Smith Westerns - Soft Will

Guitar music of epic ambition.

Label: Mom + Pop

Rating: 8

The cover of ‘Soft Will’ is a painterly section of Still Life. There’s some grapes in there, a peach or apricot, even a papaya thrown in the mix to shake things up a bit. It’s also wrapped up in clingfilm – you can almost sense the National Gallery wincing at the humidity conditions and prepping their clipboards for some scolding notes. Swaddled in plastic, it’s as if somebody believed in this painting so much that they were trying to save its contents from going rotten.

Harping on about food storage methods aside, Smith Westerns are the clingfilm of that cover shot. They present classic sounds, comfortingly familiar guitar patterns and melodies that drop into minor chords sweetly before rising up again into euphoric, drawn out solos. Smith Westerns may as well follow the landscaper’s trusty Rule of Thirds too, because their music understands the rules of composition. They tiptoe into territory associated with cries of ‘derivative’ and worse, ‘boring, but here on ‘Soft Will’ they manage to keep tried and tested ideas sweet, fresh, tangy, and entirely new.

Smith Westerns are steeped in the same evocative sadness as Girls, the same downbeat playfulness of The Beatles, and a nostalgic hint of just about every other decent psychedelic guitar band bygone. There’s stoned out reverb, hints of Galaxie 500, nods to Ride in those sprawling jam sections, and a slightly muzzy effect that makes every note sound like it’s gradually falling away from you, like a siren tearing the opposite way down an otherwise deserted city road. You can also clearly hear the hallmarks of producer Chris Coady, too; that softening touch that transformed Beach House into something otherworldly. ‘Soft Will’ is a fun album to play dot-to-dot with, because it has a charming familiarity about it. It is also, though, unmistakably a Smith Westerns record, and in this third release, the band seem more comfortable and self-assured in their sound than ever before.

So, what’s changed, then? On the surface, not a lot. But dig a little deeper and Smith Westerns are creating something richer, more textured, denser. The fretboard mastery that propelled the exuberant ‘Weekend’ and ‘Only One’ on ‘Dye It Blonde’ is still absolutely central, but the riffs are less rushed and limb jerking, quite happy to trickle deliciously into your ear like golden syrup from a spoon. There’s a gorgeous use of synthesiser, and at times ‘Soft Will’ reaches spiralling heights. ‘XXIII’ is beautifully constructed as the beginning of a piano gradually meets with swelling waves of orchestral haze, ethereal synthesisers and grating guitar. It’s not quite like listening to the Sagrada Familia being built before you, but it comes close. This is guitar music of epic ambition.

The thing that strikes you most after listening to ‘Soft Will’ is that, despite having a very good idea of how it sounds, it is also very difficult to pin down. It has the complexity to be thoroughly engaging, but it also flows with satisfying ease. ‘Soft Will’ marks Smith Westerns moving into another realm of quality and experimentation, and, to put it quite simply, this album is just a complete pleasure to listen to.