They are a young (aged between 18 and 20) male quartet unimaginatively attired in emasculating jeans and floppy haircuts, and they write songs that tell the world the trauma of pre-adulthood is the opposite sex. So far, big yawn. But before we go ahead and dismiss Smith Westerns as just another wet-between-the-ears group of poseurs trying the college pub circuit on for size, we may want to consider the bright future that beholds them. The pop intelligentsia, in any case, seem to think so, as do vaunted indie heroes like Belle and Sebastian and Florence and the Machine.
So what is it that pushes the two sets of brothers (Cullen and Cameron Omori, Colby and Max Kakacek) from risible Urban Outfitters poster boys undeserving of their label, Fat Possum, to slightly curious pop masterminds that make grotesque miscreants out of jaded critics? Something I’d unfashionably call the group’s pleasant contrariness, which takes three forms. First Smith Westerns are astute practitioners of glam rock, a style that has hardly enjoyed a proper revival as yet. That the band hail from the decidedly un-glam turf of Chicago also raises an eyebrow. Second, their T. Rex-indebted pop tones are as shorn of the gossamer side of glam as their slovenly appearance and the crashing abandon they display when on stage. They are all for swift infectious melodies, sometimes blurted out with the quick-fire brevity of the Ramones, and always captured for all posterity on what sounds like cheap recording equipment salvaged from 1973. Third, it takes more than your ordinary dose of chutzpah to swipe a Nirvana album cover for one’s own, albeit flipped, sliced and spliced with a painting of the Virgin Mary.
In short, Smith Westerns are scuzz meets stardust, sharp musicians that like a spanner in the works. Given the successes of similarly dishevelled acts like Ariel Pink, Wavves, and Black Lips, the group’s gauzy musicality is clearly a winning formula. That’s not to say their eponymous debut—which sold out its limited release in 2009, beckoning Fat Possum to reissue it—is without its pimply pockmarks. Apart from its convincing Marc Bolan-meets-CBGB air, album opener “Dreams” is one of those songs where it’s hard to forgive Smith Westerns for being green. When Cullen Omori says: “When will my dreams come true? / So I can be with you”, one can only wonder how a group with such a sure grasp of the musical style of their parents’ generation could right such a line and not feign irony.
There are also moments when the coarse production comes off too much like a damp squib. “We Stay Out”, for instance, sounds like the Velvet Underground gargling mouthwash and not in a nice way. Such misgivings, however, seem a million miles away when we hear the brilliantly executed arena-rock stomping “Girl in Love”, which lifts its strutting refrain straight out of “Get It On”—a confidence that’s seconded by Cullen oozing Bolan-style sex appeal. Thankfully, we get another dosage of Cullen’s irresistible androgynous swagger (amid a haze of interference) on both the suitably Tony Visconti-woozy boozy “Be My Girl” and “Diamond Boys”, a number that recalls David Bowie in more ways than its name. What Cullen is singing about beneath all the crackle is inconsequential.
For a band so vernal and self-assured in their ability to rough up an era of pop despite the pitfuls of sounding daft, it’s hard not to be titillated by how the quartet will evolve.
// Notes from the Road
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