Smith Westerns, ‘Soft Will’ – Album Review
When you're young, celebrity can be damaging, and child stars often wind up in jail or dead because of their inability to handle the freedom and pressures that come with it. Being a touring musician fresh out of high school must be similarly perilous, and for every success story like Smith Westerns, there must be a disturbing amount of failures.
But the core trio of Cullen Omori, his brother Cameron and Max Kakacek have now released their third album as Smith Westerns, and if you thought the Chicago band's new album would sound anything like their debut, 'Soft Will' flies in the face of that underestimation. Just as 'Dye It Blonde' saw the group clean up its sound and move toward lusher, more complicated songwriting, 'Soft Will' expands on, well, everything, and it's as large a step forward as its predecessor. Now in his early 20s, Cullen Omori is paying more attention to his lyrics, singing more honestly and directly than before and allowing us to actually know the band. Any young musicians looking to have a career should take note.
"It's easier to think you're dumb" is the album's opening line on '3AM Spiritual,' a song written just after the band had completed what amounted to year's worth of continuous touring, only to come home as adults. Omori tags on "like you were" and sings about the difference in perception versus reality, looking inward to see that it's only going to lead to more introspection. As the listener, though, you are just thrilled to hear the band exploring the glossy rock of the '70s with taste and originality, and still drawing you in with lyrics.
The band recorded 'Soft Will' over the course of several sessions, taking the time between each one to come back fresh and with a new perspective to listen to their work. By not rushing, the tight and focused album seems to be made with the kind of smarts of a band it will be hard to underestimate again.
'Glossed' offers rapidly picked, clean guitars and a level of reverb just shy of what you'd hear on a Captured Tracks song, showing the difference in composition style that set Smith Westerns apart from trendier bands like DIIV. 'Best Friend' sees Kakacek once again channeling George Harrison's guitar, almost stealing the show from Cullen's sincere and sweet words. The result is a song that is primed for cinematic moments between people that care for each other. And, if there's a sadness to the album, 'Cheer Up,' is both a reminder from Smith Westerns to themselves and an outward mantra, as every tear that falls into their now-legal beers is due to self-awareness.
'Soft Will' presents a band coming to terms with the life they have chosen and knowing it's pointless to ignore the drawbacks -- and just as pointless to dwell on them. 'Varsity' ends with the chorus "I know it's hard to be alone, count the days, count the night, but don't get by." The catharsis and reassurance present reveal a great maturity than Smith Westerns had shown on past records, and we're left seeing the upside of young fame: Sometimes, it simply allows an artist a longer run at achieving greatness. Smith Westerns are well on their way.