Chicago indie rockers Smith Westerns are back for more with sophomore album Dye It Blonde. The acclaim following their 2009 self-titled debut secured them the resources for a higher production value on their second effort, along with the opportunity to work with Chris Coady (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV on the Radio, Beach House). The clean-up does their sound a great service, freeing the bright pop hooks from the lo-fi fuzz that defined Smith Westerns’ first LP. The band—frontman Cullen Omori, bassist/brother Cameron Omori, guitarist Max Kakacek, and drummer Hal James—may have yet to reach its full potential, but Dye It Blonde marks a significant step forward.
Opening track “Weekend” is a lush piece of indie pop, with just enough garage in the guitars to eliminate anything that might otherwise seem too precious. “Imagine Pt. 3,” which previously appeared on a split 7” with Magic Kids, turned out faster and more upbeat in the rerecording. It’s a welcome update, showing just how much the band has grown. While “Dance Away” sounds more like the simpler arrangements of Smith Westerns’ first album, the crisper recording quality makes it the kind of refreshing summer song that’s almost painful to hear in January.
On their debut, Smith Westerns didn’t have any songs longer than three and a half minutes. They were also all teenagers. Now more mature, they have made advances into four-minute territory. “Still New” could score a dreamy slow-dance scene in a film, sounding almost like laid-back surf at times. The piano-anchored “Smile” also exemplifies the depth of their richer new sound. The exploration of youth “All Die Young” shows thematic growth along with greater musical complexity, opening with Omori stating, “I want to grow up before I grow old.”
Omori may still not be able to legally drink yet, but there is a world-weariness to the clearly young tone of his voice when he sings. Considering that Smith Westerns are obviously inspired by glam rock, this particular quality recalls T.Rex’s Marc Bolan questioning, “Whatever happened to the teenage dream?” However, this influence is mainly audible in Kakacek’s guitar lines. Omori’s delivery is nothing like Bolan’s, devoid of the oozing sleaze that was a hallmark of the T.Rex sound. Narrating a party winding down, “End of the Night” is more of a wistful sigh than a sly come-on, but it’s clear that Smith Westerns don’t want to sound like they’re actually from the 70s.
They’ve simply selected elements from that era to incorporate into their sound, creating their own brand of guitar pop—and to great effect.