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Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012

A More Polished Smith Westerns

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For most indie acts, luck means your career follows a slight incline. Then there are those acts whose music strikes a chord so resonant their ascent resembles a runaway truck ramp. Such is the case for Chicago trio Smith Westerns.

Between their noisy, garage-minded 2009 self-titled debut and last year's more neo-psych follow-up, Dye It Blonde, they graduated to a sensation. The empty clubs of those first couple tours gave way to sold-out shows all last year and appearances at a raft of big festivals, including Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo and Austin City Limits.

"It's been a great year, to say the least," says guitarist Max Kakacek. He's as unsure as anyone else about the reasons behind their rapid rise. Was it the iTunes Song of the Day placements, the glowing critical reviews, the move to Fat Possum for their last release, the relentless touring? "I don't really have any idea. And at certain times I don't want to know," he says. "Because then I'd have to think about it and figure out what's next."

The trio (augmented by a pair of touring musicians) is high-school classmates Kakacek, singer/guitarist Cullen Omori and his younger brother, bassist Cameron Omori. They were still in the process of recording their debut when they went on their first serious tour, opening for Nobunny during their first year of college. The experience was enough to convince them to drop out and pursue music full-time. "We all decided that we could be in school and half-ass it or we could go all-out and do it and see what happens," says Kakacek, who recently turned 21.

Their debut caught ears with its hook-lined noise-pop rumble reminiscent of Times New Viking and, to a lesser extent, Wavves. Their emphasis on strong, somewhat summery hooks also recalled Girls, who helped get them on their tour with Los Campesinos! While that melodic warmth remains at the center of their sound, the approach changed somewhat dramatically as they tightened up the production on the more polished Dye It Blonde.

Part of the reason is undoubtedly the inclusion of producer Chris Coady (Beach House, Abe Vigoda), who helped shepherd the Smith Westerns through their first experience in a real studio. Necessarily, the production's better, simply because of the equipment, but the different approach was also about continuing to evolve creatively.

"We did not want to make the same record twice, so the easiest and the most obvious change would be the quality of the recording," he says. "If the songs were recorded the same way [as on Smith Westerns], I think they'd be a lot more similar albums. That's the major difference, and that we challenged ourselves as musicians. It takes a lot more work and concentration to make a cleaner record."

They have a similar focus as they work this winter on their third album. For the past few weeks, Cullen Omori and Kakacek have been writing together all day and recording at night at Kakacek's home studio. He estimates that they've already finished nearly half of the album. Just as with Dye It Blonde, they're looking to change things up again.

"It's still pushing for denser arrangements and messing around with the way things arrange musically as well as sonically," he says. "Vocals will be more upfront and a little less lost in reverb. It's still dreamy and spacious, but if you think of from the self-titled to Dye It Blonde, the sound got progressively wider. Our goal for the next one is to take all that reverb that smushes everything that's going on together and spread it out a little more so you can hear more of the subtleties and little things going on."

They're still rather young, so you'll excuse their exuberance, but they're having the time of their lives. Even the two new members are friends from school. Is there a better way to spend your early 20s than traveling the country with your closest friends and making music?

"It's really the only thing I can imagine myself doing," he says. "It's just my favorite thing. It's not even my job; working all day doing what I have to do is fun."

It's pretty fun to witness, too.

Smith Westerns play the Turner Hall Ballroom with openers Porcelain Raft and Bleached on Saturday, Feb. 4. Doors open at 8 p.m.