200 W. Second St
Pomona, CA, 91766
In the four itinerant years since their self-titled debut, Smith Westerns have grown unphased by the rigors of touring. The melodic indie-rock group—whose latest album, Soft Will, drops June 25—has tested its mettle (and passed) with pivotal opening slots for MGMT and Wilco, not to mention high-profile stints in front of the itchy, overbaked masses at Coachella and Lollapalooza. Yet, come February 2012, after finishing up a whopping 140 dates to promote their second album (the critically hailed Dye It Blonde), Smith Westerns were apprehensive about returning home to headline a gig in their native Chicago.
When Smith Westerns finally arrived home, friends they looked forward to seeing had moved, and clubs they once frequented had disappeared. All the while, on the road, singer-guitarist Cullen Omori, bassist-brother Cameron Omori, and guitarist Max Kakacek had grown from—as they say in music parlance—boys to men. Everything, now, was ominously different.
This intersection between success and post-tour unrest culminates in the band’s third full-length, Soft Will, produced by Chris Coady (Beach House, Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and the first to feature new drummer Julien Ehrlich, formerly of Unknown Mortal Orchestra. It starts with “3am Spiritual,” the album’s dreamy opener. “You’re creating your own future,” says Cullen, “and lot of the ideas on the record were reactive. For a long time, you’re playing music every night where you’re bringing the party. And you go from having something to do every day to…nothing.”
Bummed out, he penned the song during the spring of 2012 on a mini-keyboard in the most mundane of places: his parent’s kitchen. “The lyrics came right away. It was supposed to be this uplifting ballad, to make myself feel better,” Cullen says. The song likewise marked a turning point for the group.“We decided to challenge ourselves with making songs that we hadn’t really done before,” explains Max. “With ‘3am Spiritual’ we didn’t want it to be as immediately poppy. It was more a progression of ideas, designed to build up to a big chorus.”
There’s a cool metamorphosis that pervades Soft Will. For instance, its first single, the shimmering, lovesick “Varsity,” actually began as an acoustic track that doubles as a tongue-and-cheek reference to being referred to as a high-school band by the press. “Then in the studio, it just came out as a mid-tempo pop song.” Max notes, adding, “There was an improvisation to some songs, that lead to them being catchier.”
They recorded the meat of Soft Will at Sonic Ranch, a live-in recording studio located 30 minutes outside of El Paso, Texas and a stone’s throw from the Mexican border. “It was like going to summer camp,” Cullen offers. They loved the isolation. “We pretty much stayed on the ranch and cranked them out,” says Cameron.
Soft Will, in kind, is an album of frontiers: mellifluous guitars, confident restraint, and pensive songwriting. But to Smith Westerns, recording an album about dreading their homestead feels almost like an interlude—because they can’t wait to play those songs on the road. “Sitting around doing nothing for a while,” admits Cameron, “it can be nerve-wracking.”
After forming Wampire, Rocky Tinder and Eric Phipps steadily began to make a name for themselves in the same Portland, OR, scene that has produced labelmates STRFKR as well as Unknown Mortal Orchestra. It makes sense, then, that Wampire came to Polyvinyl's attention when the duo opened for STRFKR at a hometown Portland show and that UMO's bassist Jacob Portrait produced Wampire's debut full-length, Curiosity.
The choice of Portrait was a natural one, with both Tinder and Phipps believing he'd be able to contribute almost as much to the record as they would. And so, in mid-August Tinder and Phipps each brought fragments of song ideas into the studio, before deconstructing, re-arranging, and fitting them back together piece by piece -- at times lyrics and melodies were thrown out, brought back from the dead, or improvised on the spot.
This loosely structured approach made the process truly collaborative, with producer Portrait occasionally chipping in ideas for lyrics, arrangements, and instrumentation. The resulting nine tracks are instantly memorable, while defying easy categorization. Says Phipps, "We realized the record began to stray away from having a 'sound' and gradually became a platter with an assortment of sounds. The record showcases a flavor we haven't quite dug into before."
The album's diverse combination of sounds ultimately helped give birth to its title, Curiosity -- a word that invokes the listener's wonder at what will greet their ears next, while also describing the overall curious tone the record possesses.
First single, "The Hearse" serves as the perfect introduction for those unfamiliar with the band -- its opening notes swelling instantly with electronic organs over a driving drum beat. By the time bass and vocals kick in, you're already hooked. Elsewhere, "Orchards" weaves an infectiously breezy melody on the strength of vocal harmonizing, tuneful whistling, and undulating guitar lines. In some cases, Wampire's unique rhythms are best described by the band members, as with "Trains," a Motown-meets-Strokes track that Tinder perfectly summarizes like so: "It's sexy, sounds huge, and by all means should be blamed for future babies."
The album concludes with the equally sensual "Magic Light," a song centered around a dark seductive bass groove that sets the tone for Tinder's come-hither lyrics. It's the kind of track that draws you ever further into the record's beguiling clutches, leaving a lasting impression that remains well after its final notes have faded out.