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. They’ve returned to Chicago, where they now claim full-time residence. They’ve watched their friends move on from school to professional jobs. Maybe they’ve seen a few move out of their lives altogether. There’s nothing like extensive touring to highlight the fragility of human relationships. Dye It Blonde used snark and sheen to outline desire; Soft Will threads the fear of loss.
Over its irresistible hooks, Dye It Blonde‘s production foamed up beautifully. Spongey, single-coil guitar dripped into crisp piano and milky synths, the rhythm section chugging dutifully underneath. Then, brothers Cameron and Cullen Omori and their friend Max Kakacek were still teenagers skipping around their fretboards. Perfect vintage tones bloomed out of their instruments almost faster than they could play them.
As novices, Smith Westerns were endearing; calculated virtuosity comes cheap in the alt-rock corners of the world, but not everyone can spool off warm, easy licks with the fresh-faced urgency that’s caught the attention of MGMT and Belle & Sebastian. Dye It Blonde was produced under the same hands that have served up records from Yeah Yeah Yeahs and TV on the Radio, but it still felt spontaneous and charmingly amateur, like eavesdropping on David Bowie’s early rehearsals.
They don’t sound like teenagers anymore on Soft Will. They sound like they’ve been in the world long enough to get broken by it. Glam still courses through Smith Westerns’ veins, but here they draw from other portals into the past. ”XXIII” (Cullen’s age, Romanized) launches into a moody Pink Floyd instrumental jam, throaty guitars locking jaws with sad keys. It’s the first real note of mourning on a Smith Westerns album. They’re not draping tinsel on the heavy stuff here.
New drummer Julien Ehrlich takes over the kit with fresh confidence; under his hands, the percussion does more than just carry the tempo. The snare on “Varsity” skewers together chirpy key lines and drunken arpeggios. “Only Natural” rolls fast with a tight rhythmic engine. On “Fool Proof”, Ehrlich nails down Cullen’s world-wearier lyrics: ”Blue eyes don’t mean everything to me.”
The past few years have weighed on Smith Westerns. Soft Will tackles the pains and pleasures of actually getting what you want with a similar introspection that The Men exhibited on this year’s New Moon. ”Every day’s a blessing/ Every day’s a hangover,” Cullen sings on “Idol” as he unravels the vision of success gleaned from the people he’s always looked up to. ”I’m trying to catch my breath,” he admits on the Brit-rock ballad “White Oath”. Here, he’s letting two visions of being a good person clash: he wants to chase down the dreams he’s been after, but he also wants to be there for his friends. We get why he’s chain-smoking through the days. We get why he needs a minute.
The subject matter gives depth to the record, but sometimes it feels like Smith Westerns are filling in templates instead of writing songs. The burbling, unsteady riffs of Dye It Blonde have been traded for groomed arpeggios and square downstrokes. Soft Will accurately echoes bands that played guitar in the ’70s, but now that acts like Foxygen are chewing up the past and spitting it back at us with a smile, what does straight homage accomplish? Smith Westerns aren’t exactly shy about their goals. They’re here to fill bigger and bigger venues, to grow in popularity, to spoon sweetened guitar rock to a sugar-high fan base. In a 2011 interview they shared their goal of selling out Chicago’s Metro. This year, they did. Professionally, it’s all going according to plan.
Personally? They’re still working out the wrinkles. Loneliness, insecurity, and fear of abandonment ripple through Soft Will. The record begins and ends with the same sentiment: “Please keep close to me/ I don’t want to let you off my arm,” begs Cullen on “3am Spiritual”. ”I’m hanging on to you,” “Varsity” concludes. Success isolates as much as it exhilarates. All a budding musician can do is figure out how to hold fast to what matters.
Essential Tracks: “3am Spiritual”, “White Oath”