The Smith Westerns do a lot of things: they craft indie-rock gems, display strong musicianship, and have recently captured the attention of music critics around the country. But one thing they don’t do is drink — legally, at least. None of the members of the Chicago band have turned 21 yet, making the maturity and musical aptitude found on their sophomore effort Dye It Blonde (2011) impressive.
Dye It Blonde picks up where the trio’s 2009 eponymous debut left off, presenting itself as another collection of short, rough rock tunes. Grounded in the tradition of 70s glam rockers like T. Rex and David Bowie, the Smith Westerns play rock music the way it’s supposed to be played, frowning on the current indie obsession with sonic experimentation. This vintage sound is refreshing to say the least.
From the beginning the Smith Westerns’ sound, now enabled by the resources of a larger record label, Fat Possum, asserts itself with unabashed confidence. “Weekend”, the album’s opening track, explodes with bluesy guitars and a rhythm track that is as simple as it is precise. Singer Cullen Omori — a one-time Northwestern student — loosely croons “Weekends are never fun/ Unless you’re around here too”, completing the song’s accurate representation of Dye It Blonde—for the Smith Westerns directness is paramount, musically and lyrically.
The first half of Dye It Blonde’s garage rock statement is spent affirming the Smith Westerns’ credibility. The clamoring piano and dreamy vocals on “Imagine, Pt. 3” fondly recall John Lennon’s Imagine-era work, and when Omori enunciates “I want to tell you you’re hard to resist” on “Still New” he cements the group’s songwriting prowess further. Tracks like “All Die Young” and “Smile” aren’t highlights, but they aren’t negative either — they’re merely developmental hiccups by a young band.
Dye It Blonde is a strong album start to finish, but its best cuts reside on the second half. Ignited by explosive piano and guitar riffs, “End of the Night” uses modulations in tonality to demonstrate newfound sonic depth. “Only One” is Dye It Blonde’s best track, featuring a plaintive guitar line and especially dark lyrics; Omori’s romantic frustration is clearest when he sings “Dreams never do come true with you” before the song gives way to an emotive guitar solo.
The hype surrounding Dye It Blonde is unique. While hipster staples like LCD Soundsystem and Arcade Fire have released breathtaking statements about society and life, the Smith Westerns have compiled songs that capture the daily feelings of young adults in America. Music critics have become accustomed to grandiose statements, but Dye It Blonde relates far more to the pop savvy and accessibility of early Beatles records like With the Beatles.
However, with the resonant closer “Dye the World”, the Smith Westerns’ throw listeners a curveball, combining all their talents to create a track suited for arenas and lighter-waving. With bombastic guitar breaks and tender verses, this is glam rock channeled through the lens of the Pixies. An early Beatles love song “Dye the World” is not.
Dye It Blonde signifies a tremendous leap in development for the Smith Westerns; their debut was promising, but was noted more for the band’s youth than musical abilities. The future is far from certain for this young Chicago band, but if Dye It Blonde is any indicator there is a tremendous chance it will be great.
The Smith Westerns will be performing at The Empty Bottle in Chicago on February 26. You can buy tickets for $10 here.