By Nate Rogers
Let’s face it: rock and roll would be nowhere without the total abuse of relationship lyrics and the almighty I-IV-V chord progression. Grab a guitar, scribble something about a person you love (or hate), and grow your hair out. That’s rock and roll, kids. It’s not necessarily good, but it’s consistent. Really, it doesn’t seem all that difficult, does it? Of course, the missing ingredients for success are talent and ambition, but at a basic level it’s not all that complicated.
Take the band Smith Westerns, for example. Their second album, Dye It Blonde, features some of the most sophomoric (pun intended) lyrics about girls that I’ve ever heard. Just ridiculous, how could you possibly be comfortable singing lyrics like, “Love and lust, how come they are such a must?” Corny or not, this is what their music is filled with—and it’s fantastic.
So why do I like this band? It’s simple, really. They’re honest. Who hasn’t had some sappy lovelorn poetry swim through their head while dealing with a break-up? I get these kids. And I call them kids deliberately. At the time of this writing, none of the band members can legally drink.
This leads me to a key element in this ongoing soup of rock and roll: youth. Looking back, a large number of fantastic artists have come along at an absurdly young age. Dave Davies of the Kinks was only seventeen when he hammered out the incredibly influential guitar solo for “You Really Got Me” in 1964. Paul McCartney was twenty when the Beatles cut “I Saw Her Standing There” in 1963. Not to be outdone, Bruce Springsteen (already with two albums under his belt) put together Born To Run in 1975 at the ripe old age of twenty-five. Not feeling very productive, are you, twenty-somethings?
Bands like Smith Westerns are filling a vital role of youthful energy and innovation. However, the catch with these guys is that their music is strongly derivative of older styles and bands. Tastes of seventies glam and sixties garage rock run rampant throughout their two albums. Think one part 13th Floor Elevators mixed with two parts Ziggy Stardust.
I recently saw the Smith Westerns along with a young band from the UK, Yuck (this is not my opinion of Britain, but rather, the band’s actual name). The show was at “The Bottom of the Hill” in the middle of industrial eastside San Francisco. It was a strange place to find a herd of American Apparel and sarcastic facial hair, to say the least.
Yuck came on first to a large and enthusiastic crowd. With two of the band members sporting black sharpied X’s on their hands—the mark of underage shame—they began with their best song (and one that I particularly recommend), “Holing Out.” It’s a straight-forward shoegazey number that feels like it fell straight out of the 90’s. Let me put it this way: Kevin Shields is due for a royalty check. The brilliant, hilarious scream that frontman Daniel Blumberg lets go at the end of “The Wall,” however, owes no credit but to the singer himself. He’s an endearing songwriter, albeit with a very strange sense of fashion. In fact, none of the clothes seemed to fit any member of Yuck properly—and they all had jean jackets! I guess it’s safe to say that I’m a bit too distanced from the London fashion scene to ever understand. Although I will say that Blumberg’s front-heavy, hand-knit sweater seemed like it might serve as a radiation blanket if the time called for it.
After Yuck made a very strong, very loud impression on the crowd, Smith Westerns came on wearing thrift store outfits fit for a Chicago blizzard (my last fashion comment, I promise). Their performance is quick-paced, goofy, and exuberant. Like Yuck, Smith Westerns show their age at certain times during the set—most notably in between songs. Stage presence during these moments is an art-form in and of itself that comes with years of practice, years they don’t have. You could hear crickets chirp and spines tingle after a few stale jokes from Smith Westerns songwriter, Cullen Omori. Yuck’s approach of not saying anything at all went over just as poorly.
Luckily for the bands, the music was redeeming. I could feel the room writhing with joy and rhythm during a top-notch performance of “Imagine Pt. 3.” Better yet, their lead single, “Weekend,” turned the floor into spastastic dance party. This is also a good moment to add that the very best part about seeing a show in San Francisco is that, no matter how weird a dancer you are, there is always someone else in the room who is weirder than you. My swiveling off-beat grooviness was on full display that night.
What these bands have accomplished so far fits well within the simplistic rock and roll success guidelines many in the past used. The tough part, however, is what comes next. At some point, the content and creativity need to expand. McCartney may have started out with “I Saw Her Standing There,” but over time he began to tackle tougher, more profound subjects. If the Beatles had continued to incessantly write songs about holding girls’ hands, they would have stuck themselves in time and lost listeners’ interest. For the Smith Westerns to improve (and I apologize in advance for comparing Smith Westerns to the Beatles), they need to develop in much the same way that McCartney did as a songwriter.
The difficulty in writing about Yuck and Smith Westerns is that I always find myself reverting to a discussion of their age. Simply put, it’s very impressive that these bands are finding success and acclaim so quickly into their musical careers. However, this doesn’t absolve them of being judged fairly in the grand scheme of popular music. When I consider this, the reality is that both groups have a lot of room for improvement. With Smith Westerns, they need work to become a more compelling live act by tightening up the screws a bit. Yuck, on the other hand, needs to capture their emphatic stage energy better in the studio. In a way, though, this made them a great pairing for a concert: a strange, yet highly enjoyable two-course dinner of Pitchfork darlings.
It’s hard to say what the future will hold for any group these days, let alone very inexperienced ones. Our technologically-driven culture has a unique hold on the direction of pop music and with it comes a low tolerance for failure. I’m sure Smith Westerns and Yuck know better than I do the challenges that they face in propelling their careers forward. However, that is simply a waiting game. The only thing to do now is to enjoy the hand-holding goodness.
You can hear Smith Westerns and Yuck at:
Published on page 60 of the Winter 2011 issue of Leviathan.