Smith Westerns - Soft Will | Album Review | By Volume

Understand that I am only as he made me: a faithful servant to all of the noise, all of the lights, all of the flashing in my head. Laura Stevenson - Wheel
softwil

Smith Westerns

Soft Will

Adulthood. For real, this time.

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Author: on June 27, 2013
7.5
Mom & Pop
June 24, 2013

Few bands have aced the sound of growing up more than Smith Westerns – 2011’s Weekend” was a teenager’s first sip of alcohol, the lurid world of responsibility and reckless decisions that characterizes the ephemeral time between “adulthood” and adulthood.  “Do you think, is it normal / to go through life, oh so formal?” they asked back on “Weekend” and it was a fair question for those unsure of just how to take their rather obvious approach to rock ‘n roll. Smith Westerns have never been formal, preferring loose rip-it-up guitar anthems and glammed-out hooks from the FM dial of the ‘60s and ‘70s instead of a carefully manicured modern identity, something that was as often to get a “derivative” lobbed at them as it was a testament to their seamless repurposing of classic rock ‘n roll trash. The fact that Smith Westerns accomplished all this while actually, you know, growing-up makes their past work all the more compelling and Soft Will the natural transformation from a band finally realizing there’s not much to the legal drinking age after your first blackout.  Singer Cullen Omori at 23 on opener “3am Spiritual”: “and all the while I never won / up and down / and all the while I put a smile on / can’t turn round.” The rest of the band is in similarly oh-shit-we’re-old mode, exchanging the propulsive, power-pop riffs of 2011’s Dye It Blonde for chiming, post-punk-revival guitars and expansive synths that call to mind last year’s superb Wild Nothing record. That the hooks still shine through, albeit unspooling gently rather than starting a barfight, is Soft Will’s greatest achievement and what should cement Smith Westerns as a band content to remain on the scene for the foreseeable future.

On the surface, Soft Will is an eminently optimistic record, one that scrubs off any leftover grit from their debut and raises the shimmering pop of Dye It Blonde to eleven. Celebrations are more laid back here, guitars languidly exploring the melody before getting to the point on “Best Friend”, while “Glossed” stays true to its name, awash in guitars and a comforting layer of synthesizers and lush melodies. The contemplative feel is enhanced by the band’s harnessing of a pristine guitar tone that first crops up as a sort of thesis statement on the solo to “3am Spiritual.” It’s a crisp, gorgeous sound that hails primarily from the Church of Harrison (blessed be the one true Gibson), and it’s this brilliantly soft tone that fuels most of the record, be it the jangly midtempo pop of “Fool Proof” or the dreamlike layers that gradually populate “Cheer Up.” Smith Westerns have never really tended to the evocative, but on Soft Will this reflective, druggy mood effectively pays tribute to another side of their classicist touchstones.

It’s the deceptively sparkling undertone, however, that makes Soft Will such a heartening next step for the band. Omori rarely sounds put-upon; few can turn lyrics as double-edged as “every day’s a blessing / every day’s a hangover” into sunny pop sing-alongs. It’s the band’s growth as introspective songwriters more willing to reconsider the events of a Friday night rather than relive the scuzzy tales for their boys, though, that turns songs like “Fool Proof” and “White Oath” into catchy little snippets of millennial angst and Soft Will a worthy progression. Producer Chris Coady does his best Beach House impression throughout, but instead of a beautifully numbing effect the result is an album that floats by serenely yet quite uncomfortably, bubbling up in currents of unrest and tendrils of apprehensive adulthood. “Chain smoke my days away / wrote my poems / even though no one would ever read them”, Omori sighs indifferently on “White Oath”, while “Cheer Up” crosses a prom slow-dance with the psychedelic swirl of a bad mushroom trip, its blurry command made all the more hopeless by crushing waves of reverb. Smith Westerns spend more time questioning their “Idol” than worshipping one, a creeping cynicism beginning to overtake genuine admiration. There are plenty of reminders that, for all intents and purposes, this is still a band of kids. Instrumental suite “XXIII” is plenty proof of that, the kind of track most Pink Floyd admirers got out of their system in high school garages, while the end of the record finds itself mired in a melancholia that bleeds together while forgetting to maintain its sharp edges. Yet Soft Will excels in finding that fading bloom of youth and inspecting just where it all went wrong, the powerless adult lulled back to all those bad decisions by an elegiac soundtrack as faded as all those old, indelible college photographs. It’s a trip that is hard to resist.

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