Artist/s: The Smith Street Band. Wil Wagner (vocals, guitars), Lee Hartney (guitars, vocals), Fitzy Fitzgerald (bass, synth, vocals), Chris Cowburn (drums, vocals, percussion)
Category: Contemporary, Folk, Punk
Label: Pool House Records/Remote Control Records Pty Ltd PHR002CD
Reviewed by Mandy Stefanakis
“The Smith Street Band’s prolific output continues with this, their fourth album in six years.”
The Smith Street Band are Melbourne-based, though they haven’t seen a lot of home of late having toured Australia, Europe, the UK. They are also soon to perform with Midnight Oil in LA. But as Wil Wagner says in Forrest, ‘Sometimes coming home feels more like leaving.’ Indeed.
The Smith Street Band is enigmatic in a way. Naming the group after Collingwood’s Smith Street, one gets the impression it will be urban hipster music, but no, far from it. Think more punk, English punk, indeed the band’s music will go over a treat in the UK, because there are also aspects of many of that region’s musical genres from folk rock to the fantastic soccer anthemic unison male chorus tradition that one finds in a range of English styles plus the fast-paced tempo of bands like American punk/new wave mob, The Ramones. These last features are epitomised on Death to the Lads, a rant on contemporary life with the lovely lines:
Staying in a hotel full of pilots
I can’t believe that they are smoking
If you mastered the art of flight
Why would you spend half your time choking?
But the group is unique in its sound and one can be taken aback with Aussie accents shining through in the improvised twists and turns of the melodies. As with other bands, the music offers a massive, embracing support network around the lyrics, which overwhelmingly immerses one in the muddiness of existence. Indeed Wagner points out that they were written during ‘the hardest few years of my life’. They are, well, honest of that time.
A feature of the outfit is the meandering of the vocals. It’s fabulous because you realise the import of the words. Wagner takes them where they need to go musically, to places he can’t quite get to, to places where rhythm is just an old-fashioned musical concept, to places of utter vocal assurance and this is the nature of what is expressed too. In Birthdays, an ‘in the moment’ love song where he says,
Wanna be alone
Wanna be surrounded
Wanna be transient
Wanna be grounded
But all the dissonance disappears from me
When you drape an arm across my knee
Intentionally, lazily …
He goes on to commit all the first date crimes of talking about how much his parents will like her, names for the children and eventually –
Anyway, hey, my name’s Wil
Ah, it’s nice to meet you.
And so we understand the noisiness of life, the awkwardness of it all and this is why his shaping of the melodies, his random straying off the beaten track is so perfect.
The music wraps itself around this central focus with such adeptness. The guitar playing and drumming are stunning, the textural layering, superb, from unaccompanied vocals, a solo guitar riff to massive builds, all ensuring that the meaning of the song shines through. Jeff Rosenstock’s great production consolidates the feel of the band with clarity, cohesion and warmth.
A series of close-knit songs, Run into the World, 25 Lyrics and It Kills Me to Have to Be Alive reflect the knife-edge of existence for Wagner – a tortuous place he has obviously found himself in on more than one occasion and one wonders if his music provides some succour through this trauma. He says with the CD notes that ‘Things seem like they’ll never get better, but they always do.’
Young Once reflects on the innocence of youth and how we gradually grow in awareness and self-doubt and question the relationships with family, friends that we have always taken for granted. Again, it is painfully honest and seeks a return of that innocence and happiness. It commences with Wagner singing at a distance with just his guitar and so this shaping of the music to complement what is portrayed in the lyrics is of utmost importance. The band feels incredibly united in this process.
The album concludes on a positive note, a girl just met in New York and ‘I don’t want to marry you just yet, although it’d probably help with my visa’: Obviously a pre-Trump song.
So of course, I warm to the passion of Passiona which exemplifies the beautiful musical sculpting around this vulnerable, strong, conflicted soul who allows his painful, heart-warming, gut-wrenching, funny integrity to be displayed throughout the album. It is incredibly special in its uniqueness and its ability to tell it like it is and every track is musically strong and resilient. Star rising.