When you start out as a garage-rock band, it seems there are two ways you can evolve: you can learn to create perfection out of lo-fi distortion (think Jack White or The Black Keys), or you can move toward a cleaner, indie-rock vibe. Chicago act Smith Westerns’ third effort Soft Will definitely leans toward the latter, and it feels like a completely natural evolution.
Granted, Smith Westerns have always carried a tinge of 70’s psychedelic in their music. Their debut, self-titled release was a mix of glam and surf rock run through so many filters that it sounded like it was blaring out of an AM radio with the speaker blown. We started to hear this buzz wane with 2010’s Dye It Blonde, but on Soft Will, it is all but forgotten. The band still takes some liberties with jangly guitars and garage-y solos from time to time, but the production value has taken about five steps away from The Black Keys and toward Vampire Weekend. Cleaner, more textured, offset with heavy reverb and airy keyboard work, and totally ear-pleasing.
Not that lo-fi can’t be equally pleasing. You know what I mean. The lack of buzz lets us hear more clearly what Smith Westerns are doing musically. This sound just fits these guys better, in my opinion.
As to the songs themselves—this is subjective, of course, but for me, the album feels like one long crescendo, starting off good and getting better. Early tracks like “3AM Spiritual” and the ever-building instrumental “XXIII” have their own appeal, but for me the momentum really begins with “White Oath” (love the guitar work here) and continues to build to the end, mostly due to well-crafted tunes and hooky melodies. “Best Friend” will stick in your head long after it stops playing, and the haunting chorus of closing track “Varsity” is the high point of the record.
Smith Westerns have always been a band to take seriously, but the guys aren’t in high school anymore. Soft Will reflects a band who is continuing to mature, both in sound and in songwriting. I have a hard time believing fans aren’t going to eat this one up.