All words by Philip Runco; All photos by Eric Uhlir
For a band that so often sings about being young and reckless, Smith Westerns played it awfully conservative in 2011.
The Chicago trio started the year boldly, stepping out of the garage of its self-titled debut with January’s Dye It Blonde, a lush slice of glam rock telegraphed straight to heart of anyone with a soft spot for Electric Warrior or The Slider. The LP found the band – notably, with significant assistance from production whiz Chris Coady – indulging in a sumptuous sonic landscape: swooning vocals, swirls of synths, guitars more creamy and less Cream-y. The songs were also uniformly catchy as hell.
But rather than ride the swell of positive reception, Smith Westerns would spend the subsequent eleven months out of the spotlight’s full glow, hitting the early afternoon sun of festival stages, and opening for the likes of Yeasayer, Wilco, and the Arctic Monkeys,
These are no small tours, to be sure, but it still feels odd that the band’s current seven city jaunt is both its first headlining effort to support Dye It Blonde, and also its last stretch of dates to showcase the album, presumably before the prodigious youngsters return to the studio. (It is currently showcasing one new song live.)
A victory lap without a proper victory, Smith Western’s concert Wednesday at the Black Cat seemed anticlimactic from the outset, and little about its performance did much the shed the malaise.
From the outset, the band sounded off, like someone had placed Dye It Blonde in a stereo, screwed with all the EQs, and then placed the it underwater. Opener “All Die Young” – a strangely languid choice to kick off the night – set the tone: the bass was too high, frontman Cullen Omori’s vocals were drowned out, and overall mix was smeared. This sort of perversion wasn’t out of place in the band’s first few years of ramshackle shows, but the band toys with the delicate balance of its sophomore LP at its own peril. Knowing what the band is capable of, this sounded half-assed.
Omori in particular seemed to sleepwalk through the night. The singer – who bears a passing resemblance to Mitch from “Dazed and Confused” (or maybe the movie was on my mind given the banners of smiley faces behind the band) – could hardly be bothered to project beyond a reserved coo.
The band’s saving grace was guitarist Max Kakacek, who manages to level every song at least once with an explosion of strutting guitar that would make Marc Bolan proud. No matter how questionable the mixing, there was no denying the riffs of “Still New”, “Imagine, Pt. 3”, and “End of the Night”. With the band expanded to a five-piece live, those riffs were sometimes bolstered to a three guitar attack, in a bit of more-is-more bravado.
Though things would improve as the set progressed – towards the end, “Smile” and “Weekend” would sound markedly better – it wasn’t a night where those onstage smiley faces were reflected in the crowd. Smith Westerns better get this sort of performance out of its system while we can still chalk it up to being young and not knowing any better.
Secretly Canadian’s Porcelain Raft opened.