When you compare Smith Western’s self-titled debut from 2009 with their brand new long player Soft Will the progression is pretty staggering. Going from a Nuggets-like lo fi overblown sound with songs such as “Dreams”, “Boys Are Fine”, and the Gary Glitter-meets-The Troggs “Girl In Love” to something like Soft Will’s “Idol”, a crisp, clean, 80s leaning pop track that hangs somewhere between NRBQ’s “Little Floater” and dreamier moments of OMD, I can imagine some of those old school fans have to be a little put off. Me personally? I never jumped on the bandwagon back in 2009. I was too enthralled with Flaming Lips great freakout known as Embryonic to care about some kids from Chi-town recording on their dad’s 4-track. But once Dye It Blonde came out in 2011 these brothers plus one got my attention. They cleaned up the fidelity and you could hear clearly that these guys love a good pop song and sweet melody. With Soft Will they have come full circle. Smith Westerns have said the hell with it and have made that completely ironic-free, heartfelt 80s-leaning pop record that they wanted to make way back in 2009 when they were still worrying about finals and graduating high school.
If you’re honest with yourself, you knew this album was coming down the pike. Despite the tape hiss and overblown meters, that self-titled debut was brimming with pop hooks and harmony. You were just too enamored with the whole garage rock thing. They weren’t that different from another up-and-comer in 2009, that Ty Segall guy. Where Segall remained in the grit and fuzz, Smith Westerns followed their inner Alan Parsons and decided to go all hi-fidelity. “3am Spiritual” is all melancholy strumming and minor key sad eyes before the keys come in and bring this song into some kind of alternate universe where the dBs were fronted by Chris Difford. It’s all swishy guitars and big harmonies. This is an attention grabber of a track. “Idol” continues the no-nonsense pop charm and is one of the best pop songs I’ve heard in quite a long time. Here’s pop music kids. Not your One Directions, or Taylor Swifts, or whatever is pumped out of a computer at 90,000 watts per channel. In that alternate universe where I don’t lose my wallet at Cedar Point in 1992 “Idol” would be HUGE, and would be played ad nauseum on MTV 3. “Glossed” sounds like what George Harrison should’ve sounded like in 1983, with a nice little synth line floating just below the mix to give it a wistful quality. “XXIII” is indie rock piano balladry at its finest. Tears For Fears for the modern age. Procol Harum for the Willamsburg crowd. “Only Natural” is big and intimate all in one. Fans of Mikal Cronin’s MCll will find much to love with this song. “Varsity” is all shimmering synths and head-in-the-clouds vocals. Yet another great song.
Sure, they’re not gritty garage rock anymore. No more lo fi, meters-in-the-red fuzziness. But you know what? There’s something quite refreshing about a band that says the hell with it and makes the record they want to make. Unabashed, earnest pop songs with all the emotional swelling that comes every time you watch the credits roll to a John Hughes film. This is a mixtape to first love, heartbreak, summer jams, saying “hello”, and saying “goodbye”.
These kids from Chi-town have my attention now. Roll credits.
8.6 out of 10