36 inches of snowfall were recorded in Central Park last month. Never before in New York’s long and illustrious history of shit-weather had a year been ushered in with such force. Other cities throughout the region fared little better. Boston’s Logan Airport received 38 inches-a figure rendered only bleaker for its failure to break any records. In cities everywhere, plowmen worked overtime to clear the roads, evasively deflecting whatever lay in their paths toward the parking lanes where icy mountains rose up and then thawed, spawning rivers of toxic sludge. Escape was nearly impossible. The rustic pleasure of sleeping on the floor failed to sate the rage of passengers stranded for days at JFK. Conditions were evidently so bad that it took an entire revolution in Egypt to push everyone’s bitching out of front page news. But I wonder whether conditions have really been so much worse than usual?
Even without unprecedented snowfall, winter has several strikes against it. Brutal cold and interminable nights are two big ones. These invariably result in higher incidence of suicide, divorce, and people seeking therapy. Crime rates drop marginally but only because nobody wants to venture outside. Naturally, we’re all tempted to succumb to the seasonal gloom and overdose on bleak music by artists from places even colder than Gotham City. I’ve passed months wallowing through audio tours of the Arctic Circle, meandering from Norway to Iceland to Siberia-_Opeth, Sigur Ros, Tchaikovsky_-in self indulgent angst. This winter, however, I headed to Los Angeles where I discovered The Smiles. Many bands with a name so cheerful and idiotic would be quickly torn to shreds in the smog of cynicism that pervades the East-Coast indie circuit. Luckily, The Smiles have enough merit to win a place in even the coldest of hipster hearts.
Let’s cleanse the palate! You’ve been listening to far too much Eliot Smith for your own good and you haven’t laughed in weeks. Press play and digest the first ten seconds of A-Side “Cala Cola” before reading on. Ten seconds is all you’ll need to don the appropriate mindset because The Smiles waste no time in cutting to the point-they can’t afford to when the longest track on their six-track debut, Hermosa, clocks in at just over three minutes! The songwriting throughout the album is remarkably concise. Each song covers impressive ground without ever testing the limits of your attention span. Moreover, The Smiles never temper the beach-rock attitude which distinguishes them from virtually every other indie band hip enough to appreciate. Each song develops at a leisurely pace.
The Smiles have already earned considerable acclaim in California but they’re ready to become a national phenomenon. This is, at least in part, because Vampire Weekend paved the way for them. Anyone who has listened to ten seconds of “Cala Cola” may have drawn that comparison already. It’s been drawn several times, which bodes well for the California quartet. The East Coast adored Vampire Weekend, so it seems predisposed to accept The Smiles. The Smiles may even have a crucial edge over Vampire Weekend. John McGrath (guitar) and Will Sturgeon (bass) split lead-vocal duties, and their starkly different voices emphasize key moments in compositional narrative. This notion is epitomized by “Cala Cola” , in which vocal contrast clearly delineates the shift between verse and pre-chorus. Nevertheless, the two bands have enough in common that Vampire Weekend makes an ideal point of reference anybody unfamiliar with The Smiles. Aesthetic hallmarks of each include jangly electric guitars blurred by ethereal reverb, propulsive basslines with enough high-mids to cut through the mix, and the crisp pop of tightened drumheads. Moreover, both groups write songs with simple chord progressions, memorable melodies, world rhythms, and clearly delineated structure. Another less obvious ground for comparison might be biographical. Both bands formed in college, albeit on the opposite side of the country.
This geographical distinction leads us to a crucial point of divergence. The Smiles and Vampire Weekend arrive at a similar auditory aesthetic, but they do it via starkly different philosophies. To put it another way, “Cala Cola” sounds a lot like “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” but nobody’s pitching it as a critique of colonial exploitation. “We’re just trying to write good short pop songs,” explains vocalist and bassist Will Sturgeon. Though well educated, The Smiles won’t be writing any songs about obsolete syntax.
B-Side “California Girls” is testament to this. The Smiles tell me it was influenced by The Strokes but the one-note build and tribal tom-tom introduction alludes more directly to another well known California band to which the group have drawn much comparison-The Beach Boys. Touches of youthful exuberance like the subtle yelp before the second chorus and the bass breakdown at the onset of the bridge cement the surf-rock vibe. The last chorus is truly explosive, buoyed by vocal lines that weave back and forth and synch up at key moments in satisfying harmony. What more could one hope for from a song called California Girls?
Of course, The Smiles are more than your run-of-the-mill surfer band. “We didn’t set out to be beachy,” explains Sturgeon, “but once we moved to a full band setting and Brendan’s reverb got involved then there wasn’t much we could do… We got our roots playing college parties, so the louder we could play the better, and basically that’s how all these songs sound.” Both Sturgeon and McGrath have folk roots which they plan to exhibit in subsequent releases. Even Hermosa demonstrates more breadth than meets the eye. With repeat listens, the subtle intelligence begins to shine.
Few indie bands could choose a name like “The Smiles” and get away with it. The Smiles are one of them, and they don’t even have to pretend that it’s ironic! They exude a lot of positive energy but it comes across as sincere rather than overmedicated. Maybe it really is just the weather? This has led many listeners to speculate whether The Smiles represent the trajectory that Vampire Weekend might have taken if they’d gone to USC instead of Columbia. Would they still have chosen to name their band after a blood-sucking nightwalker with a melatonin deficiency? The Smiles represent a light hearted alternative to the esoteric/existential indie archetype without sacrificing an ounce of integrity. If you suffer from seasonal depression, this upbeat and highly addictive indie-pop might be just what you need!
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem129/01 Cala Cola.mp3
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem129/02 California Girls.mp3