Indie rock’s youngest lovelorn songwriter brought his brand of catchy, literate pop to New York on Valentine’s Day to kick off March Records’ 10th anniversary weekend celebration. Graham Smith, who records and performs under the name Kleenex Girl Wonder, took time off from his English major studies at University of Wisconsin to lead his splendidly ragged, under-rehearsed band through a generous 19-song, one hour-plus set of romantically-challenged pop songs.
Smith’s prodigious song output over the past few years has been collected on a dizzying mix of 7” singles, EPs and CDs, most notably on 2000’s Ponyoak. The just-released After Mathematics continues Smith’s gift for witty and winsome garage pop, but also embraces his hip-hop and rap influences on several tracks. This growing side of Smith’s musical makeup was not on display tonight, unlike fall 2000’s CMJ show in NYC, where Smith mostly clowned with pals and rapped through a mediocre set. Tonight’s set was clearly a chance to rock out with his band mates and raise a recognition notch for his songwriting abilities.
The KGW band lineup this evening included Smith on vocals/guitar, backed by his suburban Chicago, Illinois musical cohorts (drummer Jeff Giba, guitarist Quinn Goodwillie and his bassist brother Christian Goodwillie). They lit up the stage from the onset, starting off with a triple dose of catchy, fast pop—the new “Amelia”, “Take My Heart and Rub It” and “Reunited Airlines” (the only track represented from last year’s concept-ambitious, but mostly-panned Smith double CD).
Downplaying the yuks-for-laughs stage shtick that had characterized his earlier NYC outings in recent years, Smith concentrated on bringing the audience’s focus to his poptastic gems, such as “Tendency Right Foot Forward” and “The Nearest Future”, two Ponyoak standouts. On “My, You Look Ravishing Tonight!” and Ponyoak’s “Powerbird”, songs the band either hadn’t rehearsed, or didn’t know, Smith bravely played solo, even stopping midway through to seek help from those up front to remember the lyrics.
Smith’s British Invasion-styled pop chord sense blended magically with guitarist Quinn Goodwillie’s splendid lashing leads and brother Christian’s booming fuzzed-up bass lines. They combined to provide a garage energy lacking in earlier visits to New York. Unfortunately, Smith’s singing was more often than not off the mark, with higher notes generally stretched and strained, perhaps due to KGW’s infrequent live performances. But it’s in early days for this songwriting juggernaut. With more shows and higher confidence onstage, the escalating pop career of Graham Smith will certainly be a welcome one to check in on.