2011′s splendid Dye It Blonde gave Smith Western its first big-time moment. If not for a group of wily rappers from L.A. named Odd Future, that year’s SXSW might as well have been dubbed “Smith Westerns Take Austin.” The name-making second LP found the Chicago trio of brothers Cullen and Cameron Omori, and friend Max Kakacek, graduating from the scuzzy, high-school garage-rock of their 2009 eponymous debut to full-on glam-rock guitar-hero mode, brightly reflecting clear influences like T.Rex, Bowie and Mott the Hoople via blown-out power-pop gems.
In the two years since, such palpable buzz may have subsided. But the band’s knack for infectious guitar and synth riffs has surely not. Their latest album, Soft Will, may not flip the script, but it does refine their mission: There’s less of the debut’s punkish posture — a pose that sometimes verged on snotty — and no song is as instantly catchy as Dye It Blonde‘s “Weekend.” What’s left though is a greater emphasis on melodic consistency, chirpy guitar licks and hummable hooks.
Cullen also sounds more confident in his vocal talent: He’s become a true singer rather than the dude in the band who figured he’d give singing a shot. The maturation is reflected in his lyrics. “You don’t look like you used to be/ You don’t look like you did on TV,” he admits on “3AM Spiritual,” one of many references to self-discovery. The trio’s notorious off-the-stage abandon is not glossed over, either: “Every day’s a blessing/ Every day’s a hangover,” Omori sings on the psychedelic “Idol.” Naysayers will find the band’s sound derivative. They wouldn’t be false. But Smith Westerns never hid their influences or claimed to be anything they’re not: three dudes hypnotized by big hooks and mountains of melody.