At this point, Smith Westerns has officially become what some listeners might call a “buzz band” (looking your way, Hipster Runoff). The year 2010 was a remarkably good one for the Chicago group, as steady touring gave way to rising acclaim for its straightforward, classic-rock-tinged guitar rock. The band’s self-titled debut in 2009 paved the way, considering it was a solid set of songs that recalled touchstones ranging from ‘60s psych-pop to the glammier side of David Bowie. In fact, those influences are what make Smith Westerns’ quick ascendance so laudable: the band makes earnest, guitar-driven pop music, freely disassociated from any of the dozens of trends that pop up in the blogosphere in a given musical year. Sure, Smith Westerns shares some DNA with tourmates Girls—namely, an appreciation for sunny melodies and jangly guitar tones—but Dye It Blonde sounds refreshingly unconcerned with reinventing the wheel.
Bands in this new decade have to look increasingly far backward to get to the Beatles, but the dividends can still pay off, even if you might strain your neck in the process. Dye It Blonde wastes no time announcing its Fab Four-informed pedigree. The tone of that lead guitar in opener “Weekend” would make George Harrison proud. More importantly, lead guitarist Max Kakacek plays with enough verve and intuitive senses of energy and melody to make his listeners forget to play the name-that-influence game. It doesn’t hurt that frontman Cullen Omori hits those liquid “oo-oo’s” in the chorus with such precision that they almost seem to melt into your ears.
As good as “Weekend” is, “Still New” is even better. Sequencing, after all, is something else a band can learn from their forebears—always try to kick it up even further after your opening salvo. Here, the tempo slows, but the atmospherics rise to the occasion. The band’s rhythm section, drummer Colby Hewitt and bassist Cameron Omori, proves that it is just as tight in its chops as the band’s guitarists. A wailing guitar lick hits in all the right places for those of us deprived of a properly rocking Built to Spill album for far too many years now. Smith Westerns can do melancholy just as easily as it can do sunny, feel-good pop, and it does so in the same fashion: no showiness, no indulgence, just well-built and perfectly executed songs.
It’s that careful attention to the nuances in each song that makes Dye It Blonde such a quietly revelatory slice of pop-rock. The keys on “Imagine Pt. 3”, the reverb on the snare on “All Die Young”, the ever-so-brief disco freakout in “Dance Away”. These guys take their time writing their songs, and it shows. Constructing a three-minute pop song that will float—that’s arguably harder to do than writing the kind of abstract piece that grabs your attention with its idiosyncrasies or a flashy track that hits with undeniable musicianship but leaves you feeling strangely unfulfilled afterward. Smith Westerns do it again and again on Dye It Blonde. The band never merely repeats itself here, creating a record that sounds at once cohesive and loaded with singles. It’s a rare feat, and one that usually gets overlooked by critics shooting for the zeitgeist. Good for us that we didn’t miss out on this one.