The Smile Wall Of Eyes review: Radiohead stars break free, and it’s (almost) enough to make Thom Yorke smile, writes ADRIAN THRILLS

THE SMILE: Wall Of Eyes (XL) 

Verdict: Bold visions 

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ROBERTA FLACK: Lost Takes (Arc) 

Verdict: Birth of a legend 

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They started life as a lockdown side-project, but The Smile are now seemingly the main event for Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood.

As members of Radiohead, singer Yorke and guitarist Greenwood were behind classics such as The Bends and OK Computer, but their desire for an imminent return to the day job appears to be waning.

Unlike their original band, quiet since 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool, The Smile are prolific. With Yorke and Greenwood accompanied by Tom Skinner, an exceptional jazz drummer, they have made two studio LPs and two live ones in the past 20 months. With a 2024 tour stretching from spring into summer, there are no prizes for guessing where their focus currently lies.

As with anything in the orbit of Radiohead, who can be difficult at times, there’s one question to be asked of the new Smile album, Wall Of Eyes: are there any good tunes?

If you’re looking for infectious hooks to hum on the way to work, the answer’s no. If you’re happy to give these beautifully crafted pieces of music a little time, it’s a rewarding listen.

Thom Yorke of The Smile performs at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, California, on December 18, 2022

The Smile members Tom Skinner, Jonny Greenwood and Thom Yorke. As with anything in the orbit of Radiohead, who can be difficult at times, there's one question to be asked of the new Smile album, Wall Of Eyes: are there any good tunes?

The Smile members Tom Skinner, Jonny Greenwood and Thom Yorke. As with anything in the orbit of Radiohead, who can be difficult at times, there’s one question to be asked of the new Smile album, Wall Of Eyes: are there any good tunes?

The Smile: Wall Of Eyes.It's a step up from the trio's debut, 2022's A Light For Attracting Attention, which featured clashing musical ideas and works-in-progress exhumed from the Radiohead vaults

The Smile: Wall Of Eyes.It’s a step up from the trio’s debut, 2022’s A Light For Attracting Attention, which featured clashing musical ideas and works-in-progress exhumed from the Radiohead vaults

There’s a sense that The Smile have been liberated, without the expectations that surround Radiohead.

Fans of the latter will miss Ed O’Brien’s backing vocals and the fluent basslines of Greenwood’s brother, Colin, but there’s ample compensation: detours into acoustic Americana; the title track’s Latin swing; the strings of the London Contemporary Orchestra.

It’s a step up from the trio’s debut, 2022’s A Light For Attracting Attention, which featured clashing musical ideas and works-in-progress exhumed from the Radiohead vaults.

Many of these eight songs have been tested live and the musicianship has a natural, road-hardened flow. On Read The Room, Greenwood reiterates his stature as one of our most inventive rock musicians.

One constant is Yorke’s gloomy, paranoid lyric writing. He isn’t one of life’s glass-half-full guys. ‘Don’t let them take me!’ he pleads on Under Our Pillows. The title track alludes to a looming, but ambiguous, threat. ‘Is that still you, with the hollow eyes?’ he asks in a ghostly falsetto.

The centrepiece, though, is Bending Hectic, an eight-minute melodrama that opens with folky guitar before changing shape to a gnarly rocker. Driving through Italy in ‘a vintage soft-top from the Sixties’, and approaching a hairpin bend on a mountain, Yorke’s protagonist flirts with death before pulling back from the brink. ‘Despite these slings, despite these arrows… I force myself to turn.’

It’s one of several tracks that echo Yorke and Greenwood’s soundtrack work. Yorke wrote the score for 2018’s Suspiria, and Greenwood received an Oscars nod for Phantom Thread. Those cinematic skills are to the fore here.

There’s no suggestion as yet that Radiohead are about to call it quits. For now, though, it’s The Smile who are beaming.

Roberta Flack only retired from music in 2022, following a diagnosis of motor neurone disease, but the 86-year-old’s legacy had been well established by then. Solo hits such as Killing Me Softly With His Song and her duets with the late Donny Hathaway earmark her as an American soul great — and a new set of early recordings will only burnish that reputation.

Full-length studio portrait of American pop singer Roberta Flack smiling while laying on the floor, propped up on her elbow on November 5, 1969

Full-length studio portrait of American pop singer Roberta Flack smiling while laying on the floor, propped up on her elbow on November 5, 1969

Roberta Flack portrait circa 1973. Roberta Flack only retired from music in 2022, following a diagnosis of motor neurone disease, but the 86-year-old's legacy had been well established by then

Roberta Flack portrait circa 1973. Roberta Flack only retired from music in 2022, following a diagnosis of motor neurone disease, but the 86-year-old’s legacy had been well established by then

Roberta Flack: Lost Takes. Solo hits such as Killing Me Softly With His Song and her duets with the late Donny Hathaway earmark her as an American soul great — and a new set of early recordings will only burnish that reputation

Roberta Flack: Lost Takes. Solo hits such as Killing Me Softly With His Song and her duets with the late Donny Hathaway earmark her as an American soul great — and a new set of early recordings will only burnish that reputation 

Overseen by respected DJ and broadcaster Gilles Peterson, Lost Takes gathers the 1968 demos that preceded Flack’s debut album First Take, which arrived a year later and gave the singer a hit with her cover of Ewan MacColl’s The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.

