Release Date: Jan 18, 2011
Record label: Fat Possum
Smith Westerns - Dye It Blonde It's always nerve-racking for fans when a promising lo-fi garage act goes into a proper studio and strips away all the noise and dirt. Will the polishing reveal latent pop genius, or will it just uncover flaws hidden under layers of distortion? Thankfully, the Smith Westerns more than live up to our expectations on their sophomore album, and have blossomed into a much better rock band than we dared hope. The fresh-faced Chicagoans have distanced themselves from the 60s garage rock sound they toyed with on their first album, and have obviously fallen deeply in love with T.
Click to listen to Smith Westerns' Dye It Blonde The second disc from this Chicago trio is what David Bowie might call a total blam-blam — an overpowering blast of glam-rocking gorgeousness. Smith Westerns' home-recorded 2009 debut was full of Sixties garage scuzz. Here, in a real studio with producer Chris Coady (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV on the Radio), they shoot for Seventies glory, from the John Lennon tribute, "Imagine Pt.
At this point, Smith Westerns has officially become what some listeners might call a “buzz band” (looking your way, Hipster Runoff). The year 2010 was a remarkably good one for the Chicago group, as steady touring gave way to rising acclaim for its straightforward, classic-rock-tinged guitar rock. The band’s self-titled debut in 2009 paved the way, considering it was a solid set of songs that recalled touchstones ranging from ‘60s psych-pop to the glammier side of David Bowie.
Smith Westerns have cleaned up nicely. Just over a year ago, the Chicago foursome were of the strictly "lo-fi" persuasion, stirring up hot, filthy garage-rock candy out of Marc Bolan and Beatles signifiers. It was youthful music in feeling and sound-- their noisy full-length debut was recorded while they were still in high school-- but the remarkable hooks buried therein were clear enough to land them on the increasingly stacked Fat Possum roster.
It doesn’t take long to like Smith Westerns’ new album Dye it Blonde, a painless collection of 10 catchy pop-infused rock tracks that immediately sound like you’ve heard them before. But despite the guys in Smith Westerns—like generations of teenage boys before them—wearing both their hearts and influences on their sleeve, they still bring something new. On Dye it Blond, the Chicago-based rockers are still young and rambunctious, but they’ve traded in their debut’s Nuggets-era brashness for shined-up glam rock.
‘Coolness through association’ is an excellent strategy for a talentless group to quickly acquire bloated column inches. Be it via a convenient genetic connection, a friend of a friend, or sleeping with the editor/lead-singer of a prominent magazine/band, it provides a sure-fire foot in the door, bypassing the usual toll booths. Chicago’s Smith Westerns are making waves in the UK through association.
Never underestimate the power of a good hook. It seems odd that in 2011, hardly any blog-friendly bands seem willing (read: able) to pick up a guitar without constructing a song (read: opus) that is centred around, variously: a long-lost Biblical passage, the key to the Matrix, maths or a 12th-century tree. I’d like to pose the question: what the fuck has happened to three chords and a class-A chorus? Smith Westerns’ second album goes some way to address this.Even though it bears the hallmarks of classic [a]Oasis[/a], [a]Suede[/a], [a]T-Rex[/a] and solo [a]John Lennon[/a] and George Harrison, it is not a backwards-looking album.
Chicago's Smith Westerns started in thrall to compilations of 60s garage rock, such as Nuggets, before their listening habits moved on a few years – to David Bowie when he was still wearing makeup, Marc Bolan in silver lamé and the like. Their second album reflects that change in their tastes, blending the trebly, reedy, fuzzed guitar sound of the glam era with pop hooks and a brimming spoonful of creamy psychedelia. None of the individual elements are terribly original, but the way they are brought together is a delight: Dye the World sounds like a Teenage Fanclub song being played by the Spiders from Mars; Still New offers the kind of huge, descending guitar hook that – in combination with Cullen Omori's wispy voice – puts one in mind of Flaming Lips or Mercury Rev.
Smith Westerns waste all of three seconds making Dye It Blonde resolutely clear: the strutting, brash lead guitar that opens “Weekend,” after a brief swirling of sound, is pure glam glitter, immediately calling to mind the greatest moments of bands — T. Rex, Oasis, David Bowie — that have evoked the same kind of hooks. Smith Westerns haven’t been shy of making “classic” moves like this in their brief career, either.
Smith Westerns' self-titled debut album had all the scruffy charm of a bunch of high school kids bashing out ultra-catchy rock & roll tunes in their garage and recording it on a boom box. Which it basically was. The record had all kinds of rambunctious energy, glitter pop hooks, and lo-fi appeal. The question on the follow-up is whether or not moving to a more professional recording setup would sap the power and individuality out of the group’s sound.
When all else fails, talk about how young a band is, their baby faces, sarcastic interview answers and always -- always! -- their nostalgia for the past. It’s easier to minimize the hard work an act has put in (unless that act is Salem, har har) by choosing to focus on their precociousness without acknowledging that the majority of modern rock trends have been driven by acts in their early 20s, that youth isn’t really an outlier but a constant. As such, the primary lede in any article about Chicago’s Smith Westerns is their age, as though new bands aren’t supposed to accomplish so much in such a short period of time.
This Chicago band?s sophomore full-length is bursting with cocky glam-rock riffs and dazed but enthusiastic vocals, all run through a fashionably fuzzy filter. The influences are easy to spot — T. Rex, Cockney Rebel, and ELO all come to mind at various points — but Smith Westerns show off their borrowed finery with such aplomb that it?s hard to dislike the end product.
Teenagers have always been the throbbing engines of popular music, both on the audience side, with their sincere curiosity and boundless enthusiasm, and as performers, forming a youthful pool for hatching idols and geniuses. From Elvis to Miley Cyrus, young performers have synthesized existing styles into neat, sexy packages perfect for mass consumption. Smith Westerns may not exactly be a band of Biebers, but their youth is apparent in the flippant energy of their sound, so unforced and widely derivative, combining restrained guitar noise with a sense of squeaky-clean freshness.
In my review of their self-titled debut LP, I said that the Smith Westerns were the poster boys of the blogosphere and its relationship to buzz bands because they realized they “can’t escape the paradigm and do their best to make good music within it.” For their sophomore LP, Dye It Blonde, the foursome continue the same pattern of behavior, taking a step out of the garage, doing their best to give up the fuzz and feedback, and aiming at making a record steeped in the sounds of Britpop. The resulting effort is one that dropkicks the paradigm in the face despite a few missteps. There’s no denying that ‘60s music has been a huge draw for new acts looking to explore the soundscape of popular music.
This Britpop-channelling Chicago band’s potential for greatness is vast. Mike Haydock 2011 Smith Westerns are a three-piece from Chicago, and if you’ve ever heard their debut, eponymous album, this follow-up will be quite a surprise. While the previous record was set to tape on a shoestring budget in guitarist Max’s basement, Dye It Blonde has some ready cash behind it.
The Smith Westerns' 2009 debut delivered a fuzzed, swaggering update to T. Rex and Mott the Hoople-tinged glam, captured mostly in the scrawny Chicago-based group's lackadaisical teenage charm. The challenge for their sophomore outing was thus to mature sonically without losing the youthful glow, a tension measured in "All Die Young" and its declaration "I wanna grow before I grow up." Dye It Blonde certainly demonstrates polish over its predecessor with the leap to Fat Possum.