Chicago's Smith Westerns morphed from a bratty, rambunctious fusion of garage-rock and T. Rex-style glam/boogie on their 2009 debut, to all-out power-pop--with still a touch of the glam--on their 2011 followup, 'Dye It Blonde.' Now, with 'Soft Will,' they shift gears once again by going for a more laid-back, lush and dreamy sound, and while I admire any band that chooses to progress as opposed to repeating themselves, the results are somewhat of a mixed bag, at least for me. And "lush" and "dreamy" are a couple of my very favorite words when it comes to music.
The album begins with a quartet of great songs that seem to be a nice portent for the rest of the album, from the late-Beatles-esque arrangements of "3am Spiritual," to the dreamy jangle of both "Idol" and "Glossed," to the spaced-out, early 70's Floyd vibe of "XXII," which is, without a doubt, the best headphone-journey track here. The rest of the album, though it has its moments, never quite matches the heights of those first four tracks (until the end), mostly sticking to melancholy ballad territory that--while fine in smaller doses--does get somewhat tiring when listening to the album straight through. The album does end on a stellar note, however, with the symphonic, string-laden "Varsity," a song in which the melodic, driving lead bass lines are reminiscent of New Order, yet without ever sounding like a mere homage.
If there were one or two more just-plain-infectious moments like the aforementioned songs to replace a couple of the mid-level wistful ballads here, 'Soft Will' would have been undeniably excellent. As it is, it's still quite good in spots, and I imagine many music fans will find much here to enjoy. Anyone should know pretty quickly from listening to the samples whether this will be up their alley or not. Then again, sometimes music like this takes a while to sink in and truly appreciate. If that happens to me, I'll be sure to come back and amend my rather mixed review.