When Smith Westerns burst into a gigantic wave of hype back in 2009, they were just a group of goofy teenagers that kept getting in trouble for sneaking beers at shows when they were underage. Well, that was part of it. They also were very much an “of the time” band, showing up with immense hooks amid an extremely lo-fi sound that was the rage what seems like nearly a lifetime ago. They had faint echoes of 60s pop and in particular The Beatles, though a much scruffier and beat-to-hell version of them. It was rather impressive, the chops of guys so young. Upon signing with Fat Possum not too long ago they were handed an actual recording budget for their sophmore album, which meant more freedom and the chance to actually walk away with a record that didn’t sound like it was slapped together with a microphone inside a bedroom closet. That second record is out this week, is titled “Dye It Blonde”, and winds up improving more than just the muddled sonic quality of their debut.
Kids grow up so fast, blink and suddenly they’re full-blown adults. The guys in Smith Westerns are still young by most standards, and the music they make still has that same youthful energy to it, but the way it’s put together on “Dye It Blonde” shows a certain maturity and smarts well beyond what we’ve heard from them previously. The melodies are clearer, the guitars crisper, the hooks sharper and the whole thing just feels fun-er (note: fully aware this is not a real word, used as a malapropism my friends). Opening track “Weekend” is anchored in by a fuzz-strewn guitar wobbly guitar riff that’s interesting and exciting in and of itself. It also pairs itself quite well with the lyrics, which are upbeat and drenched in the throes of passion and possibility over what girls and entertainment might be waiting in the open days ahead. “Still New” is another love song, but is best for how it’s instrumentally textured. The lightly strummed guitar that takes up much of the song is pleasant, but is practically dominated by a hard-edged bass line. When the chorus strikes though, a loud, high-pitched electric guitar wails in and mows down everything in its path. It’s what you’ll remember about the song, because it’s there and gone and back again just like a great hook should be. And after releasing it as a standalone single last year, there’s a fresher, more sped up version “Imagine, Pt. 3” that pops up like an old friend you haven’t heard from in awhile but you’re left wondering exactly why you let it go so long.
As far as ballads go, you can’t do much better than “All Die Young”. Starting with some organ and developing into a psychedelic torch song, the guitars build and swirl slowly at first before the chorus finally arrives after a couple minutes and picks up the pace to head bobbing status. It’s the strong repetition of the song’s title ad nauseum through the end that solidifies its staying power even as you move on to other catchy cuts. Tracks like “Fallen In Love” and “End of the Night” are satisfying mid-tempo rock songs that once again hold down the already familiar territory of love, but they do so with such upbeat tendencies that they’re wholly enjoyable no matter if they are a slight bit cliched. And for fans of the high energy, goofier side of the band, “Dance Away” is a late album home run that’s there primarily to show they’re not going out gently but instead with plenty of fanfare.
With their first album reaching back towards a lot of 60s British Invasion/Beatles-type influences, Smith Westerns have said their aim with “Dye It Blonde” was to evoke a lot of the great 90s British rock bands such as Oasis and Blur. The funny thing is that though the sound is essentially updated, a band like Oasis originally started in the hopes of emulating the Beatles’ sound. That was true when Oasis began and it was true still on their last album. And while Oasis never really picked up that Beatles mantle, Smith Westerns are able to pick up Oasis’ sound with relative ease. The key difference though (outside of heritage), is the way that Smith Westerns put their songs together. They retain the bombast and explosiveness of those 90s British bands, but the guitars buzz a certain unique way and the equal footing an instrument like the organ gets much of the time is interesting in and of itself. There’s a number of times on “Dye It Blonde” where it feels like there’s so much noise because all the various instruments are competing for your attention at the same audio level that you’re nearly overwhelmed. Instead of steamrolling over you though, it plays with you like a tiger would a large rubber ball. It’s just another one of the more unexpected twists this band brings to their sophmore record that thrills and innovates relative to what they did last time. The best part is that once it’s all over you’re left wondering where it is they can go and what it is they will try next. When you’re a band as young and nubile as the Smith Westerns are, the world is your oyster. On “Dye It Blonde”, they make sure to take as much as they can grab.