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Artist: Smith Westerns

Album: Smith Westerns

Label: Fat Possum

Review date: Nov. 7, 2010

The Fat Possum record label just re-released this 2009 debut record at the same time as its reissue of The Slider by T. Rex. More than a coincidence? On the one hand, Marc Bolan devised a certain type of rock song that’s become standard, where loud riffs sour up posey and knock around well-tested melodies. As Fat Possum has moved away from blues, its rock bands have been the type with a hard shell and bubblegum interior. You could trace some T. Rex in any of them.

Smith Westerns are more obvious than that, though. Singer Cullen Omori croons in a butterfly tenor like Bolan. “Girl in Love,” “Be My Girl” and “Glam Goddess” all have the bumpa cha-cha bumpa cha-cha beat and mellotron string section. Does the band add anything? Omori and Co. scuff up the production a little, making the vocals hazy. Given that a lot of the magic of T. Rex came from the studio gloss, adding dust to the lollipop doesn’t improve things. And the song titles give an idea of the depth of their message, so there isn’t much to hang on to there.

The more typical garage songs are just that -- reverb and noise sing-alongs that are interchangeable with a lot of other three-chord bands around these days. A heap of dirt doesn’t work any better than the layer of dust. But between supplications to the metal guru and the fuzz-fi, the band makes a few numbers that really go somewhere. Since they’re stuck at the end of the record, Omori seems to have a sense of their strenghts.

“Diamond Boys” has the 70s-cum-50s piano pounding that Bowie and Mott would use in their own retro explorations, and it’s here that the Smith Westerns’ scuffed glam harmonies sound fresh. The wave of static deployed on that chorus finally makes the song sound bigger, open as a roller rink, rather than just noisier. “We Stay Out” and “My Heart” are wound with tenser rhythms than the rest of their songs, with wobbly leads that work a lot better than the guitar hero stuff that they put on the other tracks. Notably, they cast aside any sort of attempt at swagger (swagger being the rest of T. Rex’s magic).

This band may admire the platform-sneaker era, but they’re more comfortable working from a nerdy, uptight place. A preview I heard of the upcoming record suggests Omori and his band might be overcompensating in the other direction, toward Beach Boys baroque. But there’s enough promise in the best of these songs to suggest they’ll work it out when they get their influences in check.

By Ben Donnelly

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