Teenagers have always been the throbbing engines of popular music, both on the audience side, with their sincere curiosity and boundless enthusiasm, and as performers, forming a youthful pool for hatching idols and geniuses. From Elvis to Miley Cyrus, young performers have synthesized existing styles into neat, sexy packages perfect for mass consumption. Smith Westerns may not exactly be a band of Biebers, but their youth is apparent in the flippant energy of their sound, so unforced and widely derivative, combining restrained guitar noise with a sense of squeaky-clean freshness.
These are four guys on the brink of their 20s, all relatively attractive, all spotlessly, lovably scruffy looking. Weaned on the classic Nuggets compilation, the Chicago group initially set out to make faithful approximations of those garage-rock sounds, a skill they picked up awfully quick, tweaking this style for 2009’s self-titled debut. Dye It Blonde follows in that mold, and manages to be tighter and more melodically proficient, while feeling like even less of an achievement.
The fuzz and artificial grime of that first record, which stood in as a proxy for actual danger, is gone. The songs here are snappy and innocuous, all clocking in at around three minutes a clip, all neatly catchy and somehow familiar. They’re commendable achievements, especially for such a young group, but they’re clearly produced by a band that seems more interested in the perfect recreation of already extant sounds rather than the search for new ones.
So much musical talent has been frittered away in this kind of pointless pursuit, suggesting an addict chasing that first high, that it’s frustrating to see such a clearly skilled group striving for such creamy pap. A song like “Weekend” may hint at the smooth chops of Big Star or Marc Bolan’s dreamy delivery, but it’s a glancing, ephemeral pleasure. Dye It Blonde may be a more accomplished production than Smith Westerns, but it’s also a roundly enervating creation, drained of the fuzzy promise that defined the band’s debut.