When all else fails, talk about how young a band is, their baby faces, sarcastic interview answers and always — always! — their nostalgia for the past. It’s easier to minimize the hard work an act has put in (unless that act is Salem, har har) by choosing to focus on their precociousness without acknowledging that the majority of modern rock trends have been driven by acts in their early 20s, that youth isn’t really an outlier but a constant. As such, the primary lede in any article about Chicago’s Smith Westerns is their age, as though new bands aren’t supposed to accomplish so much in such a short period of time. (A list of those successes: recording a debut album fresh out of high school, playing Pitchfork Music Festival in their hometown, opening for acts like Girls, MGMT and Belle and Sebastian, getting kicked out of CMJ for underage drinking — how precociously punk rock!)
Dye It Blonde has Smith Westerns building quite naturally on their 2009 debut — tighter production, more instruments, more polish. You can tell they had money when they were recording this one. The scratchy echo on frontman Cullen Omori’s voice that dominated the first record has been smoothed out into a tender croon, making it supremely effective when he tries affect his best George Harrison impersonation on songs like the Beatles-esque “Fallen In Love” and the Oasis B-side “Smile.” The themes are pretty similar; Omori always seems to be addressing a girl, whether it’s “A girl like you” on opener “Weekend,” “You’re not the girl I used to know” on “Imagine Pt. 3” or “I wanna tell you you’re hard to resist” on “Still New.” Brother Cameron Omori adds plenty of loping, subtle bass lines underneath guitarist Max Kakacek’s lush fills, and the whole record is very pleasant to listen to closely or in the background.
You get the idea. Smith Westerns aren’t doing anything new — they’re long-haired boys with guitars singing about love, a genre into itself. What makes them special, I think, is the maturity of perspective and musicianship in each song: the hesitation in the harmonies on “All Die Young,” the equal parts pleading and affection in a line like “Weekends are never fun / Unless you’re around here too,” the way they pull the best parts from artists we’ve heard a trillion times before without seeming derivative. Rather than glamorizing the youthful excesses they’ve surely partaken in — when prompted in interview about memorable things from 2009, Omori named “women over 25” — they’ve instead focused on the emotional impressions of their experiences and knocked it out of the park. When so much youth-oriented pop culture tries to point out, “This is what the youngs are into,” it’s astonishing how good Smith Westerns are at seeing the world through a mature, if fatalistic, lens.
It’s hard not to react with cynicism or weariness to yet another rock band riffing on song structures and themes that’ve been perfected over the last fifty years, like how ESPN anchors must internally groan when their producers instruct them to ask a player, “So how does it feel to win?” Sometimes it feels like merely saying, “Yeah, this is fine” should suffice, and that anything else is unnecessary discourse. Some indie rock bands find their groove, starting churning out dependably listenable records, and then everyone mysteriously stops caring about them aside from critics and die-hards. In an excellent Chicago Tribune piece on the band, Omori commented on the risk of becoming accidentally becoming another generic indie band — that in a few years, there wouldn’t be a publicly discernable difference in image and sound between them and say, Tapes n’ Tapes. It would be more of a worry if Dye It Blonde’s high points weren’t so revelatory or well-executed because while it’s not a conceptually brilliant record, there are enough triumphs to score a summer romance and get cut up on mix CDs. Cheesy, maybe, but what else are records like these meant for?