By Daniel Kohn
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The first Smith Westerns LP (on Chicago's all-killer indie label HoZac in 2009) was a masterful example of what historians like to call "ramshackle pop" and what everybody else recognizes as someone trying to smash Phil Spector through the tiniest four-track. These were old-school Top 10 pop songs played with teenage vigor and velocity, and while a T. Rex influence loomed overhead, the Smith Westerns were actually digging for something a little rougher. Lost glam bands such as Milk N' Cookies and lost-in-their-own-head rockers such as Nikki Sudden would recognize this instantly: beautiful songs broken in transit.
Bands such as San Francisco's indie stars Girls recognized the Smith Westerns instantly, too, and pried the boys out of their college careers for a 2009 tour. That's where pretty much everyone else who loves them—and they are numerous—recognized them, too. (By the end of the year, they'd be on Pitchfork's Best Tracks of the Year list.) So for their most recent album, Dye It Blonde, the Smith Westerns decided to make something a little less recognizable. No more lo-fi charm here. Instead, they spent their whole album advance on making Blonde sound as good as possible. Nothing's broken anymore on this one—but it's pushing beyond beautiful.
"It's just about growing up while putting out music," says guitarist/singer Cullen Omori. "That's what I like about having a consistent band. We started out really young, and you can see our discography move as we get older. We really exposed a lot more of ourselves musically. It's not all distortion. Things are gonna be revealed—you couldn't hear them before."
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Call it a revelation. Blonde is crystal-clear from note one, and note three is a Bernard Butler-esque guitar line that ably and efficiently demonstrates just how much the Smith Westerns can do when the distortion disappears. "All Die Young" slides from a blown-out dreamy pop song into a glorious choirboy finale; "Only One" pulls a pop-psych verse out of 1967 and blooms into a high-lonesome chorus and a guitar solo that climbs through the clouds; closer "Dye the World" leaps off T. Rex's "Life's a Gas" and into glam oblivion. If their previous album was charmingly blown-out black-and-white, Dye It Blonde is bleeding oversaturated color.
"I feel like every musician has a certain amount of good songs," says Omori. "After a certain point, it's hard to top yourself—if you work really hard. We filter a lot of stuff out. I know bands can write one less-coherent song and put it on the record, but that makes me feel miserable for the listeners—to have to listen to that one shit song! I'd rather make an album that if someone tells me it sucks, I can say, 'No, it doesn't! Fuck you!'"
He laughs as he says that last part, but you know, he isn't wrong.
This article appeared in print as "To Dye For: The new Smith Westerns record has the same pop songcraft, but with more polish."