After releasing their self-titled debut in 2009 when most of the band was still in high school, Smith Westerns has returned four years and two albums later with Soft Will, an LP that is determined to showcase a more mature sound. 2011’s Dye It Blonde was a lovely album that certainly built off of the raw sound of their debut. Songs like “Weekend” and “Smile” were simultaneously ornate and messy, with Cullen Umori’s slacker vocals playing nicely over the band’s guitar-laden power pop arrangements. The whole thing was occasionally trite and a little busy, but it was ultimately triumphant and memorable despite its fairly familiar sound.
Soft Will feels like a concerted effort by the band to rein themselves in a bit from the hyperactivity of their last two records. That, or the band is feeling a bit more introspective. No matter the motive, the sound of Smith Westerns’ latest record is a bit more muted. The songs build more gradually and have more finesse to them. The opener, “3am Spiritual,” is gorgeous and airy, with lovely piano chords making up the body of the song for the first few minutes. Once it moves into the chorus at the end and the guitar moves to the forefront, it’s hard not to just submit to this band and this album, feeling confident in whatever place they may take you sonically.
With all that said, the juxtaposition of “3am Spiritual” to Dye It Blonde’s rollicking opener, “Weekend,” embodies the change in style that will likely dictate people’s reaction to this album. The songwriting on the new album is a bit stronger, but I struggle to declare the entire album more enjoyable than their previous work. While much of Soft Will is technically stunning, it does lack some of the youthful energy that made Dye It Blonde such a tour de force. For example, the song “Fool Proof” off of Soft Will exemplifies the band’s change in method. As is mostly the case on this album, the song is undeniably well-constructed and flows capably. Yet, in this case, Smith Westerns have chosen to deal with a very early-20s theme in a very grown up way. Exploring the strange feeling of friends moving on to college and white-collar jobs while these three bandmates stay back and make music as their “job,” Smith Westerns articulates this idea in a way that is devoid of any truly interesting emotions. There’s no alienation behind these words, no anger or sorrow, just an odd sense of distance that doesn’t feel particularly sincere.
Such a lack of rawness stands out as the main disappointment with this album. While the influences of many power pop bands still remain, Soft Will shows more of a Big Star influence and shifts away from the T. Rex influence a bit, which was the most talked-about influence on Dye It Blonde. There are a few more contemporary influences that seem to trickle in also. “Cheer Up,” the penultimate track, shares some similarities with the sound of Cults’ debut from 2011. And, as with their previous work, there is a definite element of Girls on here. All of these influences bounce around nicely on this record, never too pronounced as to be distracting and ultimately contributing to a sound that isn’t quite unique, but still somewhat distinct.
And so, just as I prepare to write this album off as a step back from Dye It Blonde, a song like “Varsity” comes along and slaps me in the face. “Varsity,” which was the first single off of Soft Will, should serve as a perfect model for this band going forward, which makes it only appropriate that it closes out the album. With some of their best songwriting yet, “Varsity” is a great compromise between the rawness that gives their music emotion and the mature technical mastery that gives their songs lushness and weight. With lovely guitar and keyboard arrangements, it’s a reminder that this band still has a great album in it. Soft Will might not be that great album, but overall it does nothing to diminish Smith Westerns’ boundless promise.
MP3: Smith Westerns “Varsity”