The boys of Smith Westerns got a lucky break, saved for the most Hollywoodesque of band beginnings: in 2009, brothers Cullen and Cameron Omari, along with longtime friend and guitarist Max Kacacek, recorded their self-titled debut album while still in high school in Chicago, got signed, and released that record to indie esteem. Blogs went crazy for their ‘60s-esque ultra lo-fi garage pop, Pitchfork – the Gold Standard of indie record reviews – gave the album a coveted debut rating of 7.7, and the teenage band was the latest to be swept up by the “blog hype” expletive.
That first record, the semi-self titled The Smith Westerns, was a scrappy mess of ultra-catchy Black Lips-esque pop with great hooks buried underneath almost unbearably muffled recording. Two years later, their follow-up, Dye It Blonde, was recorded with a few more layers of sheen, and their songwriting grew from garage pop to catchy glam-pop, T-Rex and Marc Bolan references abound, with a surprising hint of psychedelic pop. At the time, they were just graduating from the rocky teen age to that of young adulthood, and the sounds they mustered up seemed to come from a softer place than those of their rollicking first release, both lyrically and musically. Romantic themes intensified as they crossed over from the first record to the second, painting the baby-faced, long-haired frontman Cullen Omari as something of a soft romantic himself. The differences between the two records spoke of growth and the growth to come – and come it did on their next record.
Soft Will, the band’s third release, is a shimmering, multi-layered journey of pop music – one you can listen to to unwind or sing along to with the windows down on a summer day. The recording value is clearer than ever, making each note shine through instead of being muddied under the haze of their other records. It’s a delight to listen to Omari’s soft, slightly uncertain vocals singing of feeling slightly uncertain and unsightly, and it’s somewhat nostalgic for an adult to listen to the romantically yearning lyrics still rooted in the in-between world of teenagerdom. Cullen’s soft voice may not be the strongest element of their music, sometimes straining to hit notes, and the lyrics are still a little adolescent. But his softer voice pairs excellently with his sad but hopeful lyrics, the melodies are deliciously catchy, as always, and the songwriting has improved to a sweet spot of indie pop/rock, with some glam and psych pop elements scattered throughout and, still yet, some Strokes-esque guitar work and solos from Kokacek. The title itself, Soft Will, a nod to the genre of soft rock, is a perfect term to complement their style of being soft, sad, and sweet, while still being heavily defined by distinctive guitar rock and solos.
This album is covered in bright spots that stretch out to entire songs, with really the only major downside being the Pink Floyd-esque progressive instrumental ‘XXXII’ that seems a little uninspired. ‘White Oath’, the lyrical highlight of the record, is an impressively lovely ballad speaking of wasting days writing poems no one will ever read, complete with a crooning double-chorus. ‘Glossed’ surprises with shimmering effects on a stunning chorus that sounds of 1980s post punk, and ‘Only Natural’ perfectly bundles up an offbeat drum beat and vocals, chugging guitar work and impressive solos. ‘Idol’ screams “hit single” with it’s heart-wrenching chorus of Cullen softly singing, “Tell me, tell me, tell me the answer, but I’m unsure / Everyday’s a blessing, everyday’s a hangover”. The song ends with the downtrodden verse repeating, “So they said it was a joke and there’s no one else to believe in”, adding to the melancholic but hopeful tone Cullen paints with his lyrics and delivery.
‘Fool Proof’ boasts the most impressive guitar and bass lines on the record, with intricately layered upbeat verses and crescendoing choruses, beautiful vocals and perfectly fitting solos. Album opener ‘3am Spiritual’ is a lovely endeavour of slinking beginnings with surf-pop vocals and tinkering keyboards, and ‘Cheer Up’ is a pretty, slow-burning track with a ’50s doe-eyed vibe that builds up to an anthemic burst of a chorus, Cullen singing with hopefulness and positivity to “Cheer up baby / I don’t want you to hate me”.
The album’s first single ‘Varsity’ closes the album with a great repeating synth hook that speaks of bands like The Killers or MGMT’s synth-pop hits, and that upbeat hook carries the less exciting verses and chorus in what I think is one of the few letdowns of this album. Not coincidentally, the track closes the album on a note about college campuses, reminding listeners of the normal teenage life they’ve given up to pursue the life of young rockstars.
The collection of songs on Soft Will is a fully fleshed-out album of longing, love, and pain, being both sweet and melancholic á la Girls frontman Christopher Owens – probably the closest thing to a modern counterpart that the young Westerns have. Apart from the interestingly varied songwriting, Soft Will is glossed with guitar work by Kakacek that sounds years ahead of the young band’s years, always filling in the appropriate empty spaces and featuring impressively built-up solos. It’s the combination of this amazing guitar work and impressive songwriting that will make this album appeal to anyone with love for sweeter guitar pop with instant replayablility, while adding a notch to the budding history of a teenage band growing into one that just may stick around for years to come.
For more on Smith Westerns, like where to get Soft Will, visit www.smithwesternsmusic.com.