On their self-titled debut album from 2009, Smith Westerns sounded like the Black Lips you could take home to meet your parents. The follow-up, 2011’s Dye It Blonde, saw the Chicago-based trio buffing up their formerly scuzzy, lo-fi sound to a bright sheen. And now Soft Will marks a further refinement of Smith Westerns’ sound, resulting in one of the year’s most straightforwardly enjoyable indie-rock records.
With its Coldplay-esque lift-off and rousing, festival-primed “Woah yeah!” refrain, 3AM Spiritual might have made an obvious album closer, but instead it’s placed at the very start of Soft Will. It’s a clear signal of intent: this is a band that’s no longer hiding behind lo-fi production and the reduced expectations that come with it.
Frontman Cullen Omori isn’t the strongest, most distinctive of vocalists but, rather like Bernard Sumner and New Order, the limitations of his voice ensure that Smith Westerns favour simple, instantly engaging melodies. There are plenty of those on Soft Will: the choruses on Idol and White Oath are particularly infectious. Only the overwrought power ballad Cheer Up sees the band misplace their usually dependable tunesmithery.
Smith Westerns are one of the few American acts who’ve admitted to the influence of Britpop on their sound. For a contemporary British act, such an admission would seem embarrassingly retrograde but, coming from three twentysomething Chicagoans, it seems almost perverse. On Soft Will the Britpop influence is particularly pronounced on Best Friend, which sounds like a lost relic from one of the Shine compilations.
Indeed, there’s something weirdly disconcerting about hearing the sounds of Oasis and Supergrass refracted through Smith Westerns’ otherwise American-as-apple-pie indie rock. But Soft Will is much more than an exercise in ’90s revivalism: a Peter Hook-esque bassline appears on Idol And Varsity, while Glossed’s combination of tumbling, jangling guitars and keening backing vocals recalls The Go-Betweens.
Formerly renowned caners, Smith Westerns have recently spoken about enjoying more settled home lives. This might explain Soft Will’s reflective lyrical content and general sense of contentment. While these might be positive developments for the band members’ mental and physical wellbeing, musical history has shown that they’re not necessarily positive developments for a band’s music: when youthful ebullience is swapped for maturity, the results can often be self-conscious in the worst possible way. But one listen to Soft Will should immediately assuage these fears. It’s unlikely that the demise of the younger, brattier version of Smith Westerns will be mourned by anyone who comes into contact with this lovely record.