Smith Westerns at Varsity Theater, 8/20/13
with Strange Names
Varsity Theater, Minneapolis
Tuesday, August 20, 2013
Though you'd never know it from their moody, babyfaced image, the Smith Westerns are quickly becoming an institution in midwestern indie rock. WIth six years and three albums under their belt since they started the band in high school, Max Kakacek and the Omori brothers have earned a well-deserved reputation for effortlessly glammy garage rock.
The Chicago band are touring in support of their newest album, Soft Will, and its more stately, restrained sounds have been earning critical daps that the band has "grown up." While the five tired, gawky young men who performed at the Varsity last night were just about the furthest thing from "grown," that shouldn't be construed as an insult. After all, who would want a band this breezy and fun to get old and boring?
Kicking their set off with little fanfare, the boys led with "Fool Proof," one of Soft Will's more uptempo tracks, and its emotive, melancholic qualities made a nice primer for the rest of the newer material. Like many other scrappy lo-fi bands of their era, Smith Westerns have slowly scraped away the fuzz and hum of their debut as they've progressed. The change has allowed the band to better showcase Cullen Omori's vunerable vocals as well as their precocious songwriting talents, but one does occasionally miss the straightforward intensity of the songs from their debut.
Hits like "End of the Night" from the band's breakout record, Dye It Blonde, helped bridge the gap between these two extremes as well as providing the audience something recognizable to hold on to. The song's carefree, strummy vibe also seemed to finally get the band to smile after a scowly opening. Cullen admitted at one point early on that we were the last show on the tour before the band returned home to Chicago, and you could see just abut every one of the previous nights in the dark circles under keyboardist Ziyad Asrar's eyes. Despite their pretty obvious exhaustion, the band still delivered some rocking moves on the one-two punch of "Fallen in Love" and "My Heart" from their self-titled debut.
The relatively heavy riffs of those two songs provided a nice reminder that Smith Westerns are a pretty unapologetic guitar rock band at their core. Credit should go to Kakacek for that, as the lead guitarist plays with the confidence and skill of a musician beyond his years. Somewhere in between the succinct, reverb-drenched melodies of Johnny Marr and the glammy virtuosity of Brian May, Kakacek's lead lines are the secret to Smith Westerns' undeniable catchiness. While the exhausted-looking guitarist definitely couldn't be described as bombastic, he matched Cullen Omori's shambling charm with a few well timed thrusts of his instrument.
The lush new material from Soft Will occasionally struggled to overcome the limitations of the band's five-man setup, so songs like the epic "Varsity" ended up paling in comparison to the more straightforward, '60s pop of "3am Spiritual." While Asrar handled the synth parts capably, some of the textures of the more studio-centric "Varsity" failed to materialize and left the song feeling a bit hollow in the live setting. In the end, Smith Westerns are best when they allow their deceptively complex songwriting to shine through more simplified arrangements. For such a young band, they really do know the recipe for a great pop song about unrequited love or teenage kicks.
That's why their set-closer "Weekend" remains one of the band's greatest achievements, even if they seemed to play it out of obligation. The song's soaring vocal from Cullen is anchored by Kakacek's stabbing guitar and a rumbling beat from Cameron Omori and Julien Ehrich, who unobtrusively shine like some of the great '70s rock rhythm sections. But just like their breezy set, the song was over too soon, and the boys were offstage before the final chord had finished fading away, and you can bet they didn't return for an encore. Let's just hope they got a good nap in on their way home to Chicagoland.
End of the Night
Fallen in Love
Imagine, Pt. 3
Critic's Bias: Kicking myself for missing Strange Names, who are generating a strong local buzz and seemed to be a great pairing for the headliner.
The Crowd: No more awake then the band, which might have contributed to the lack of encore.
Random Notebook Dump: Cullen seemed to be saying some really funny things but the poor kid was so mumbly that we could only stare blankly and smile.
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