They say it's all been done before
and there's really nothing new.
I guess that's just your point of view.
-- the Redwalls, "Modern Diet"
The blogs went berserk over the 2009 lo-fi debut from Chicago's Smith Westerns (no "the," please). The buzz grew exponentially, the band toured widely as an opening act for bigger names, and the follow-up generated great expectations. Now comes the reckoning. Can they justify the hype?
Mostly, with reservations.
"Dye It Blonde," the young band's sophomore set out today, is a definite step up. The '60s garage rock and '70s glam lurking within the first batch of songs is more fully realized here without becoming a complete pastiche. (Credit the consistent hand of producer Chris Coady, whose production credits include work on Beach House's "Teen Dream.") The ideas aren't necessarily fresh -- nor are they, thankfully, as complex as MGMT's similarly backward-stretching "Congratulations" -- but they're occasionally tantalizing. Most songs still have the stench of teen spirit; "End of the Night" might be the most exuberant expression of an ancient idea (man, it's thrilling to still be out when the sun comes up!) you'll hear this year. "Everybody wants to be a star on a Saturday night," sings Cullen Omori. "Come with me baby and your eyes shine the sunlight."
It's guitarist Max Kakacek's record, though. His careful, considered applications of Britpop ("Weekend"), Pink Floyd ("Still New") and a few indolent howls that are almost Skynyrdian ("All Die Young") drive the album's best tracks. His Peter Buck jangle gives "Only One" an urgent pulse, making it the album's simplest stand-out. Kakacek, though, too often is the only energy source. Omori's breathy vocals are sometimes appropriate ("End of the Night" is about feeling as tired as he sounds), sometimes maddening (by "Smile," OK, we get it, he's pretty impassive). Synthesizers distract as often as they enhance. Toward the last of the album's 10 tracks, the washed-out, fuzzy production sounds pretty ... fuzzy and washed-out.
So this album doesn't completely answer the question: Can Smith Westerns hurdle the bodies of the Redwalls? Chicago (OK, Deerfield) has seen the brass ring dangled before over-hyped retro-rock bands before. The almost universal accolades being heaped on Smith Westerns this week sound eerily like the 2005 reviews of the Redwalls' "De Nova." Plus, as much as I've heard how mind-blowing Smith Westerns' music is live, they were limp at the Pitchfork Music Festival last summer and barely moved two months ago at Lincoln Hall. If this particular bandwagon is going to make it off the Dan Ryan, Smith Westerns need to spend 2011 firing every shot with the explosive energy and sharp aim of Smith & Wessons. Otherwise, this may be just another really good dye job.