February 15, 2005


Wonderful Smith.jpg

Inspired pop with hooks and twists aplenty

Never mind the cliche -- with its debut album, Wonderful Smith suggests what is not in a name.

The members of the Chicago band have adopted one of the most common surnames, but judging by Hello, It's Wonderful (Fundamental Records), the music is far from generic, thanks to an uncommonly good ear for intricate melodies and flair for varied tunefulness.

In that regard, it helps that the band boasts two-pronged lead vocals, as guitarist Nick Estes and multi-instrumentalist Holly Senchak split the duties, with some occasional overlap. With noted Chicago knobsman Steve Albini engineering, bursts of piano, guitar, synthesizers and rock-steady drums come bursting through the mix to keep things interesting.

The hooks never let up, and neither do the new twists. The opening track, "So Much Sin," is built around a driving piano melody that recalls The Monkees' "Daydream Believer." "Something, Someone" jumps out of the gate with a glam-rock guitar riff, while on the jangle-rocker "My Little House," a raucous harmonica part is an unlikely showstopper.

Then there are the singers' voices themselves, versatile enough to suit such a sonic smorgasbord. Senchak ranges from forceful (like when she belts out the record's opening lines, "This house has so much sin/I can't believe I brought it in") to vulnerable (on "Hard Alcohol," which could be a Juliana Hatfield outtake).

Meanwhile, the Estes offering "Bothered" begins quietly and contemplatively, but builds up to him uneasily wailing over a grunge-lite refrain. And with the layers of instruments suddenly stripped away for the sparse acoustic duet "Favorite Day," the disc's final track, Estes and Senchak's harmonizing soars to angelic heights.

All of the sweet sounds seemingly render the songwriting -- credited to the group as a whole -- an afterthought. Perhaps that's a good thing. Themes run from the mundane ("And I could walk down to the store/To pick us up some milk once more") to disturbingly dark ("And if I talked behind his back/He'd bury me alive under his favorite tree") to resignation with one's surroundings ("The days don't make as much sense as they used to/But I'm getting used to it").

Such less-than-compelling lyrics often are compensated for by the band's triumphant moments of inspired pop. It is on the strength of the latter that Wonderful Smith can best forge its own name.

-- By George Henn

Posted by medleyville at February 15, 2005 05:14 PM