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Smith Westerns on Bolan, bunnies, rats and power pop

Although Smith Westerns' 20-year-old frontman Cullen Omori may be too young to have witnessed it, there was a time when a band like his would have sparked a major-label bidding war. Of course, that was back in the days when major labels were still taking risks and calling the shots, instead of watching in disappointment, as they did earlier this week, while indie-label artists like Arcade Fire and Esperanza Spalding walked away with top Grammy honors.

It's too soon to say whether Smith Westerns will find their way to next year's ceremony, but there's no question that they're on the right track. Their second album, Dye It Blonde, was released in January on Fat Possum Records and makes a strong case for them being the best power-pop trio to come out of Chicago since Material Issue halted back in the '90s.

Beautifully produced by Chris Coady (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Beach House, TV on the Radio), the album finds the group going for what Omori describes as "dreamy guitar pop." It's all pretty sophisticated, but also hugely accessible: Omori, who grew up on Oasis, Bowie and Top 40 (though he also succumbed to his father's insistence that he listen to "real" rock bands like Led Zeppelin), delivers hook-laden vocal harmonies that perfectly fit guitar parts that earn bandmate Max Kakacek frequent comparisons to George Harrison. Keep listening and you may also hear echoes of bands like Teenage Fanclub, especially on "Still New" (which actually does sound new, despite its similarities to Fanclub's early song, "The Concept").

Glam and Gwen

Whether it's the result of intuition or intent, Omori and his bandmates clearly demonstrate a knowledge of pop history, or at least the parts of it that capture their interest. After all, it's not every day that a musician who hasn't reached drinking age casually brings up an obscure glam rock artist like Brett Smiley. (Yeah, I had to look that one up, too.) Yet despite his knowledge of '70s glitterati, Omori still isn't enamored with the T. Rex comparisons that keep cropping up in reviews.

"A lot of people are like, 'Oh, yeah, you're just trying to sing like Marc Bolan,'" groans the singer. "But in actuality, Bolan's voice was kind of gross. It's when he does that vibrato thing with his voice. You know, that thing."

So if not Bolan, who does Omori admire? The singer is quick to offer up three names, none of which will find their way into Smith Westerns' album reviews. He may even be serious.

"Gwen Stefani, yeah, I really like her voice. I think, in some warped way, that's what I try to sing like. Or at least I keep that in mind while I sing. Yeah, so Gwen Stefani, Billy Corgan, Snoop Dogg."

Naturally, it would be impossible to sound like all of the above. But does Omori realize he doesn't sound like any of them?

"Really? That's what I try to sound like. I don't know. I guess I don't get all screamo or whatever, like when Billy Corgan shouts in his songs. But I like his softer, kind of tenor voice. And I feel like Gwen Stefani is really important. I like everything she's done. I listen to her record a lot on tour, actually. It's weird, you know? It's not like I've been singing my whole life."

Lolrat and Nobunny

While it's ancient history to him now, Cullen had barely sung a note when, at 17, he and his younger brother, bassist Cameron Omori, started Smith Westerns. The group's self-titled debut came out in 2009, at a point when they had yet to develop their songwriting. Recorded in their basement, the album also sounded like shit, which quickly earned them a reputation as a promising young garage rock band.

Still, Smith Westerns had even bigger plans, and it didn't take long to bring them to fruition.

"We wanted to do something that we weren't hearing from bands right now. You know, everyone seems to be on a total minimalist trip, like minimal instrumentation and one melody that runs through the entire course of the song. So I think we wanted to turn that on its head and make everything just overloaded. We wanted to make it immediate and melodic, but also layer it with so much stuff that, when you listen back to it later, it still offers something new."

Now that the new album is out, Smith Westerns are headlining their own tour. After that's finished, they'll go back out again, opening for Yeasayer.

Smith Westerns have come a long way from just two years ago, when they got to play a Chicago public-access kids' show called Chic-A-Go-Go and be repeatedly insulted by its puppet host, Ratso. ("Yeah, that rat's a piece of shit," says Omori.)

In fact, the band got its first big break, if you want to call it that, around the same time, as backing band for performance artist Justin Champlin, best known for his rabbit-costumed alter ego Nobunny.

"That was our first real tour, and I had a good time on it. I like Justin a lot. And yeah, we did have to wear bunny outfits, but I'm over that."

"I don't dress up anymore," adds Omori, his deadpan flawless. "It's all about being real now."

bill@csindy.com

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