“The Smile” falls short: Radiohead’s side project

Photo courtesy of The Smile via Facebook | The Smile’s recent promotional photo.

This entire album is an “almost.”

Pretty moments and complex chords do not outweigh the overly technical, probably overthought sense that the new “The Smile” album brings. Unlike previous Radiohead albums, solo and side projects, “A Light For Attracting Attention” is generally uncompelling; at its best, an extension of classic Yorke-Greenwood grand string parts and at its worst, forced and mismatched math rock. 

“A Light for Attracting Attention” is missing something, and that something is Philip Selway. This album has downright strange drum mixes. Busier drum parts met with softer, dull mixes are a departure from Radiohead’s signature effortlessly-powerful electronic drums and sparkly ride parts. Tom Skinner, a jazz drummer for Sons of Kemet, unfortunately doesn’t live up to Philip Selway’s style and tone, falling short in nearly every category. Really soft electronic drums, odd pairings with hand drums and generally meh upbeat parts just make this album scream for the Selway flourish. Skinner’s jazz influence is present in “Skrting On The Surface,” which at times doesn’t mesh well with Johnny Greenwood’s arpeggiated trance. The two “behind the beat” parts don’t always play nice together and create tension that, unfortunately isn’t balanced out by the vocals or accented well by the horns. 

“A Light For Attracting Attention” is all over the place, trying to do way too much. Punk, math rock, floating ambient lullabies, grandiose string anthems, synth-electronic and jam-band tracks like “The Smoke” that make you think – wow, Khurangbin did it better. Most of the softer tunes are stronger, and unsurprisingly follow the Radiohead magic formula of Yorke-Greenwood style more than the others. “Open The Floodgates,” “Free In The Knowledge” and “Speech Bubbles” all straddle the dynamic line between subdued and grand, with intriguing electronic noise and superb string parts from the London Contemporary Orchestra.

While some of the upbeat songs are a tempting idea, they seem to all miss the mark. “Thin Thing,” with a song structure that really falls short, is held up by Greenwood’s magnificent guitar tone and the outlandish vocal effects. “You Will Never Work In Television Again” has the right idea, but poor and overly-simple execution. A great build is the only thing this song has going for it, but isn’t fully formed as a derivative, slightly punk song. On a more positive note, “We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings” is easily the best of energetic songs, feeling like a Moog’d-out take on post-punk. Thom Yorke additionally showcases a different side of his vocals in this song, as he is more upfront and speech-like than his typical, soaring-in-the-heavens vocal performances.

Other tracks on “A Light For Attracting Attention” just weren’t quite there. “Pana-vision” has a great chord progression but verses feel like a struggle to make a semi-dissonant instrumental work with lyrics. Similarly, the vocals feel like a vaguely-choral afterthought. “The Same” is pure Thom Yorke and “A Hairdryer” is a boring drum loop experimentation. These songs were “almosts.” The biggest letdown is “The Opposite” – earning the title of math rock gone bland. The trying-to-be-groovy tune just falls flat – it is generally boring and every instrument competes with the others. 

Thankful for more Yorke-Greenwood content and displeased with the mismatch that is the album, “A Light for Attracting Attention” did not fill the Radiohead void. All in all, The Smile may just be trying a bit too hard.

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