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Smith Westerns - Dye It Blonde

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Artist: Smith Westerns

Album: Dye It Blonde

Label: Fat Possum

Review date: Feb. 3, 2011


Smith Westerns - "Weekend" (Dye It Blonde)


Smith Westerns’ debut was a bunch of three-chord tributes, most successful when it channeled shy-boy jangle, but with gestures toward bolder glam and garage. It all fell squarely in the boundaries of keep-it-simple rock. Recorded while still in high school, the band had already figured out a lot about making its songs sound bigger than its budget constraints – where to stick a keyboard in the mix, when to strum an acoustic to make the room open up.

With Dye It Blonde, Cullen and Cameron Omori were let loose in a studio where they could construct a classic wall of sound, without constraints. They’ve added a member, multi-tracked the harmonies, doubled the soaring guitars. They’re careful about how they play with all these toys. The full onslaught is reserved for the choruses, without the suddenly loud shocks that are standard these days (and don’t really shock any more). For all the layers, Smith Westerns stay true to the wall-of-sound concept, which was pitched for a world that was still mostly mono. This would still sound just as big coming out of a portable Blaupunkt from 1972.

Compared to the band’s debut, Smith Westerns honed in on that very specific sound: wide, glittery studio rock, pre-digital, pre-punk and post-Plastic Ono. Dye It Blonde is a keen recapturing of the bands that hoped to fill the hole left by The Beatles. It’s an easy era to get caught up in – the final days of rock holding together as singular entity. Rock was branching out, but still one tree. Just as the last act of The Beatles vacillated between embellishment and feisty simplicity, those in the band’s wake still attempted to speak to a wide audience, even while trying to out-freak the previous year’s breakthroughs.

“Highway Star” was a still song for regular dancing, not just pole dancing. No one knew exactly how to resolve all the technology breakthroughs of Moogs and mixing boards with the simple urges that had ushered in the rock era, when those simple urges weren’t even held in check by society. It led to some seriously confusing shit. Witness teen pin-up posters of David Cassidy, with his pubes peaking over the bottom of the film frame. Witness Wizzard, Roy Wood’s attempt to to move on from the hippie boogie of The Move, before formulating the rocket fuel for Electric Light Orchestra:

Disregard the beards and face paint, and Smith Westerns’ “End of the Night” is the same symphony in a sock-hop setting. And for all the precision of the tribute, Smith Westerns stumble in the same way -- neither band gets to the heart of anything. They mix innocence and experience, but don’t make much of a song.

Dye It Blonde is heaped with impressive melodies, and has a way with the kind of subtle rhythmic change-ups that made a number like Wings’ “Jet” more pop than prog. These tracks are just as busy. Every section could be the hook of a simpler song. But Dye It Blonde is a carousel ride, a circle of lovely painted creatures that swirl you for a few forgettable minutes. Everyone can hum “Jet,” but no one wants to sing it. Not like “Michelle” or “She’s a Woman.”

It’s a cop out to say this era in music was intentionally vapid, over-the-top for the sheer joy of it, and that Smith Westerns are simply following suit. Here’s three glam albums that get to have it both ways, full of confections and convictions: Mott the Hoople, Brain Capers; Mick Ronson, Slaughter on 10th Avenue; Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Next. These albums are over-the-top with sheer joy, but also thick with personality. They haunt.

What are some of the feats that anchor the glitz? Mott walks though a road ballad for 10 minutes, the first half all ponderous and weepy. Just when it feels like the song will never pull itself together, a pounding chord interrupts the schmaltz, and won’t let up for five minutes. Mick Ronson’s record finds him trying to make a life for himself after the Spiders from Mars finished, stitching together leftovers from David Bowie with Rodgers and Hart. Swing and showtune riffs are given a butt-rock sheen that’s counter-intuitive. His thin singing heightens the whole feeling of having been kicked to the curb. Alex Harvey, a guy who’s idea of hard rock was to cover the Osmond’s “Crazy Horses,” gives us “Gang Bang,” a blues strut so shallow, it’s terrifying. Track by track, you know why these guys were trying to make these records, even when they misfired.

Dye It Blonde ends up capturing the post-Beatles hole in the most authentic way possible. Around the time the umpteenth fizzy George Harrison riff comes in, it settles in to the slightly stale mood of a Beatles solo record; heaps of talent and studio time, but at a loss for exactly what to do with the expectations. This band has landed a career before it has found a voice. It feels like one those of those post-Fab drags that still outsell inspired footnotes from the likes of The Mott, Mick or Alex.

By Ben Donnelly

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