When you become indie darlings as youngsters, your follow-up records will inevitably be labeled “mature” and “coming-of-age.” Usually this is a fair assessment. Your friends fall into real world careers, you’re still making a living, but you’re slowly feeling more responsibility creep in as your music reflects a quarter-life crisis. Still, higher production value and slower tempos don’t automatically equal “maturity,” and for that matter, “maturity” doesn’t equal higher quality. Chicago upstarts Smith Westerns‘ Soft Will, for over-hyped worse, will “come-of-age” this summer like no other.
Catchy as they may be, the first few tracks remind all too much of a less-ambitious but lyrically-accessible Phoenix, largely due to Cullen Omori’s vocals mimicking Thomas Mars’, both in tone and melodies. “3AM Spiritual” also immediately echoed The Flaming Lips‘ “Do You Realize” in a more subdued fashion. Later in the album, the instrumental “XXIII” is basically a Dark Side of the Moon b-side. Smith Westerns seem to have hedged their bets on these songs, as they open the album and build their choruses around ultra-memorable witticisms like “You don’t look like you did on TV,” or “You told me, told me, told me the answer, but I’m unsure/Every day’s a blessing, every day’s a hangover.”
Maybe they haven’t found themselves quite yet, leading to a lifestyle of “chain-smoking the days away” and “writing poems that no one would ever read,” as heard on “White Oath.” Still, it seems that the solace of “laughs and jokes” with friends is all Omori needs, although he won’t realize this until the closing 80’s-synth single “Varsity:” [LISTEN]
I used to think I was a loner ’til I went out on my own
Thought I always had to win
Or else I wasn’t anything
I guess it’s a point of view
At least from a musical perspective, the tail end of the album sees the boys staying true to their psychedelic/garage-rock roots for the most part. And it’s the most enjoyable part for that reason. Every simple guitar solo on this album grabs you, and their youthful, pretense-less “mess-about-with-catchy-riffs-in-a-garage” vibe from earlier records is their greatest strength.
This sonic tactic is used best on the sleeper hits “Only Natural” and “Best Friend.” The former’s “natural,” jangly guitar riffs, rhythmic feel, and sarcasm propel the track forward: “Oceans part for you, of course/It’s only natural.” The latter’s love letter to a “best friend” makes up for its over–used theme with a care-free, sunny guitar melody and some bittersweet honesty: [LISTEN]
I’d watch you up on the screen
Wishful thinking is a curse
Black velvet won’t let you breathe
The wunderkind set may be a little less party-hungry and a little more contemplative, but many of this year’s “all-growed-up” albums have some major chunks that sound far too similar to other artists – Wavves‘ Afraid of Heights is another culprit of this phenomenon (although it also had many bright spots). When listening to a song triggers a previous, well-known sound-alike to play in your head, then that song is just a bit too unoriginal. For me, the first half of Soft Will was fraught with these triggers, but the second half pleased.