Young band releases polished album

Nolan Krebs

Plenty of artists write songs in reverence of youth; many people love music that takes us back to the carefree years of less work and more play.  College students, no longer enjoying adolescent simplicities yet not fully rooted in adulthood, don’t always get represented as they should.  Smith Westerns, a four-piece band of 19 and 20-year-olds from Chicago, are doing a great job changing that.  The band’s sophomore album, “Dye It Blonde,” is a set of polished and high-energy songs that illustrate the entrance into adulthood with a fitting balance of sparkle and grit.

Smith Westerns received a lot of attention for the unique style they built with their self-titled debut, which the band recorded while still in high school.  Fans caught on to their genuine ability to capture youth as a musical aesthetic, with songs sounding low-fidelity out of necessity but still drenched in tones of unrestrained blithe. After signing with Fat Possum Records and teaming up with producer Chris Coady (Beach House, Yeah Yeah Yeahs), the band pulls back the low-fidelity curtain and steps out with a cleaner, more refined and more technical sound.

Album opener “Weekend” highlights a number of Smith Westerns strengths on “Dye It Blonde.” Guitarist Max Kakacek and frontman Cullen Omori collaborate with a terrific balance throughout the entire album.  The sharp guitar riff of the chorus pairs surprisingly well with round vocal melodies of the verses, and the combination is infectious.  The parallel harmonies between Kakacek’s guitar and Omori’s voice on “End of the Night” also illuminate the impressive songwriting abilities of the group and its keen ear for hooks.

Smith Westerns slows things down and flaunts its versatility on the smooth, keys-heavy track, “All Die Young.”  Omori shines over the jogging piano scales and slow, echoed guitar lines.  “I want to grow before I grow up,” he sings, affirming the simple convictions of a young person on the precipice of adulthood.  It is refreshing to see a young band that isn’t out to prove anything profound or make any sort of bold claims through their music.  In the moments where their musical aptitude blossoms, it feels organic.

Omori has cited ‘90s Britpop as a key influence, which is easy to spot in songs like “Imagine Pt. 3” in terms of vocal melody and overall sound. This means that the songs tend to toe the line between being catchy and sounding over-the-top. However, each time the song seems to be heading into overly-sweet territory, the signature fuzz-laden guitar makes a sharp entrance to add the perfect edge.  “Fallen in Love” rises climactically on almost cheesy synthesizers, but again, a technical and well-placed guitar solo saves the day.

“Dye it Blonde” is a positive progression for Smith Westerns.  Fans of their first album should be pleased to see the group becoming proficient songwriters, despite veering from their garage-rock roots. Their fresh and semi-retro take on pop music has just enough hints of psychedelia and even Beatles-esque traits to keep you hooked. The songs are great to bop along to during a library session, and the vibes will keep you feeling lighthearted all day.

Not only is “Blonde” a great record, but it makes an important statement for our age group.  What we may lack in experience and practical know-how can be made up for with ambition, discipline and honesty toward our work.