Cullen Omori – New Misery (Sub Pop)

How do you follow an act like Smith Westerns?  The acclaimed Chicago indie rock band announced their split in 2014 and members Max Kakack, Julien Ehrlich and touring keyboardist Ziyad Asrar have since gone on to form the hotly tipped indie-folk group Whitney.  But what of the band’s frontman, Cullen Omori? Having been in Smith Westerns since he was in high school, he feared that the apex of his life had already been and gone.  Though troubled by this notion, he decided to channel his anxiety into the songs that have made up his debut solo album, New Misery.

Considering that Smith Westerns were equally as inspired by the likes of Oasis as they were by David Bowie and T-Rex, it’s not entirely surprising that Omori mines Britpop’s veins for ideas on New Misery’s opening half.  ‘Two Kinds’ attempts to adopt a songwriting style akin to Lennon and McCartney but ends up being forgettable and mid-tempo.  Thanks to a peppy chorus that Damon Albarn might have sung in the 90s, ‘Hey Girl’ is more tolerable, but ends with nearly two minutes of slow, repetitive lyrics and melodies that try too hard to be anthemic.  New Misery reaches its low point with ‘And Yet The World Still Turns,’ which is a turgid dirge of “yeah yeah yeahs” that’s something of an ill-advised mashup of Doves’Snowden’ and ‘Hey Jude.’

But, suddenly, New Misery decides to free itself of its Britpop shackles.  Taking influence from the chart music he used to listen to while working at a medical supply company, Omori introduces his off-kilter pop sensibilities.  Coincidentally, it’s here that the album also markedly improves.  The cascading, teardrop guitar of ‘Cinnamon’ apes The Cure’s infectious, jangly guitars.  It’s also a track that’s not afraid to experiment, utilising warped spoken-word elements to bridge the gaps between its verses and buoyant chorus.

Poison Dart’ is even more captivating, partially because it adopts synths more heavily and features a soaring, emotive climax, but mostly because Omori begins singing in his higher register and introduces quirky harmonies.  When he starts sounding like Luke Steele of The Sleepy Jackson, not only does his voice sound more relaxed and comfortable but he also becomes an infinitely more engaging frontman.  He’s no more engaging than on single ‘Sour Silk.’ Curiously eerie and brimming with tension, Omori vents his fears over haunting voices reminiscent of some of Yeasayer’s work.  Every element constantly overlaps and vies for attention, from the vocals and drums to the ferocious guitar riff in the chorus, yet somehow they all bleed into each other cohesively.

Sour Silk’ simply amplifies the frustration of listening to New Misery.  When Omori stops trying to be like his old band on the second half, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable record filled with odd-pop gems.  Perhaps Omori’s desire to please old fans of Smith Westerns got the better of him here, but at least his debut record plants some fertile shoots for the future.


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