By Eleni P. Austin
Vocalist/rhythm guitarist Cullen Omori and lead guitarist Max Kakacek met as high school students at Chicago’s Northside College Preparatory school back in 2007. After they recruited Cullen’s brother, Cameron on bass, the Smith Westerns were born.
Hooking up with drummer Hal James, the band released their self-titled debut in 2009 on the tiny HoZac label. Equal parts Glam, Garage and Grunge, the album was rambunctious fun. Their songs displayed irresistible pop hooks and a sharp melodic sense belied their tender years.
Their sophomore effort offered a similar heady brew. Dye It Blonde was produced by Chris Coady and released through venerable indie label, Fat Possum.
Although the band has cycled through more drummers than Spinal Tap, Julien Ehrlich is pounding the skins on their third album, Soft Will. Eschewing the lo-fi buzz that characterized their first two albums, Soft Will is a much more polished affair.
The record opens with “3am Spiritual”. It’s clear from the opening chords that the Smith Westerns have added a
plethora of colors to their sonic palette. An anxious meditation on hero worship, the track is anchored by pulsating percussion, guitars that shimmer and strum and tinkling piano runs. The extended instrumental coda manages to reference Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” and the Beatles’ “A Day In The Life” in just under a minute.
The shiny sounds of 80s New Wave seems to inspire several tracks here. On “Idol” lyrics detailing disillusioned dreams are washed away by a tick-tock beat, angular guitar riffs and airy synths.
“Foolproof” offers a précis on the pitfalls of growing up. The melodrama is camouflaged by galloping guitars and loping rhythms. On the instrumental break, guitar notes bend like dancing fireflies.
“White Oath” slows the proceedings. Initially, the instrumentation is bare bones, just an amplified acoustic guitar and Cullen’s intimate vocals. Teenage alienation and ennui are on full display… “Chain smoked my days away, wrote my poems/ Even though no one would read them.” The melody is suffused in melancholy, until Kakacek unspools a gritty guitar solo that dirties up the pretty.
The best tracks here, “Glossed,” “XXIII” and “Only Natural” send the band into uncharted territories. “Glossed” blends strummy acoustic riffs, swooping electric chords and simmering synth fills. Frothy and effervescent, the tune captures the frisson of new love.
“Glossed” folds into the majestic instrumental, “XXIII.” Grand piano figures and hushed guitar riffs intertwine. This is spectral and spacious headphone music. It feels like a sincere homage to classic Pink Floyd cuts like “Great Gig In The Sky” and “Wish You Were Here.” Hypnotic and incandescent, it concludes with a wistful piano coda. (All that’s missing is an accompanying laser show).
Finally, “Only Natural” is sly and supple. A spidery roundelay with a hint of sadness. Kakacek’s spikey solo collides with Cullen’s yearning vocals.
Other standout tracks include “Best Friend” and “Cheer Up.” The former is a Beatle-esque charmer that pivots between languid and raucous.
The latter is a stop-start waltz that ebbs and flows. Despite the crackling guitar chords, plinky-plunky synths and lush, multi-tracked vocals, the tune isn’t particularly cheery.
The album closes with the first single, “Varsity.” A luminous pop confection, the melody recalls “If You Leave,” from 80s synth superstars Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark .
Swathed in billowy synths and swirly guitars, the lyrics offer an antidote to lonliness. “Safety came in numbers, but all I needed was just one/ You’re a four leaf clover, you’re an only kind of one.” It leaves us with a note of cautious optimism.
Soft Will was produced by Chris Coady and recorded in Tornillo, Texas. Moving beyond their original Glam/Grunge/ Garage roots the new album digs deeper. Echoing disparate artists like Harry Nilsson, Ocean Blue and Teenage Fanclub.
Smith Westerns have found a way to balance the quiet and the loud. The result is a crisp collection of songs charting the foibles and triumphs that come with growing up.