For those who don’t know, I begin with a confession: I have been a big fan of Radiohead since our roadie assured me that The Bends was much better than the first record, which I had not paid much attention to. I reluctantly listened, mainly thanks to the boredom that comes with long drives across the Midwest, and fell in love. My love have has remained strong ever since, for Beepy Radiohead and Guitar Radiohead. All flavors are welcome here, with In Rainbows and OK Computer being the ones I generally point to as Best Radiohead.
I’ve seen them live four times, and even went Thom Yorke’s solo tour, with him and a keyboardist and loops. All the shows—the band’s especially, but even Thom’s—revealed a much more human, organic side to the music.
The Smile is a new side project with Yorke and Johnny Greenwood (the one who makes the weird noises and scores movies) and Tom Skinner, a drummer I didn’t know much about before but have grown to admire. Skinner has a lighter, jazzier touch, than most rock drummers, something that gives The Smile a different approach to grooves than Radioead. He’s not overly busy with fills, but when he cuts loose it usually serves the song. I really enjoy about eighty percent of their first record, so I eagerly nabbed some tickets for the tour as soon as they went on sale.
They played the Eastern, a place I have been too quite a bit, usually with teen girls in tow: Mitski, Girl in Red, Eric Nam. The sound is usually pretty great, and I don’t mind standing for a show. In fact, yes, I have been in the pit three times for Radiohead, waiting outside before the doors open so I can get close. For the Smile I was about six rows back, dead center, because I really wanted to watch how the three of them interact. The stretch out across the stage, with Thom and Johnny swapping between guitar, bass, and keys.
Note: Guitarists really love playing bass, I think. And while I enjoyed seeing these really good guitarists play bass, I also thought again that Colin Greenwood, Johnny’s brother and bass player for Radiohead, is the powerful secret weapon of that group.
As with Radiohead, there’s not a whole lot of banter, but the live performances are much looser, and more human, than the recordings can sometime sound. I like the Smile album, but my favorite songs were even better live. No backing tape, just the occasional loop, usually triggered by the drummer during one of the less kit-centric songs. When the show worked best they functioned as a skilled power trio, with strong grooves and classic Yorke-ian melodies. “We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings” is basically a three-minute power pop song, and they bashed it out with great confidence and ease.
There’s a new one called “Bodies Laughing” that gets across the kind of slinky groove that this particular group can do well.
When it worked a little less well it almost ventured into “Jazz Odyssey” territory. Sometimes the songs themselves disappear a bit under the weight of the wacky tempo changes, and those are the moments that feel like the three of them got so lost in their weird musical universes that they forgot to bring any of the melody with them. What keeps me from listening to the Yorke solo stuff is an absence of strong songs, and in that case I think it’s the hyper-busy beats that wash out anything in their path.
Luckily, that side was kept pretty well under wraps live, the same way it is minimized on the first record. Maybe having another strong writer around helps Yorke stay a bit more focused? Greenwood and Yorke are more interesting than Yorke by himself, and as the night drew to an end I started wondering again about the mysterious chemistry of good bands, and the ways that a songwriter can have his or her personal indulgences checked by the presence of steady companions—sort of like the way Dr. Who always benefits from having some fellow, more human travelers along for the ride. I walked out with that buzz you really only get from a really great live show, excited about where The Smile might go next, while admittedly more excited to see where Radiohead goes next, when and if their adventures continue.