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Smith Westerns, ‘Soft Will’ (Mom + Pop)

Cullen Omori of Smith Westerns, moments before being devoured by giant snail / Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
SPIN Rating: 6 of 10
Release Date: June 25, 2013
Label: Mom + Pop

In 2011, the young quartet Smith Westerns shambled out of Chicago with their second album, Dye It Blonde. It wasn’t the most original take on post-teenhood garage rock, but packed with enough charm and easy hooks to make a convincing argument that if you were already going to a weekend music festival, you should consider cutting brunch short in order to catch their set.

To their credit, the scruffy crew clearly knew it was time to step it up for Soft Will, their first effort for Mom + Pop (home to Sleigh Bells, Metric, Wavves, and FIDLAR). Again working with Dye It Blonde producer Chris Coady (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Grizzly Bear, TV on the Radio), they reveal a newfound sense of scope and ambition. Seriously, “Glossed” glows with the warmth of a thousand sunsets; “White Oath” glows with the warmth of a thousand and one overdubs of elegant chord changes; and “Best Friend” stretches out frontman Cullen Omori’s vocals until the entire world feels like one big harmony, and you no longer remember that the song is actually really called “Best Friend.”

In fact, this thing is so sun-drenched that Josh Schwartz will probably create a new soap opera about rich kids just so he can use this as the soundtrack. The problem is that the rambunctious kids who made Dye It Blonde seem to have gotten lost in this new Teen Dreamatorium, which mercilessly piles on glistening layers of blissed-out guitar waves. It’s a headrush, but the feeling fades, and when the album ends, you’re left with the impression that you’ve just heard one lovely 40-minute song without a chorus or any real peak, but put you in an agreeable enough mood. Oddly, these guys were better songwriters when they weren’t trying to be so sophisticated: Dye It Blonde highlight “Weekend” may have been a Noel Gallagher-worthy Beatles rip, but at least the “around here toooooooo” hook stuck around.

When it comes to psychedelic pop, perfect sound is only half the battle. This album most closely echoes Earlimart, Flaming Lips, and Grandaddy, but when those guys built their respective worlds of sound, it was because they needed the space to properly comment on things back on Earth. Earlimart created a universe of California sunshine, if only to try to bake their neuroses away; Grandaddy did their best to invoke the beauty of the entire cosmos to explore how lonely all of it could make you feel; the Flaming Lips sugar-coated some real talk that you wouldn’t be ready for otherwise. There was a reason they all needed to escape. Their trips had stakes. Whereas Smith Westerns seem perfectly content with making a primo soundtrack to a totally rad beach trip.

Which is totally fine. You should definitely have a few nice beach trips with your friends before the remorseless universe squashes you like the bug that you are. But in order for this stuff to truly hit, something has to compel you into those roaming wafts of sound, but these boys didn’t bring much in the way of rhythmic drive to the proceedings — perhaps they were worried that trying too hard would harsh the mellow vibe. It’s a lovely place that Soft Will fashions here, but it sounds hesitant about pulling you in, perhaps because its creators are secretly concerned that you’ll realize you aren’t really going anywhere. Being half a visionary art-rocker doesn’t take you very far, but at least the scenery is pretty.