These early tracks were included on a 2020 reissue of First Take, but are now available in their own right — and for the first time on vinyl.

With the onus on soulful subtlety rather than the gospel grit of an Aretha Franklin, Lost Takes contains no overlap with her debut album. Flack shines on show tune This Could Be The Start Of Something before using On The Street Where You Live, from My Fair Lady, to showcase her piano skills.

Her take on Motown classic Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, a blend of jazz and R&B, was a pointer to the star she’d become.

Both albums are out today. The Smile start a tour on March 18 at Brighton Centre (ticketmaster.co.uk).

BEST OF THE NEW RELEASES… 

By Tully Potter  

James Arthur: Bitter Sweet Love (Columbia)

James Arthur: Bitter Sweet Love (Columbia). His bluesy rasp comes into its own on aching ballad A Year Ago, while Blindside recalls fellow North-Easterner Sam Fender

James Arthur: Bitter Sweet Love (Columbia). His bluesy rasp comes into its own on aching ballad A Year Ago, while Blindside recalls fellow North-Easterner Sam Fender

A welcome change from The X Factor’s usual boy-bands and pop divas when he won in 2012, Arthur has had a topsy-turvy career. The singer from Redcar, near Middlesbrough, lost his original record deal, but bounced back with 2016’s chart-topping Say You Won’t Let Go — and he maintains that momentum with a rockier approach on this fifth album.

His bluesy rasp comes into its own on aching ballad A Year Ago, while Blindside recalls fellow North-Easterner Sam Fender. If Fender is the Geordie Springsteen, maybe Arthur is the ‘Boro Boss.

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Gruff Rhys: Sadness Sets Me Free (Rough Trade)

Gruff Rhys: Sadness Sets Me Free (Rough Trade)

Gruff Rhys: Sadness Sets Me Free (Rough Trade)

The Super Furry Animals frontman looks to 1970s pop, soul and country on a solo album that augments melancholy songs about gentrification and heartache with lush arrangements.

Inspired by a Welsh holiday (‘the beer was warm the chips were wet’), Bad Friend pushes the notion that lousy chums are better than none, while the title track is an homage to Dolly Parton. Gruff’s desire to pen ‘pocket symphonies’ can get the better of him. But, with Kate Stables’ backing vocals, there’s a warmth that’s hard to ignore.

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Tom Odell: Black Friday (Urok)

Tom Odell: Black Friday (Urok)

Tom Odell: Black Friday (Urok)

Former Brits Critics’ Choice winner Odell made four albums of unspectacular piano pop, even soundtracking a John Lewis Christmas ad, before springing a surprise with the best record of his career in 2022’s Best Day Of My Life, a stripped-down set of hauntingly beautiful tunes. This sequel lacks its predecessor’s raw emotional punch. Somebody Else, which opens with acoustic guitar, is a heartfelt break-up track, but the addition of a string section — plus some gratuitous instrumental interludes — disrupts the impact of some decent songs.

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Elisabeth Leonskaja: Schumann & Grieg Piano Concertos (Warner Classics)

Elisabeth Leonskaja: Schumann & Grieg Piano Concertos (Warner Classics)

Elisabeth Leonskaja: Schumann & Grieg Piano Concertos (Warner Classics)

Pianists are not supposed to play as well as this, when they reach the pensionable age of 77, but Elisabeth Leonskaja is exceptional.

The A minor Concertos by Schumann and Grieg have often been yoked together since the early days of long-playing records in the 1950s, and they work well as a pair.

You could argue, I suppose, that the Georgian virtuoso is a little stronger on the power than on the poetry, but that in itself is remarkable – and the two works can take it.

Leonskaja seems to get on well with Michael Sanderling and the musicians of the Lucerne SO; and the unobtrusively good recordings capture a realistic perspective.

The Schumann was written for a great female pianist, the composer’s legendary wife Clara, and it was she who persuaded Robert to write three movements rather than one.

Edvard Grieg was inspired by Schumann’s example but his piece is very different, with a blazing opening salvo and many tuneful touches of Norwegian folk music thereafter.

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Monteverdi: Complete Madrigals (Naive)

Monteverdi: Complete Madrigals (Naive)

Monteverdi: Complete Madrigals (Naive)

Into this stout box fits 28 years of endeavour by Rinaldo Alessandrini and his superb group of singers, Concerto Italiano. They have taken their time and produced many other projects along the way, but every now and then, another of Monteverdi’s nine books of Madrigals has been recorded.

The final disc, containing Book 1 and the astonishing character pieces that make up Book 9, was completed in 2021; altogether 36 singers have been used over the years.

Various churches and fine buildings, including the Palazzo Farnese in Rome, have been the venues for the sessions and the quality of the sound has been amazingly consistent.

So have the standard of the singing and the blend of the ensemble when necessary; the music is sublime, ranging from the warlike to the amorous to the merely decorous.

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