Sky Ferreira & Smith Westerns

Sky Ferreira

Sky Ferreira. Act like you don’t already follow her on Twitter – as if you haven’t Googled her, or checked her out on Wikipedia. Now check again. Before you can hit refresh, there might be another paragraph. She's co-written and recorded with half the Billboard chart, survived in Hollywood and on the Lower East Side, seen the world from thirty-five thousand feet, been shot by every photographer you can name off the top of your head.

Now get one thing straight: Sky was singing first. Just click on her piano-and- vocal only cover of Miike Snow’s 'Animal' on YouTube for your evidence that her other skills might pay the bills, but music is her life and her voice is bona fide. Her 2011 debut EP As If! hinted at her soulful range and stylistic versatility. But if you think it prepared you for the step Sky’s about to take on her first long-player, think again. She’s hard at work with a hand-picked team of collaborators. And this time she’s in charge, making the record she wanted to make all along.

Smith Westerns

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.”

Dark Blue follow up their debut LP, ‘Pure Reality’, with ‘Start Of The World’ (12XU) – a soundtrack of a decaying United States. Each song drips with the realities of atrocities happening all around us ; John Sharkey III (Vocals, Guitar) pushes Dark Blue far beyond the post-punk meets oi sound they perfected on their earlier releases, and adds elements of brit-pop and shoegaze. Recorded by Jeff Zeigler (Kurt Vile, Nothing), ‘Start Of The World’ is a pop album that makes no apologies.

Boot stomping opener “Union of Buffoons,” sets the political tone for this album with an anthem for workers’ rights. Sharkey’s biting lyrics: “You can’t fight this, you can’t win…screw you once, they’ll screw you twice,” is a reference to human expendability in the face of deregulation and the stagnancy of labor rights. “Never Wanted to Hurt You” is a pop song in the highest order with guts and an undeniable chorus that would make Noel Gallagher jealous even at his most jaded.

The 50′s doo-woop and surf rock sound of “Bombs on the Beach” initially feels like a left turn for the band, evoking a playful innocence against a sunny backdrop. But the lyrics prove this is truly a Dark Blue song, tearing through any cheerfulness as jarring and abrupt as words can be to describe the reality of dropping missiles on a beach of unsuspecting Palestinian children. Sharkey’s voice is heavy with the despair of survivor’s guilt: “Now I’m holding my baby’s hand, as he lies bleeding to death in the sand.” This is another pointed song full of sentiment as much as it is an impassioned call for accountability for the crimes against humanity in the Gaza Strip.

While this album shows off new and varying degrees of Sharkey’s vocal intensity, Andrew Mackie Nelson (Bass, Ceremony) and Michael Sneeringer (Drums, Strand of Oaks) shine, guiding the songs in ways other releases haven’t shown before . Tracks such as “Be Gone Everyone” and “Western Front” underscore just how comfortable the band has gotten.

‘Start Of The World’ is the kind of record that Dark Blue has always promised: a collection of smart, fully realized songs that tell real stories. With the world falling apart around us, Dark Blue continues to give voice to neglected perspectives, many unnerving but all necessary to hear. We need a defiant record like this to remind us that just as there was start to all of this destruction, there can also be an end. – Sean Gray.



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