||Dye It Blonde
||29 April 2011
It’s unusual to come across an American indie band that don’t try to emulate the sounds of the lo-fi shoegaze era of the eighties these days, whether it’s some Brooklyn act recycling Dinosaur JR. or a mid western synth combo channelling The Human League by way of Deerhunter. There’s nothing wrong with most of these acts of course but it would be refreshing to find someone with a different angle of attack. Here’s where the second album by Illinois trio Smith Westerns comes in.
Surprisingly for a band whose self titled debut conformed to the lo-fi trend, their sophomore release Dye It Blonde has them up sticks towards a more traditional rock and Britpop sound. Hardly a move to curry favour is it? Not the most critically adorned time in music, Britpop has nevertheless provided the world with some big anthemic songs. It treated its converts to a swirl of great swagger and melodies and this is what Smith Westerns have tried to achieve on their current selection.
The album thaws out the doubters within seconds. 'Weekend' with it infectious glam rock guitar sound and bagful of hooks, guides the listener into a teenage pop dream. It’s not all sheen however as the echoed vocal styling so prevalent in indie music recently are still intact with Cullen Omori doing his best Bradford Cox impression. The combination of the lo-fi and big production should not work but it’s a very fine tune despite the odds.
'Still New' has the voice even lower in the mix as the jangly guitars swoon. This is Teenage Fanclub territory especially towards the end of the chorus and in the yearning guitar break that follows. In saying this, the track itself in its lushness is more in keeping with the band’s contemporaries than would have first seemed. This is a cracking pop harmony with a taut progressive structure and provides more Britpop ammunition through the appearance of a backward guitar loop near the end. How avant-garde!
'Imagine Pt.3' is a real stomper with its Oasis 12 bar progression quite evident throughout. It’s the sort of sound The View have been churning out for a few years to middling effect, yet while the harmonies are Beatlesque and the crunching guitars imitating Noel Gallagher/Neil Young, the track still makes for fresh and frivolous guitar pop at its most excellent.
The best song on the album is probably 'All Die Young'. The harmonium at the start creates an atmosphere that is layered by sliding swaying guitars as the falsetto comes in. The euphoric chorus, "heart and soul, never know..." is sung with rising emotion and the rapturous refrain of the title steers the track home.
The next couple of numbers have their flaws but work for the most part because of their bouncy and chorus driven nature. 'Fallen In Love' is another ‘Quoasis’ salute but has enough throwaway sing song feel to get by. 'End Of The Night' has the band slip into their comfort zone with a piano led pub rock structure creating little in way of innovation but is ultimately saved by a default catchy chorus.
'Only One' is like an early sixties love song with a waltzing torch light guitar. Imagine The La’s with cavernous vocals and in introspective mode and you would be half way there in picturing the sense of lovelorn on this track. The passion in the playing by all makes up for its slightness.
A low point of the album is 'Smile' which is lazy in many ways. The languid verse moves into a chorus which, if my ears don’t deceive, contains the dredged word ‘Shine’. This is followed by a plodding bridge of Britpop guitar par excellence. To round the whole thing off the track goes on far too long with a half-hearted attempt for anthemic fanfare in the outro.
Just as your faith in the band is dwindling into a mid nineties slumber along comes 'Dance Away' which is a fast upbeat pop song. An attempt to reconnect with the promising start of the album is made but the track is eventually consigned to something average despite the valiant efforts of the well polished guitar sound and time signature changes.
Luckily enough for the listener the album can be looked back on fondly because of the dynamism of the closer and title track 'Dye It Blonde' which has all the arrogance of the band’s youth and Britpop influences at its biggest and boldest to make for an ideal ending. ‘Dye the whole world blonde’ fades away to leave the listener with a warm smile thinking back on the best part of the album whilst writing off its foibles as missteps and not its entire definition.
Overall Smith Westerns are excellent pop song writers with a penchant to the better end of British guitar pop. Whether this was an experiment in writing a certain way and investigating a certain sound, that remains to be seen. But in making an album full of teenage guitar pop there is no doubts in the band’s fine abilities. There is something to be admired about being young and unapologetically concerned with melody and tunes in an age where atmospherics, layered sounds and electronics are the flavour of choice. Even for this an interest must be taken in Smith Westerns future endeavours.
- Tim Gannon