What if I don't like Free to Stay? What if I find the Smoosh sisters' dad on my doorstep with a baseball bat a couple days after this review runs?
I didn't want to listen to Free to Stay. I mean, what if I didn't like it? How am I, as a 27-year-old man, supposed to put in print that I think an album created by a teen girl and a pre-teen girl isn't worth your time? What could that do to their still-developing psyches? What if I find their dad on my doorstep with a baseball bat a couple days after this review runs? Do I run away or take the beating I surely deserve?
Two things assuaged any doubts I had about writing this review:
1. These girls have opened for Cat Power, Death Cab for Cutie, and Pearl Jam, for God's sake. At this point, they can probably take what one little music reviewer can dish out.
2. The music is, actually, damn good, and would be whether these girls were 12 and 14 (which they are) or 26 and 28 (or 42 and 44, or 35 and 37, or... well, I've driven this point into the ground, now, haven't I?).
Why be worried about a band that just happened to be the darling of just about every indie band, magazine, and website that it came into contact with? Well, Smoosh's first album She Like Electric was a pretty excellent debut, fresh and surprisingly unique, if quite obviously performed by a couple of young girls. While some of the songs and performances were startlingly mature, some others descended into the realm of novelty, hip-hoppy "experiments" that didn't have all that much shelf life past a giggle or two. Of course, it's those songs, songs like "Rad" (a Cat Power favorite) and "Quack" that get more press than any of the more serious songs on the disc, to the point where those cutesy little numbers became more a part of Smoosh's identity than the songs that actually sound as if they mean something to the girls.
It sounds as though in creating their second album Asya and Chloe have consciously decided to steer around such a trap, as the songs on Free to Stay are almost uniformly straight-up keyboard 'n' drums indie-pop, with only two tracks that steer even slightly into silliness, the self-consciously titled "Rock Song" and the mostly-instrumental toss-off that is "Organ Talk". The words of "Rock Song" are near-unintelligible and sound as though they may have been improvised, but the incredibly inventive and tight musicianship still far outweighs any of the song's lyrical shortcomings, something that never could be said for "Rad" or "The Quack", cute as they might have been. Asya's keyboards are overdriven to the point where they actually sound like distorted guitar and fuzz-bass, except that anyone trying to play the chorus instrumental on a guitar would probably end up with bloody fingers and carpal tunnel. As such, inconsequential as its words might be, it still leaves me wondering why bands twice Smoosh's age and with twice the number of members simply can't come up with something as unique and impressive-sounding as this.
"Organ Talk", for its part, is simply organ-sounding keyboards over a beat with some talking in the background, hence the name. It's kind of silly in a self-indulgent way, but it's in no danger of becoming misinterpreted as a typical Smoosh song.
The rest of the tracks bear more resemblance to piano-based artists we've heard before -- Tori Amos and Fiona Apple come to mind, though the Smoosh girls have more spunk than either of those sleepy-eyed songstresses. "Clap On" is a fantastic, mood-shifting little ditty that brings to mind Apple at her most inspired (see: "Fast As You Can"). An insistent, almost-techno beat and a repeated, insistent minor-chord drive the verse, but the song quickly morphs into a seriously catchy barroom blues stomp that just about anyone could relate to on some level: "How do you live sometimes when you're talking out of your mind? / How do you sleep at night when you're drownin' in your own lies?," she says, playing the part of spurned companion to a tee, something she probably has some experience with at the rather hormonal age of 14. "This is Not What We've Become" is just as impressive, showcasing an impressive grasp of melody and a willingness to deviate from the verse-chorus structure of typical pop, and opener "Find a Way" is fabulous in a Ben Folds sort of way even after you get past more of those overdriven keyboards.
As is, perhaps, to be expected, there are a couple of songs that don't quite measure up to such a high standard of quality -- the title track was actually on Smoosh's first EP called Tomato Mistakes, from way back when only one of them could brag that her age had two digits, and it sounds pleasant but a little naïve and noodly. "Glider" also runs into a bit of trouble, as it doesn't quite know what to do with a beat that finds common ground between "Lust for Life" and a military march. Despite these slight missteps, however, it's clear that the duo's songwriting is developing wonderfully and their chemistry and willingness to experiment with sonic trickery is expanding their sound, even while relying less on the silliness that marked their debut. Surely, the girls can't wait for the time when age is no longer the trait that raises peoples' eyebrows when it comes to Smoosh. Free to Stay gives this writer confidence that soon enough, their music will trump all else.