So, when your previous album is a nearly perfect collection of melodic gems reminiscent of the best of the British Invasion, and it’s successful with the “indie-rock” kids, what’s the logical next step to take? Why . . . releasing a double-CD rock opera/comedy album that ends with a hip-hop freestyle, of course! At least that’s sort of the path Graham Smith of Kleenex Girl Wonder has taken with his latest full-length Smith.
A musical story inspired by albums like Prince Paul’s “hiphopera” A Prince Among Thieves, Smith‘s plot is that Graham Smith, while working on the follow-up to his last album Ponyoak, downloads a computer program for help with songwriting, and the program turns out to be The Program, a government-created artificial intelligence program. This, of course, leads to all sorts of shenanigans and oddball characters, as Smith is recruited to help solve a government spy case, which he agrees to, as long as The Program helps him write songs. The whole story is delivered with the sort of amateurish “acting” of the cheesiest action film or teen comedy, but that’s part of what makes it pretty funny to listen to. The story falls apart completely as the album goes on, indicating that Smith is fooling around with storytelling more than giving it a real try, but it’s a good deal of fun for a while.
Within the story, there’s about an album’s worth of songs. Ultimately, these are the real attraction, as the story isn’t all that funny after numerous listens. Some of the songs fit right into the “Kleenex Girl Wonder” sound, meaning that they’re witty, pleasurable pop-rock tunes about relationships. Catchy rockers like “A Shame and a Waste” and “Reunited Airlines” hit the right notes, emotionally and musically, while not landing far from the sound of KGW’s previous releases. Others, especially those that Smith and The Program create within the story, are instrumentals that blend electronics with guitar, techno-ish beats with melodies. These are OK, but most exciting are the tracks where Smith more thoroughly combines his rock side with this more electronic side, like the short but fascinating “What Do You Want?”—essentially a simple pop song over beats, sung with some sort of computerizing vocal technique. Smith also subtly incorporates electronics into his sound on several tracks: for instance, “To the Boatcourt”, which puts a pop-rock piece of mystery over synthesizers and acoustic guitars, or “Westmont”, where Smith sings a gorgeous Ponyoak-ish melodic pop tune, but supplements it with drum ‘n’ bass-ish electronics.
Throughout his career thus far, Smith has displayed a sense of humor, by gleefully wrapping himself in the cloak of an rock and roll egoist (he named a recent EP Why I Write Such Good Songs, for example, and dedicated his last album to himself). With Smith, he takes that comedic side to another level. But he hasn’t left his songwriting talents behind, either. Smith might not be a great leap forward in his musical growth, but it does deliver another batch of fantastic songs, some of which include stylistic touches that show his willingness to push the boundaries of “rock and roll”.