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Sergei Stepanov – about the new band of Tom York and Johnny Greenwood The Smile

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The Smile, a new project by singer Tom York and guitarist Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead, has released two singles, toured Europe and is working on their first album. After watching The Smile in live stream format, Sergei Stepanov tells what else to expect from the most famous debutants of 2022.

Tom York may be the most unsmiling rock star on the planet, but that doesn’t mean that the name of his new band is completely detached from the truth. As York explained in advance during the first concert of his new project The Smile, it is about “The smile of a man who lies to you every day”. Radiohead have always been able to find a balance between anti-utopia and melodrama, and it seems that The Smile is not deprived of this gift either. The band recently released their third single, “Skrting on the Surface” – a beautiful song this spring, brought to mind from the decade before, but released just now, when Orwell is spinning in a coffin.

The Smile debuted last spring during a Glastonbury live stream. The participation of a new group from York and Greenwood became known a few hours before it began. Complementing his power trio with Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner and saying that Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich has been without OK Computer since OK Computer, The Smile has played an evil, dashing, provocative rock ‘n’ roll. minute set – and disappeared from view.

Allusions to further plans of the project were heard in separate interviews of its participants, which, in order to completely confuse everyone, were also twisted. So, at some point the news came out that the debut album The Smile is ready and it’s not a rock record – with reference to an interview with Godrich. He did not say anything like that, however, and made a double clarification: “Let me add that the album is not ready and it’s a rock record.” York also had to say: “Also allow me to add that you can also add salt and pepper.” That was last summer.

In the fall, Greenwood added some clarity to the issue, saying in another interview that “we are sitting in front of a mountain of music, deciding what to include in the record.” Johnny also talked about where The Smile came from: nothing sensational, just York and Greenwood wanted to work on new music during the lockdown, and one led to another. Well, by this winter, The Smile has finally tasted good. To begin with, they released their debut single “You Will Never Work in Television Again”, which aired on Glastonbury and was largely responsible for the early conclusions that The Smile would play post-punk and mat-rock.

Finally, in the last weekend of January, the band released their second, even more irresistible single “The Smoke” and held three more live streaming concerts – now in the presence of spectators, on the stage of the new London Magazine London. It immediately became clear that the new band inherited from Radiohead the habit of experimenting not only with content but also with form. The Smile played back three shows in a row for three different time zones (London evenings, nights and mornings), while live streamers usually cheat by broadcasting the same concert three times.

The streams of The Smile differed, however, a little: the songs were played the same and in the same order. Unless on encore in two cases from three the cover version of a new wave hit sounded “It’s Different for Girls” Joe Jackson, and during the third – morning – show (“It’s time for breakfast,” – said York at the beginning), tired musicians lost their rhythm a couple of times. After Glastonbury, it seemed that the rhythm in The Smile was the main thing: even prog-rock connoisseurs recognized their band, enthusiastically discussing unusual – 7/8, 5/4, 11/8 – for rock mainstream clock sizes.

The Smile songs really have enough experience with fine and gross motor skills of mat and rock music, as well as direct and indirect indications that the band members are not indifferent to the new wave of post-punk revival in the face of Black Midi or Black Country, New Road. But the London concerts made it clear that there was something else: despite the novelty of these influences, York’s old habits with Greenwood also did not go away. Six of the band’s fourteen original songs were performed for the first time – and the shadow of Radiohead hanging over them is too massive to go unnoticed.

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Prior to that, the most “radio” of The Smile songs was the same “Skrting on the Furnace”, which is not surprising: Radiohead themselves played it live ten years ago, and York solo – back in 2009. Now she has been joined by “Open the Floodgate”, once also performed on the piano by one Yorkie and beginning with the immortal lines “Don’t bore us / Get to the chorus”. In her current – elementary, but shrill – version – she obliges to recall one of Tom’s most obsolete quotes: “I am infuriated by how beautiful my voice is.”

York is not the only one who was at the height during the London concerts. In one of tweets the following highlights of the show were listed: Johnny Greenwood playing guitar; Johnny Greenwood playing bass; Johnny Greenwood playing the bass with a bow; Johnny Greenwood playing bass with his feet; Johnny Greenwood playing the piano with one hand and the harp with the other; Johnny Greenwood. “Free in the Knowledge” was especially successful, at the end of which Greenwood really took to a new level a technique patented by the Icelandic group Sigur Rós. (Twenty-two years ago, the author of these lines watched as her frontman, Yonsey, slammed a bow on a guitar while warming up at Radiohead.)

Debuting in London, “A Hairdryer” sounds just like Radiohead in the mid-1990s, a model not even “The Bends”, but almost grunge EP “My Iron Lung”. Another brand new song, “Waving a White Flag,” is reminiscent of York’s music for the “Suspiria” remake. “It was too fast,” he said at the end of the first live stream. “When we write more, we will play more, but so far that’s all we have.”

Well, what’s there is enough to suspect the next album is the best debut – and one of the best albums – of the year. However, all this does not answer one important question: why York and Greenwood another rock band?

There are several possible answers to this. First of all, Radiohead has been involved in jazz since the days of Kid A and Amnesiac, and in 2011 a second drummer, member of the jazz-rock band Get the Blessing Clive Dimer, was included in their concert line-up. The alliance with Skinner is a logical continuation of this line of thought. Sons of Kemet is one of the main bands of the thriving London jazz scene in recent years, and Skinner is a flexible, agile drummer who plays kraft rock with equal comfort, and something much less predictable.

Secondly, both York and Greenwood are realizing another problematic ambition in The Smile, in the context of Radiohead, on the bassColin Greenwood, Johnny’s older brother, plays bass on Radiohead.. They do this in turn and in different ways: Johnny is sophisticated and like a typical guitarist, Tom is more economical and, it seems, not without regard to the technique of Fly from Red Hot Chili Peppers, which is part of the York-based supergroup Atoms for Peace. Third, Tom obviously has too many good – new and unfinished old – songs to keep idle while the Radiohead musicians take a break from each other.

And Radiohead musicians need to rest from each other. Like all functional but long-lasting relationships, working in the most influential rock band of our days requires occasional changes of scenery and regular new challenges. In the six years since the band’s ninth album was released «A Moon Shaped Pool», its participants released a lot of solo works. York’s craving for electronics was temporarily quenched by his recent – excellent – album “Anima”. Greenwood is a recognized king of multitasking, who recently earned a second Oscar nomination for best composer (for music for “The Power of the Dog” by Jane Campion). What’s more, even guitarist Ed O’Brien, who always seemed to be a workhorse, was enough for an excellent solo debut under the EOB sign.

London concerts of The Smile convince that the new group of York and Greenwood has every chance to jump even higher – thus raising the stakes for the tenth album Radiohead. And what is the difference between a rock record or not.

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