(Mom + Pop; 2013)
By Maura McAndrew | 3 July 2013
In John Harris’s book Britpop!, there’s an anecdote about the genesis of Oasis’s What’s the Story, Morning Glory (1995) that, oddly, sticks with me more than anything else from that sprawling oral history: Noel Gallagher, having completed the songs that would make the cut, sits down with his acoustic and his bandmates on the tour bus and plays through them all. By the time he’s finished, the band sits in awe; the rhythm section is in tears.
This story is memorable to me for two reasons (and despite the band’s penchant for self-mythology, humor me and accept it as truth). One, it’s funny of course, both because of the band’s macho football hooligan persona and because it’s What’s the Story, Morning Glory? This is not Pet Sounds (1966). This is not OK Computer (1997). It’s a beloved album, but it’s so cheesy and nonsensical and overwrought, right? And that brings me to number two: this story is also memorable because it’s moving. I don’t particularly care for Noel Gallagher, and I certainly don’t think he’s a genius. But there’s something undeniable about the kind of simple, old-fashioned pop music created by bands like Oasis. As much as we may want to shake it off as empty, and ego-driven, and derivative beyond reason, there’s something in a song like “Wonderwall” that is powerful enough to move a person to tears. And though we can quibble about manipulation and calculation and boomer-baiting nostalgia, the affect is genuine.
Which brings me to Smith Westerns, a Chicago band that carries the Britpop torch with more energy and consistency than any band from anywhere working today. Smith Westerns create Oasis-esque pop music (though without the outsized personalities) that may be slight on literal meaning, but has hooks and pithy choruses and bittersweet changes for days. Their new release Soft Will, like Dye it Blonde (2011) before it, is a record like a constantly cresting wave, spilling over with FEELINGS that are never quite named; all the better to mold them to our own states of mind. Soft Will is a showcase for a very young band who don’t feel a need to get heavy, and wouldn’t know how even if they wanted to. It’s feather-light but melodic as hell, and most importantly, Soft Will is a rush.
From its very first notes, Soft Will is soaked through with the kind of Beatlesque pop progressions that seem to trigger some comfort center in the brain. “3 am Spiritual” sets the tone: bittersweet, upbeat verses and sighing, slowed-down synth-y choruses, crystal-clear production that stays out of the way, and occasional interjections from Max Kakacek’s George Harrison flavored guitar. It’s one of those records where each song feels like the high point while you’re listening to it (“Oh, it’s that one; that’s the best one”) but once the record ends, it’s easy to forget which one is which. No matter; this is a band and a record about living in the moment, and the shortsighted, self-obsessed culture of youth. Fitting then that it should feel lost in itself and vague and constantly forward-looking.
If one wears out Soft Will as I have, however, some tracks do manage to come to the fore. “Idol” and “White Oath,” for example, are two soaring, aggrandizing songs that would make Oasis proud in their ability to make mundane platitudes seem tragic and mysterious. Take “Idol””s classically simple chorus: “Tell me, tell me, tell me the answer / ‘cause I’m not sure / Every day’s a blessing / Every day’s a hangover.” “Idol” has a little bit of every common Britpop influence: a synth riff straight from the Cure’s “Catch,” Suede’s penchant for dramatic pre-chorus, glam rock vocals on the outro. It’s pretty but not too pretty, not too smart and not too dumb. “White Oath,” similarly, makes the formless boredom and confusion of youth into fodder for a “Hey Jude”-level of epic rhapsodizing. And maybe it’s just that ever-crescendo-ing wall of sound, but damnit if I don’t feel a kinship with Cullen Omori as he sings, “Chain smoke the day away / Write my poems / Even though no one will ever read them / When I’m with my friends / Laugh and joke / Even though I’m never really with them.” Hey, it beats “Slowly walking down the hall / Faster than a cannonball,” and I sing along with that line, too.
Soft Will is the perfect summer record, hazy and ill-defined and hard to remember but oh-so-euphoric. It’ s a windows-down record, a sun-drunk record, a lost time record. And like What’s the Story Morning Glory? it’s kind of a silly record, but one that could, in the right time and place, make a person cry. That’s pop music, pure and simple.