Release Date: Jun 25, 2013
Record label: Mom & Pop Music
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock
Smith WesternsSoft Will[Mom + Pop; 2013]By Rob Hakimian; July 1, 2013Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOGTweetSmith Westerns second album Dye It Blonde showed a lot of growth from their debut album, taking the scrappy sound and refining it into more structured pop songs that still manage to brim with an infectious boisterousness. Soft Will continues with the group’s maturation, toning down the exuberance of Dye It Blonde into more measured and studied songs that lose none of their pop sensibilities. Thematically, too, the advancement in age shows through.
After the overwhelming success of their 2011 sophomore LP, Dye it Blonde, collegiate-aged indie-rock three-piece Smith Westerns are back and better than ever with Soft Will. Leaving behind the sputtering garage rock and Marc Bolan-esque guitar lines of their youth, Soft Will finds the Chicago, IL natives moving away from the washed-out haziness originally found on Blonde in favour of expansive synthesizers and refined song structures to create what is their most dynamic album to date. But old fans of the group need not worry.
On 2011’s ‘Dye It Blonde’, Smith Westerns upped the production values of the lo-fi scuzz on their 2009 self-titled debut and gave it a brighter, glossier sheen. The Chicago quartet (singer-guitarist Cullen Omori, his brother and bassist Cameron, guitarist Max Kakacek and drummer Julien Ehrlich) embraced glam rock and made a record that glowed. Two years later, follow-up ‘Soft Will’ has a similarly warm sparkle.
Smith Westerns' third album, Soft Will, takes another step away from the scruffy lo-fi approach of their debut, and puts a layer of gloss on the already slick sound they captured on Dye It Blonde. The thing to keep in mind when you're a band gradually smoothing out and expanding your sound is to make sure you keep whatever it was about your band that made it worthwhile in the first place, and to do something to keep it interesting. The band does both here.
Like so many child stars before them, Smith Westerns seemed to be headed toward an early burnout. Brothers Cullen and Cameron Omori and their friend Max Kakacek laid down the sandpaper bubblegum of their 2009 self-titled debut when they were still in high school; by the time of 2011’s Dye it Blonde, they were gleefully glomming onto the grandiosity of their classic-rock heroes, in the musical and “extracurricular” senses. Seeing Smith Westerns on the Dye it Blonde tour was like (I imagine) witnessing Faster Pussycat on the Sunset Strip in the late 1980s-- the music was very loud, the band appeared to be a little partied out, and the vibe of youthful decadence verged on self-destructive.
Smith Westerns aren’t quite made for these times. The Chicago three-piece create glossy, ’70s-sugared tunes that unabashedly draw from the sad-yet-sweet tradition set forth by Britpop, from The Beatles’ later work to more contemporary pioneers like The Stone Roses. With hooky guitar licks, the band has returned to release their third album, Soft Will, the follow-up to 2011’s candied Dye It Blonde.
Tally one entry into the unofficial 2013 ‘sound of summer’ competition. After a two and half year hiatus, youthful retro-rockers Smith Westerns return with a 3rd helping of shimmery, synth-laden pop tunes. Textures ripple with haze and heat, rhythms run lethargically, and melodies billow along in the kind of breeze that only comes when the windows are rolled all the way down.
On their self-titled debut album from 2009, Smith Westerns sounded like the Black Lips you could take home to meet your parents. The follow-up, 2011’s Dye It Blonde, saw the Chicago-based trio buffing up their formerly scuzzy, lo-fi sound to a bright sheen. And now Soft Will marks a further refinement of Smith Westerns’ sound, resulting in one of the year’s most straightforwardly enjoyable indie-rock records.
As a band whose first record was released when they were teenagers, Smith Westerns’ seem to have grown out of the garage sound that was prevalent on their first two releases. Their latest LP, Soft Will, is a more sophisticated affair, with layers of rich, dreamlike noise replacing the more adolescent fare that the group are famed for. But have they grown up too fast? If the band’s self-titled debut and breakthrough LP Dye It Blonde had more in common with the rougher, proto-punk sounds of the Seventies, then Soft Will is that decade's extended keyboard solos, the ‘conceptual’ outlook and the gratuitous wizard-wear.
Only four years separate Soft Will, Smith Westerns’ third studio album, with their buzz-worthy debut. But the difference—sonically, compositionally, spiritually—is astounding. They started out as snotty, garage-rock teens (Smith Westerns), quickly graduating to glam-rock wise-asses (2011’s Dye It Blonde) as their critical stock swelled. But with Soft Will, they enter the real world disillusioned, drowning their loneliness and insecurities (earned, naturally, from Life on the Road) in lush space-rock soundscapes.
The Smith Westerns have always been a pop rock band; the question is what kind of pop rock band? Comprised of brothers Cullen (the lead singer/guitarist) and Cameron Omori, second guitarist Max Kakacek and drummer Julien Ehlrich, they released their self-titled debut on the Chicago noise-pop specialists Hozac Records in 2010. The record was an exhilarating collection of rough-hewn garage rock blasts of adolescent escapism in the style of Nuggets, while its successor, Dye It Blonde toned down the distortion and brought the band towards a cleaner, classic early ‘70s glam sound. The unifying element of both albums however, was the lyrical focus on boilerplate (albeit rapturously-delivered) romantic themes.
