By: Hunter Funk
Are you a Dirty Projectors fan miffed at the new single’s blatant lack of trademark trio harmonies? An English major in need of vaguely avant-garde jams to slot next to Father John Misty on that mix for your art school crush? Look no further than locals Smile, whose debut LP, Like A Diamond in the Rough, You Shine, is as gem-quality as its title suggests. The sextet shares several faces with sister-act Dreamboat, but Jake Miles’ melodically agile songwriting, tempered by the nimble vocal stylings of his female foils, help ensure that this configuration of the group is never relegated to side project status. Much like David Longstreth and company, Smile trade equally in pop and prog, and here manage to excel at both.
Seven-plus-minute opener “All The Things” gives all six members ample room to showcase their chops. Jazzy highlife guitar sets the tone for the honeyed voices of Annie Long and Mary Bryce: “I think I’d be cooler if I hung out with them / Maybe then I could hide the background I’m from.” As they pick up speed, Nathan Wilkins (also of Hikes) drops in with a tricky yet propulsive drumbeat, which Miles and Zeke Jarmon color with interlocking guitar lines. By the track’s midpoint it has accrued several layers of warped keyboards and built in intensity to a bonafide space rock jam. Once the dust settles, there’s a deep breath before the girls float back to earth to reaffirm the main motif.
Smile trade equally in pop and prog, and here manage to excel at both.
Next up is standout single “I Dunno”, one of the juiciest slices of pop it’s been my pleasure to hear this year. Long and Bryce open by tracing pensive harmonies around Miles’ acapella intro. He chuckles as the song then breaks into an audible grin, bouncing snappily along a jaunty chord progression. When the infectious chorus finally hits, it’s liable to stay stuck in your head for a good while, so prepare yourself. Arguably, though, things really peak when the three singers begin trading counterpoint vocals until the beat caves to the girls repeating “but I just can’t help myself from falling” like a skipping record, and the band pivots behind them to blast off in a completely new direction. (And that’s AFTER the organ solo.)
Meanwhile, Diamond’s midsection plays more on the progressive side. “Proper Design” is a seductively slinky number, possibly the most Projectors-esque on the record, wherein Miles funnels lyrics of a fictional sunken New Orleans through his falsetto to great effect. “Must Be Something”, a two-part suite, begins in a flurry of buoyant guitar and vibrant melodies, cresting into the LP’s titular refrain amid blustering drums before its instrumental back half turns the band loose against an odd-time groove courtesy of Wilkins and bassist Taylor Turner.
It’s clear that Smile has a talent for penning tuneful pop, but to hear them stretch their limbs and simply jam is just as invigorating. One wonders whether they’ll continue to strike a balance between these two poles, or if future projects see them rein in their arty tendencies for slightly more focused results. Like A Diamond only runs six tracks long, but its returns are many and rarely underwhelming – overall, an aptly-named introduction to a multifaceted collective whose sheer raw brilliance is sure to take them far.