Part of the blogosphere’s downfall is that there seems to be a lack of variety between the majority of “buzz bands.” Nowadays, the points of similarity seem to primarily concern the band’s roster (four young, scruffy dudes) who play a kind of patchwork rock, a style made up of influences across a somewhat limited board (seemingly shoegaze, early ’90s alternative, and almost anything with synths), all while keeping to an aesthetic of lo-fi or die. Thus, the truly memorable bands are the ones that realize they can’t escape the paradigm and do their best to make good music within it. For this ideology, Chicago’s the Smith Westerns are the poster boys.
From note one of their eponymous debut, recently re-issued by their new label Fat Possum, it is clear that this is going to be yet another a collection of three-minute songs about sad boys feeling forlorn and expressing it with the most fuzzy, basement-level production style possible. With that in mind, some songs work exceedingly well and other songs slightly less.
Of the truly good tracks, “The Glam Goddess” rides the line of indie music made in your mom’s attic, but it throws us some extra musical goodies in the form of a particularly jangly guitar which, coupled with skuzzy harmonies and some inspired playing, make for a squeal-inducing love song about a boy and a girl who clearly hates his guts. Album opener “Dreams” falls in the same vein, with some bell playing filling in for the joyfully crunchy guitars as the source of giddiness. Structurally, it’s a bit more mature; lyrically, it’s the equivalent of a whiny 15-year-old’s diary. It’s nothing, however, compared to “Be My Girl”. Here, the overt, almost childish foot-stamping and pouting takes a slow, dancey lean before a big explosive chorus of raw immaturity excites the hormonal teenage boy in all of us into a frenzy of fist pumps and sweaty tears.
As impactful as those tracks are, there are songs on the album that are structurally, lyrically, and performance-wise identical, but just aren’t the same anthems for the middle-class depressed white boys of the world found elsewhere. “We Stay Out” takes their beloved fuzz and morphs it into sonic muck, covering a little pop gem in a thick, dark coat of monotonous, grating vocals that violently choke the life out of some fine instrumentation, all with a vaguely alt-country vibe. Not to be outdone, “Tonight” is a left hook of squeaky guitars and musical hissy fits. Like some No Wave Jim Croce ode/rip-off, “Girl In Love” isn’t sonically annoying but rather a clear point in the album where the cutesy lyricism of falling in love with a girl with “snakelike charm” is irritating in its simplicity, going beyond any genius move of saying more with less and revealing their short-sighted lyrical skills.
So, why are the supposed good tracks good and the supposed bad ones bad? The first group doesn’t outshine the second, nor is the latter group even that horrible, with only a few minor tweaks made to snuff out their potentially catchy energy. This album is truly representative of the aforementioned hegemony. With so much coming out that sounds so much like everything else, certain songs just pull at you the wrong way, falling victim to the rest of your record collection. More so, though, there’s only so much joy one can reap from a particularly confined musical universe. In spite of those restrictions, when the band does hit the mark, there’s few peers that can outdo them for simple, balls-to-the-wall lo-fi rock. Even if there are a million of them.