Steve Wilson. On music.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Glorious Pop Noise: Smith Westerns and Frankie Rose and the Outs

Smith Westerns – Dye It Blonde (Fat Possum)

Frankie Rose and the Outs – s/t (Slumberland)

In my recent review of No Age’s Everything in Between I suggested that the band was part of a generation “brought up to fear silence.” And that their sound embodied a “dynamic based on the epic swell of obligatory sonic overload, rising and falling with each song’s emotional nuances. Not space exactly, but an approximation.” Well, okay – I can stick with that. Young bands can almost be divided between those who almost scrupulously avoid noise and distortion and those who soak in it.

Kids these days. For many young musicians less is nothing and more is never enough when it comes to noise. What’s an old fart to do? Well, when the old fart in question was a fan of everything from the Stooges to John Coltrane’s Ascension he reaps just what he’s sown. Because while I may quarrel with the apparent default setting for distortion that seems to have become the mien of young musicians, I can sure surrender the top end of my hearing with the best of them.

The inevitability of noise is central to the aesthetic of two distorto-pop outfits with recent records out. For the Smith Westerns and their second album Dye it Blonde distortion is the icing on a cake of musical influences that embraces everything from Cream’s “Badge” to the Smashing Pumpkins, but which seems tiered on the at once dour and ecstatic sound of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. Imagine, if you will, guitar leads that replace the mystical Beatles’ weeping slide with bruising, but beautiful single note lickery that sounds like Marc Bolan on Olympus. Max Kakacek plays with a gorgeous, distorted tone that for all its ferocity is unfailingly melodic, sounding like nothing so much as the string arrangement for John Lennon’s “Mind Games” – but on a single, loud ass guitar. He winds “Still New” down with a fantasia of phased, backward guitar sounds. The “Layla”-esque dueling leads on “End of the Night” are sweet and seductive; while the arpeggiated intro to “Only One” proffers the sound of the Flamin’ Groovies for a new over-driven generation. Kakacek can shift between folk-rock and “Heatwave” Motown rhythms on a dime, as he does on “Dance Away.” All of, I dunno – twenty years old (?), he makes a beautiful noise throughout Dye it Blonde

Cool as Kakacek’s playing is, the Omori Brothers, Cameron (bass) and Cullen (rhythm, lead vocals) are equal contributors. Their performances, plus the (unattributed) supersonic synthesizers and pumping rock piano are the bones on which Smith Westerns rock monster is built. And their songs are both naively fetching and altogether sophisticated for their age (they too are but twenty-ish). From the T.Rex acoustic jangle of “Still New” to the Hunky Dory vibe of “All Die Young,” with its queerly celebratory chorus; from the ELO interpreted by the Flaming Lips charms of “Fallen in Love” to the gorgeous coda of the title tune’s serenade to the sweet disorientations of love and youth, the Smith Westerns know how to rock out the monster pop moves. Producer Chris Coady superbly realizes the band’s fresh ideas. His considerable resume includes the recent Beach House record Teen Dream.

On the heels of their first album, a brash, punkier affair that reminded a little of the late, great (pretty great, anyway) Exploding Hearts, Dye It Blonde is that sound blown up into a kaleidoscopic pan-generational pop vision. It’s got smarts, heart and miles of youthful insouciance. If you’re into that kind of thing. Me, I think it’s pretty sweet.

Frankie Rose and the Outs, on the other hand, are at least superficially more in line with the aesthetic of the current crop of Girl-noise-pop bands, a sound derived from the synthesis of Sixties girl-group stylings and the post-punk racket of everyone from the Jesus and Mary Chain to immediate prototypes of the genre like the Shop Assistants and Dolly Mixture. This genre includes the lovely, but leaden pop swoon of Best Coast, as well as the Spector-punk concrete of the Dum Dum Girls. Rose played in the road version of the DDG. She also served time with another genre progenitor, the Vivian Girls. Frankie Rose and the Outs, on their debut album) are superior to anything the VG ever did and the equal of the Dum Dums. Where Kristen Gundred (Dee Dee of the Dum Dum Girls) uses sheer (literally) noise as a cubist element in her reconstruction of Spector’s Wall of Sound, Rose employs noise as though it were part of the chiaroscuro of her version of pop-punk impressionism. Impressionism? Allow me to explain. For music as saturated in noise as this is it’s also full of soft, blended edges. Nothing really jumps out of the mix. The band’s harmonies are lovely, but lead vocals and specific lyrics rarely engage you. The harmonies are part of the impressionistic (uh huh) blend, just like My Bloody Valentine’s guitar layering.

‘Hollow Life’s” dearly beloved style organ introduction is the perfect beginning for a song that sounds like a benediction - the ladies of Frankie Rose and the Outs (Frankie, Margot Bianca, Kate Ryan and Caroline Yes! … Get it, as in the Beach Boys’ “Caroline No?”) vocal blend beautifully, like a tattooed Chordettes or Paris Sisters. The Outs love guitar licks that reflect the love of both Dick Dale and the Cramps. Such voodoo-surf riffs saturate songs like “Candy” and “Don’t Tred,” often occurring as guitarcapella breaks.  Rose’s production exhibits all sorts of interesting subtleties, like “That’s What People Told Me’s” slow dissolve into single note guitar sustain and handclaps, or the way the angelic and aggressive are combined on ‘Must Be Nice” with its’ alluring mixture of “Gloria” chords and the atmosphere of the Mamas and Papas “12:30.” “Girlfriend Island” rocks to a Ramones beat with the vocals slightly forward in the mix, while there’s a Springsteen/Spector swoon to “Little Brown Haired Girls.”

It would be easy, and wrong, to lump the recent rash of noise-pop bands together. Frankie Rose and the Outs brings a singular vision to the idiom. Again, compared to the noisy, jagged, yup – Cubist qualities of the Dum Dum Girls (they’re good, too), Frankie Rose and the Outs create impressionist cathedrals of calm in the eye of their storm of distorted guitars. Theirs may be a late entry to the noise-pop girl genre, but it’s an individual and glorious statement.

Reverberating: 8.6 (yeah, both of them)