The hallmark of a quality band is their ability to progress. Making music is about innovation and originality. Too often artists get bogged down by a certain sound, or type casted into a style that has been successful in the past. But rock n' roll is not about the past- it's about the future. It's about pushing limits, trying new things, and utilizing passion to insert soul and character into a song. It's about giving a record an authentic feel that has not been evoked by music before. Without those factors, a song is lifeless, futile, and irrelevant. If an artist cannot create something new, authentic, and innovative, then what is the point of making anything at all?
With the help of Chris Coady, the man who engineered TV On The Radio's masterpiece Dear Science, and has produced records for the likes of the Yeah Yeah Yeah's and Grizzly Bear, comes Soft Will, the third studio release from Chicago high school buddies Smith Westerns. The Smith Westerns released their first album straight out of high school, which is easily noticeable. Their 2009 self-titled debut is an ode to garage rock that sounds like it was probably recorded in such a petrol-fumed setting. Since then this band has gone through a serious maturation process, which undoubtedly parallels their transition from teenagers to twenty-somethings.
Their sophomore effort Dye It Blonde was a step forward, moving away from the raunchiness of the first record. It proved to contain more production than their self-titled debut including hazy background synthesizers on top of piercing guitar riffs, as well as more advanced song structures. The songs on Dye It Blonde were upbeat, even whimsical at times. The band made serious progress between the first two albums. Continuing in this fashion, they have covered even more ground with the release of their third. This time around they produced a more refined version of the dreamy pop sound that they introduced on Dye It Blonde. It radiates a more serious tone, as if the band has done some growing up. "White Oath" is a terribly lonely song, glumly expounding verses of being misunderstood and neglected, "Chain smoke my days away / Wrote my poems, even though no one would ever hear them / When I'm with my friends, laughed and joked / Even though I'll never be with them." The video for "Idol" shows the band looking somber and moping around a table as a party goes on around them. These gloomy songs of dejection are masked by a dreamy sound, and give them a decelerated, melancholy Oasis vibe.
In the first few listens these sad lyrics are masked by the album's catchy chord progressions and ambient tones. It oozes slow jams with melodic choruses. The single "Varsity" set the tone for the rest of the record. It showcases all the elements that are at play throughout the entire album: it has distant echoed vocals, synthy background tones, and visual texture. Join this with muffled guitar riffs and woeful lyrics, and the outcome is a far more complex and musical sound than what came out of the band's minimalist debut. Their serene, hypnotic convergence of tones upon each other shields the listener from the sensitive and insightful purpose that the lyrics serve.
The sound spectrum that this band has covered over such a short period of time is remarkable. Moving from the rawness of their first album to where they are now shows three important factors in the history of a band: motivation, innovation, and dissatisfaction. They have created three albums of great merit, each of which has its own individuality and energy. If a band can continue that pattern, especially at the Smith Westerns' young age, then they have a promising road ahead of them. While they sound completely different from their early work, it is easy to claim that they are much, much better now. At this rate no one can predict how they will sound in the future, but Soft Will is a persuasive argument for this band's evolution. Smith Westerns have continued a great tradition of musicians who are not satisfied with their past accomplishments, and understand that forward progress is life, while staying stagnant is death. There is nowhere for these guys to go but up, and right now they are making fast strides to the top.