Smith Westerns, enjoyable or meh?

softwill-001Following-up the explosive “Dye It Blonde” was never going to be easy for Chicago’s Smith Westerns. Their sophomore album had the power to bring them to the forefront of indie consciousness. It set the tone for the timely rejuvenation of surfy, lo-fi, grunge-glam which breezed itself onto the radio waves around its 2011 release. It was so fuzzy and washed-out that during the first few listens I thought my stereo speakers were on death row.

But the third LP from these too-young-to-have-made-three-albums charmers is quite a stark new venture. The deafening buzz has all but left their guitars, Cullen Omori’s voice doesn’t deviate between naivety and sulking anymore. Their sound has doubtlessly matured in “Soft Will”, but in doing this did Smith Western lose their characteristic charm?

Opening track 3am Spiritual introduces a new, fuller, cleaner sound for Smith Westerns. It’s a long build before they climax to an anthemic sing-along. The song is mildly reminiscent of something off Wing’s “Band On The Run” Album. It’s quietly mournful, wistful and nostalgic, complete with a dream fade-out. Quite lovely, really.

In track number two, Idol, the listener can acknowledge some sweet work on the skins by new drummer Julien Ehrlich, formerly of Unknown Mortal Orchestra. But it’s a little wishy-washy for my liking. Idol reads more like a pop-song, with verses more memorable than the chorus. But it’s enjoyable for what it is, and after many, many listens becomes noteworthy.

The same followed with Glossed. Though the lead-break after the first chorus hints back to former glories of the Dye The World hook, the whole thing sounds just a little too clean-cut and forgettable.

Luckily XXIII is more promising. It’s entirely instrumental, and the moody lead guitar perfectly balances the lack of vocals. XXIII sounds like it could have been on the soundtrack for Sophia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, and considering my love for this film, this is big ups.

The good vibes pick up again on Fool Proof and carry on through to White Oath. The synth on the former puts this track in good stead. It’s pleasantly comfortable and whimsically melancholic. And while Cullen Omori’s vocals usually border on the brink of falsetto, he attempts some lower notes on White Oath, which honestly sound a little goofy. But after a lengthy build this is redeemed by the lead guitar. It compliments through a call-and-response with the vocals during the chorus, and takes glorious centre stage for the solo.

Only Natural has an underlying tension which breaks into heartfelt, feel-good, sentimentality for Best Friend. This song is very pleasant, but by track seven you’re seriously wondering if Smith Westerns aren’t going to change the vibe up a little. Yes, we know you can do Americana pop-melancholy nostalgia. TELL US SOMETHING WE DON’T KNOW.

Ironically the next song is called Cheer Up, as by this time I start feeling significantly frustrated. It’s got some cute doo-wop inspired guitar sounds which I appreciate, and a sorely missed loudness near the two-minute mark. The lyrics are also quite adorable; “cheer up, baby, I don’t want you to hate me.” It’s so sugary you could get diabetes, but not at all bad.

Finally, the first single from “Soft Will”, Varsity, comes round to finish off the album. The synth and layered vocal tracks fill out this song a little more, giving it a definite edge of character over the others. But this isn’t indicative of the album. And I hate to say it, but Varsity doesn’t redeem ten songs of beige.

I really wanted to adore this album. I was previously so enamoured by these kids I was quite sure “Soft Will” would be a fucking revelation. But you’re wading through this oceanic release waiting for a rip-tide of amazing that never comes. Instead you just float – which is fine, but not particularly exciting. It’s almost as though Smith Westerns are trying to emulate compatriots Real Estate, or Girls – just two years too late.
The world needs albums like this – for when you have tender sex with your long-term partner. Or stare pensively out the plane window on a long flight. Or are hung-over on a Sunday and feel like the world hates you as much as you hate yourself. Individually, the songs are of decent calibre. As an album however? It’s a benzo. You need to listen to “Soft Will” a bunch of times before the tracks are memorable, and for a pop album that’s not a good sign. And while Smith Westerns remain enjoyable, this album only evokes from me an ambivalent “meh”.

bianca cornale


Review by Bianca Cornale.