There isn't much about The Limes' debut that stands out on the first listen -- not one song you have to hear again right away before you can go any further, a roadblock with a chorus that sticks in your head like a round from a .22-caliber pistol fired at close range and a bridge you need to cross a few more times. And after a few more spins, there still isn't a standout; you'd be hard-pressed to find one track that both sums up the disc and rises above it, one sparkling song that hits the sweet spot and keeps swinging. That's not to say the 11 tracks on Smile are bad, or even mediocre for that matter. Rather, they're pretty good, but that's all they are -- nothing more, nothing less. That said, while Smile never quite grabs you, occasionally it does begin to grow on you, such as when the group lifts the opening kick-snare pattern from The Ronettes' "Be My Baby" on "Don't Wait for Me" and builds its music-box melody around it. Or when the group is able to make a song like "Easy Way" -- which is eerily reminiscent of a Steely Dan cover of a Jackopierce tune, landing somewhere between a roller rink and a coffeehouse -- actually work, or at least not sound too embarrassing.
The trio of singer-guitarist-songwriter Joey Shanks, guitarist-keyboard player Carter Albrecht, and bassist Ward Williams (along with drummers Lance Swaim and Dan Wojochieowski at various times) seems to be wrestling with itself a little on Smile, never able to decide whether it wants to play keyed-up lullabies ("Make it Mine," "All the Way Through") or pared-down, three-chord rock songs ("That's the One," "Sad Luck Blues"). The problem isn't that The Limes can't make a commitment to either side, but that it feels like the band already has, treating every song with kid gloves even when some of them beg to be roughed up a bit. Even when the group chooses to plug in and turn up, the result is too restrained, as if no one in the band wants to get dirt on their nice Sunday clothes.
Shanks' rainy-day voice, especially, isn't particularly suited to the uptempo numbers; it sounds as though he grew up listening to Morrissey before moving on to Leonard Cohen. (If you're not familiar with the math, Morrissey + Leonard Cohen = dismal, dreary, depressing, and several other unhappy words that start with d.) It fits in well when he's crying into his beer on the slide guitar-heavy "Make it Mine," singing, "It seems you got just what you want / And what you don't, you keep that too." But on songs such as "Sadz Luck Blues" -- despite a title that appears to be a perfect match -- his spoke-sung delivery just comes off like a decent Greg Dulli impersonation, nailing the voice but lacking most of what's behind it. Smile, then, is only half a step in the right direction. But there's enough here to believe The Limes are capable of taking the other half...maybe.
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