wildfire, while the dreamy Bridge sees the singer waking up to a cloudy room. Similarly, Speech Bubbles begins as an exodus from a burning city. Yorke has no answers this time. It just has a “Come Together” message in it. After the plea for unity in “The Same” attention reveals all the reasons why it’s unlikely to happen, the bland conversation that soothes us and the listlessness it instills in us (“Open the Floodgate”), not to mention the stream of young lives the machine destroys ( “You Will Never Work on TV Again”).

This album doesn’t say love is the answer or whatever. It doesn’t even revel in the promise that wicked people in power will have their day of reckoning. (After Radiohead caught Flak for playing in Israel, and since Greenwood a “fat thumb” (for favoring a transphobic tweet, there are those concerned that the left spark has grown cold in this camp.) It challenges us to consider the possibility that life is already as good as it will ever be should, and every day that goes by is the chillest day we’ll ever see each other again. Skrting on the Surface seems to suggest that a cruel peace may reign within, but Free in the Knowledge fails to envision a scenario in which we don’t perish fighting. The uncertainty – of what tomorrow will bring and where a song will ultimately take us – feels like 2022, even if The Smile nods to it bends and Homage to the thief. This synthesis makes A light to attract attention a real treat, a touch of nostalgia from people who don’t do that much.

In a recent chat with NPR’s Fresh air Podcast he summed up his credo: “All instruments are just technology, no matter how old or new they are.” The Smile ‘A Light To Attract Attention’ Album Review

Lindsay Lowe

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