Smith Westerns’ sophomore album, Dye It Blonde, opens with “Weekend” – an incredibly appropriate track to start off a peppy, optimistic album like this one. “Weekend” provides a good, single-song overview of the rest of Dye It Blonde, characterizing the thematic carefreeness and weightlessness of the album’s ten tracks, as well as the band’s fuzzed-out, indie take on classic rock.
On first listen, Dye It Blonde seems a lot like its band members – childish and fresh out of high school – begging the question, “How could you be this young and idealistic and expect to be taken seriously?” Older, more jaded listeners may not fully appreciate the youth that is rampant throughout Dye It Blonde. This childish idealism is most apparent in the sappy, lovey-dovey songs that virtually everyone in high school can be expected to write. All jadedness and disdain for high schoolers in love aside, however, Smith Westerns manages to deliver an album that comes off as refreshing rather than just plain annoying.
Yes, Smith Westerns are a very young band, and, yes, their music certainly reflects this, but, luckily, the youthfulness and enthusiasm of Dye It Blonde are quite infectious. The album brings with it a certain nostalgia – a pleasant nostalgia that recalls your first kiss and times spent laying on the grass with friends to watch clouds pass by on a sunny day. Somehow, between the lyrics dripping with the idealism of sappy young love, Smith Westerns manages to convey a sense of maturity. Maybe it is in the band’s brand of classic rock-influenced guitar riffs and steady drumming, or maybe it is the occasional jaded adolescence shining through in songs like “Smile.” (“I should have realized / Life was such a joke / Makes me want to choke.”) Either way, it works, and, in a sense, it makes looking back at high school days tolerable again.
Part of what makes Dye It Blonde so refreshing is that it represents a step in the young Chicago indie band’s maturity. No longer are the members of Smith Westerns (guitarist and vocalist Cullen Omori, guitarist Max Kakacek, bassist Cameron Omori, and drummer Hal James) the under-produced high schoolers they were with their debut release, The Smith Westerns, but the quartet has since matured a bit – in terms of both age and sound. The rough-around-the-edges producing of The Smith Westerns has given way to the much more aesthetically pleasing production of Dye It Blonde, and the content of Dye It Blonde seems less childish and simplistic than its predecessor. Much like normal aging, it also seems as though Smith Westerns’ energy is more subdued on this second release, with its still-energetic music coming off less like over-excited teens and more like calculated adolescents. Of course, this is a good thing, and it demonstrates that the band members are becoming more comfortable in their growing roles as musicians.
Furthermore, this blossoming adolescent of a band brings together several very nice, calculated elements in Dye It Blonde that have the potential to appeal to a very broad audience, which can especially be seen in the album’s stand-out songs, “All Die Young,” “Dance Away,” and “End of the Night.” Kakacek’s fuzzier takes on classic guitar riffs and James’ steady drumming breathe a familiar, classic rock-like life into the album, but the album’s overwhelming lightness and youthfulness distinguish it from the band’s admitted Bowie and T-Rex influences. And, like any good, youthful, classic song should, all of the tracks on Dye It Blonde are easy to sing along to. (Before you know it, your roommate might just catch you singing along loudly with Cullen Omari while washing the dishes… but don’t take my word for it.) Somehow, though, Dye It Blonde adeptly balances a timelessness and a newness that make the album seem like an old friend who has reinvented himself to suit more modern times – and an old friend you want to keep visiting time and time again.
Really, though, it is the timelessness and slightly subdued exuberance of Dye It Blonde that lend the album its disarming charm. The youthfulness of the Smith Westerns and the music they create is infectious. In fact, Dye It Blonde is infectious to the point that, after a few listens, you just might end up admitting that high school wasn’t really all that bad, even if you thought you totally hated it back then.