Think of the catchiest song from Smith Westerns’ catalog and multiply by 11: That’s frontman Cullen Omori’s debut solo album, “New Misery.” Every song on this release could be on alternative radio and stuck in your head for the foreseeable future. Sounding somewhere between Top 40 and the bubbly garage-pop of the Chicagoan's former band, this collection of songs comes just in time for breezy summer listening—it’s like the band’s last single, “Varsity,” started its own solo project.
Created when the rambunctious local band was nearing its 2014 demise (and yes, Omori has noted this new material most matches “Varsity”), he wrote everything on the album himself—an initially tough and scary feat considering he had split songwriting duties in Smith Westerns with guitarist Max Kakacek. Even though "New Misery" is sequenced in chronological order based on when each song was written, there isn’t much separating opener “No Big Deal” from the closing title track in terms of quality. Besides minor qualms about forward motion (“Be a Man” takes its damn sweet time to get going), everything is seamless.
For pretty much all of the lean 44 minutes on “New Misery," you, along with quite a few music journalists who have done so, could use adjectives like “shimmery” and “nostalgic” to describe the technicolor sounds on this album. Sometimes simultaneously feeling like a long-lost artifact from the '80s and the late '00s, the album seemingly can get lost in its own wistfulness. Not so on “Poison Dart,” which takes its cues as far back as '60s girl groups, with its blissful harmonies and its sentimental declaration, “We’re kids in the hall/Sordid days to be/The boys and girls in the movies.” It's one of the album’s clear highlights (though it’s easy to have another favorite track on here), as Omori arguably doesn’t do pop more perfectly elsewhere.
Like any pop album, “New Misery” has its well-trodden lyrical moments of love, lust and heartbreak. While the chorus on “Cinnamon” gets close to being too clever for its own good (“Taste like sin, Cinnamon”), some turns of phrase are so exceptional you wish you’d thought of them yourself: Both the “The sea of love is a puddle” and “Alcohol works too slow” quips on “LOM” (the military acronym for "Lack of Motivation”) are just sublime. While not lyrical, single “Synthetic Romance” is just as impressive for its soaring lead guitars and cinematic atmosphere.
As much as people are going to try, it’s a fool’s errand to compare the lush pop sounds of Omori’s debut with the “country soul” leanings of Smith Westerns alum Kakacek’s new group Whitney. However, with its keen ear for pop melancholy, this album will remind you of what you loved about Omori's former band and give you more to savor.
3 stars (out of four)
In concert: March 24 at Lincoln Hall
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