We are told that genius takes time. This is obvious, right? Even the Beatles, the greatest musical force of all time, were a band for more than five years before anybody bothered to scream their name. It takes hard work, endless hours, tireless dedication and … two early psychedelic records and a passing knowledge of the guitar work of George Harrison?
It can’t be that simple, right?
You can’t just live and breathe a few mostly forgotten albums, grab a guitar and make magical things happen. It’s not fair to everybody else. And that is perhaps the most punk thing about Chicago quartet Smith Westerns, a rag-tag band of youngsters who, were they offered a whiskey sour at show, would balk and walk away sheepishly for fear of legal recourse. These are kids whose parents were in short pants when their major influences were making their most important music. Yet, here they are—
a jangly self-titled debut and now this, 2011’s prenatally early ‘Album of the Year’ favorite Dye It Blonde—popping off sunshine 60s riffs as if it were as easy as their pre-algebra homework.
Smith Westerns was formed by singer Cullen Omori, bassist Cameron Omori and guitarist Max Kakacek in 2007. Just recently, the band added a regular drummer, Hal James.
Every breakout indie band these days has a gimmick. Take the most successful one: Vampire Weekend. The Harvard prepsters are popularly known for two things—they use African drums and they pop their collars. It’s that simple. MGMT are drug-addled one-hit wonders. The National are weirdly vocalled Brooklyn thirty-somethings. Arcade Fire are—to cop a tweet from @KnockOffCraigFinn—“Springsteen! At the Disco.” It’s kind of sad when you first think about it. Because we live in a highly generalized musical society, the gimmicks are often the only ones that make the charts. But then you think about it—all those bands rock. Yeah, sure, some can’t see through the gimmickry, but for those who bought The Suburbs because it hit no. 1, we can at least be happy that Win and co. have made it big. But I’m getting off-topic.
Smith Westerns have their gimmick, and they have an amazing record to back themselves up. Dye It Blonde is remarkably consistent, earwormingly catchy and filled with enough retro-fitted parts to seem bone-shakingly cool and technically proficient at the same time.
The Smith Westerns are The Strokes with bell-bottoms instead of leather jackets.
They aren’t preachy like Arcade Fire at their worst, or pretentious and ironic like MGMT. They probably smile more than Wavves’ Nathan Williams has in his entire life, and they’re less obsessed with their cats than Bethany of Best Coast. In fact, I bet they’re dog people.
Then there’s the gimmick: they’re still the musical equivalent of diaper-wearers. The Justin Biebers and Panic! At the Discos of the world can argue otherwise, but such musical talent and knack for hooks can’t be bought with a relationship with Usher or an ability to plagiarize Chuck Palahniuk. While Smith Westerns seem to have an easier go of it than your average Chicago teenager, the fact remains that these kids bought their success through pouring over records so back-catalogued you’d be lucky to find them in the collection of your hippest friend. The Smith Westerns are (young) scholars of a music that few people, let alone bands, understand fully—psychedelic rock. They also certainly have many years ahead of them to become jaded and pretentious because of their preternatural ability to cop genres. But while their gimmick is getting most of the ink, at least their product, a stellar sophomore record, backs up their reductive identity with a deeply involving record.