A good guitar riff can go a long way. Just ask Jimmy Page or Keith Richards. A sizable portion of the most celebrated songs in the history of rock’n’roll are not remembered for their vocal performance, bassline or drumbeat. Rather, a single repeated chord progression laid down by the proverbial axeman has the ability to worm its way into a listener’s subconscious unlike any other musical phenomenon. Chicago-based Smith Westerns has taken this theory and beaten it to death on its sophomore effort Dye It Blonde.

Smith Westerns

Dye It Blonde
Fat Possum

Guitarist Max Kakacek presents riff after riff at a maximum decibel level with a moderately tamed sense of hyperactivity. To be fair, a good portion of these guitar parts are compelling enough to make the listener take notice. But when the barely audible lead signer Cullen Omori pipes in — sporting a slacker nonchalance contrary to the massively ambitious soundscapes accompanying him — it’s difficult to hear the song without noting its obvious sonic imbalance.

Take opener “Weekend,” for instance. Some serious shredding occurs during the first 30 seconds of the track, only to be let down by Omori, who stumbles in to contribute his two cents about crying girls. “End of the Night” and “Dye the World” follow suit in almost identical form, differing only trivially in their subject matter, which ranges from tales of taking girls out on weekends to descriptions of smiling girls.

On “All Die Young,” the amp is finally turned down and some ivory relief is plunked out on the keys — appropriate for a song title that differs only slightly from a Billy Joel classic. Although the vocals finally fit the musical mold, it becomes painfully clear that Omori’s whiny crooning wouldn’t sound pleasing regardless of the caliber of his backing band.

This isn’t the only example of idol worship on the record, however. The wistful nostalgia of “Still New” sounds as if it’s going to break out into the chorus of Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes” at any moment. Unfortunately, it never does and the potential for a moving sing-along proves to be false hope as the tune teases with yet another unfulfilled guitar riff.

Lyrically, Dye It Blonde is almost criminally juvenile, in a distinctly non-endearing manner. Granted, most of the band members are not far removed from their high school years (their ages range 18 to 20), but lines like “The look in your eyes / makes me want to die / You’re not the girl I used to know” and “Weekends are never fun / unless you’re around here” are inexcusably childish.

The reason fellow slacker rockers like Girls or forefathers like Pavement can get away with such lackluster and underwhelming vocal performances is because the music meets them halfway and doesn’t overpower their meager abilities. On the other hand, fellow riff rockers like The Black Keys have succeeded in continuously looping guitar lines because their lead singer rises to the occasion that the determined progressions pose. Even though Smith Westerns has one piece of the puzzle in the genuinely gifted Kakacek, its inability to find the other pieces and proceed to connect them properly will inhibit them from progressing as a band.

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