Some live albums arrive in the thick of a band’s imperial phase and feel like a victory lap. Others are transparent cash-ins (you know who you are). The best ones serve as historic artifacts, commemorating a gig of rare significance: a star-studded farewell concert, say, or an extraordinary songwriter exorcising private grief in a public forum.
The Smile’s new live album does not fit these categories. It’s more like a proof of concept, a flex. See? it tells you. It’s not studio trickery. These three blokes really can replicate this stuff live. Indeed, the band lock in to the wobbly 7/8 meter of “Pana-Vision,” recreate the wooly, tablature-resistant riffs of “Thin Thing,” and nail the careening intensity of “You Will Never Work in Television Again” (here rendered at a more breakneck pace) without breaking a sweat.
Comprising Radiohead veterans Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood alongside Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner, the Smile emerged as 2022’s little supergroup that could. While Radiohead have long been ambivalent about the live album format, giving us just one (2001’s I Might Be Wrong) across a 30-year recording career, the Smile operate differently. Seven months after its excellent studio debut, A Light for Attracting Attention, the trio released its set (or part of it, at least) from last summer’s Montreux Jazz Festival.
Since the beginning, the Smile have been dogged by an eminently reasonable question: How is this not just two Radioheads stacked in a trench coat? The answer is right there in the title of this release: This band plays jazz, see. They play at jazz festivals and have a jazz drummer. They recorded this live album at the long-running Swiss festival, just like Miles Davis and Nina Simone once did. They’re only one degree of separation from the legendary Impulse! Records.
These eight songs—all from their studio debut—don’t sound drastically different here, but Yorke and Greenwood seem invigorated by their drummer’s jazz pedigree. On the elegiac “Speech Bubbles,” Greenwood achieves the herculean task of plucking a harp with one hand while playing keyboard with the other, embellishing the song with an anarchic piano solo that faintly echoes the mother of all anarchic piano solos, “Aladdin Sane.” On “You Will Never Work in Television Again,” they are joined by saxophonist Robert Stillman, whose shrieking accompaniment lurches towards a punk-jazz hybrid that’s more Nation of Ulysses than “The National Anthem.”
Greenwood, as ever, brings new meaning to the word multi-instrumentalist; you may need video accompaniment to appreciate his mid-song leaps from piano to bass to manipulating said bass with a bow during “Free in the Knowledge.” On A Light for Attracting Attention, that haunting lullabye to self-delusion and “A Hairdryer” were two distinct tracks. In this performance, they are conjoined by an extended avant-noise segue, a fine overture for a rendition of “A Hairdryer” that’s sharper edged and more kinetic than the studio version by far. With Yorke on gloriously fuzzed-out guitar and Skinner unleashing a torrent of pitter-patter syncopations, it’s like the evil stepchild of “Optimistic.”
It’s a Radiohead tradition to test-run new material on tour, sometimes years or decades before properly releasing it. (Recall the embryonic “True Love Waits” that appeared on I Might Be Wrong.) With just one album to their name, the Smile have embraced this tradition by necessity. At Montreux, the group performed four new songs, including a woozy slow-burner called “Bending Hectic,” which Yorke claimed to have completed half an hour earlier.
Disappointingly, this live release omits the new songs. Perhaps Yorke and co. view them as works in progress. At 35 minutes, it’s more a sampler than a full set—essentially a bonus feature for one of the year’s finest rock albums. You already know that these three musicians have forged a thrilling chemistry amidst the chaos of the pandemic. That this live album exists indicates that they know it, too.
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