Like so many bands before them, Smith Westerns traded in lo-fi garage rock for the professional polish of a real studio on their sophomore album. That strategy is usually employed to accentuate the serious songcraft hiding underneath the grime, but on Dye It Blonde it had a better side effect for the Chicago youngsters: it perfectly suited the fuzzy T. Rex-influenced glam leads that were suddenly the group's stock in trade.
The Chicago trio Smith Westerns sound more British than the British bands they sound like. On their third album, they move far away from their garage-rock starting point and construct an expertly lyrical world of yearning and insinuation. Singer Cullen Omori often seems to be staggering toward a fainting couch ("Chain-smoked my days away/Wrote my poems"), and he immerses his longing, and his lyrics, in dense, gentle thickets of echoing guitars and strummy keyboards.
What does a buzz band do when the buzz starts to burn off? On 2011’s breakout Dye It Blonde, Smith Westerns boned-up their loose-jointed garage pop into a dewy amalgamation of ’70s psych-rock and ’90s brit-pop. Siphoning from T-Rex, Mott the Hoople, Galaxie 500, and Oasis, the then-trio served up an easy-to-swallow helping of slacker glam. After a whirlwind of touring, recording, and generally being a band for the first time, Smith Westerns saw the opportunity to reposition themselves on their third LP Soft Will.
Soft Will is the third record by Smith Westerns, a three-piece rock ‘n’ roll band hailing from the Chicago metro that carry on the tradition of writing simple, earnest pop music on guitars. Three albums into their almost five-year-long career, Smith Westerns have gotten pretty good at being Smith Westerns. So, you might ask, what do Smith Westerns do? This is a very good question.
opinion byBENJI TAYLOR Growing up – it’s tough, even for rockstars. So many awesome debuts are heavily informed by stories of wanton over-indulgence, white lines and chasing skirt (The Strokes, Oasis, The Libertines). But you can’t really sing about trying to get the ride forever, can you? Smith Westerns were mere whipper-snappers when their debut began to garner attention back in 2009 – and they followed the patterns, both sonically and thematically, set by the British bands that their sound was heavily indebted to – Oasis, Suede, T-Rex.
In John Harris’s book Britpop!, there’s an anecdote about the genesis of Oasis’s What’s the Story, Morning Glory (1995) that, oddly, sticks with me more than anything else from that sprawling oral history: Noel Gallagher, having completed the songs that would make the cut, sits down with his acoustic and his bandmates on the tour bus and plays through them all. By the time he’s finished, the band sits in awe; the rhythm section is in tears. This story is memorable to me for two reasons (and despite the band’s penchant for self-mythology, humor me and accept it as truth).
The cover of ‘Soft Will’ is a painterly section of Still Life. There’s some grapes in there, a peach or apricot, even a papaya thrown in the mix to shake things up a bit. It’s also wrapped up in clingfilm – you can almost sense the National Gallery wincing at the humidity conditions and prepping their clipboards for some scolding notes. Swaddled in plastic, it’s as if somebody believed in this painting so much that they were trying to save its contents from going rotten.Harping on about food storage methods aside, Smith Westerns are the clingfilm of that cover shot.
Smith Westerns have always understood the drama of a gesture. When I first saw the band open for the late Jay Reatard in Chicago, they were mostly distinguishable because of the novelty of their age. Standing on stage, blasting through T. Rex-inspired garage pop larks about yearning for girls, they couldn’t help but look like the teenagers they were, the black marker X’s shining in the soft light off their hands, indicating that even though the boozy crowd was cheering for them, they were still gonna be slamming sodas after the show.
What’s immediately obvious about Soft Will is how studied, pretty and personal it sounds. Hardly radical qualities for an indie rock record in 2013, but Smith Westerns are a band who delivered the line “Do you think is it normal / to go through life oh so formal?“ with all the withering snark you’d expect from a group who skipped college to put out two records of scrappy rock equally indebted to Nuggets as David Bowie. They’re the kind of band who couldn’t even deliver a sentiment as gentle and banal as “I wanna hold your hand / and make you understand” without punctuating it with archly ironic “woo-hoos!”, the aural equivalent of an eye-roll and weary sigh.
Smith Westerns Soft Will (Mom + Pop) The rough, joyous garage pop of Smith Westerns' 2009 debut matured into glam-soaked hooks on the Chicago quartet's sophomore LP, Dye It Blonde, and now Soft Will rises even higher into the hazy cosmos. Aptly titled, the album lulls with gentle transitions and such a smooth ebb and flow that it plays like a half-remembered daydream, beautiful and mystic even as it refuses to settle. Opener "3am Spiritual" moves the most dynamically in Brit-pop turns, yet even amid the surging guitar swirls of "Idol" and "Glossed," and the four-and-a-half minute instrumental interlude of "XXIII," the band revels in a cresting soundscape of saturated summer jams.
When Chicago’s Smith Westerns first surfaced in 2009, they were scrappy kids playing raucous power pop marrying together everyone from the Replacements to Material Issue. Their debut was bratty, fun, lo-fi with little attention to production values. Then came 2011’s Dye it Blonde, and while there were still snatches of their garage power pop sound, the band has definitely eased up on the gas a bit and paid a little more attention to a slapping a slicker sheen on their records.