Graham Smith – Final Battle

Graham Smith
Final Battle

Within the indie-pop sphere, wunderkinds are relatively common, but, specifically in the power-pop section of the indie spectrum, wunderkinds seem to be crowned with higher frequency and ever greater expectations. Matthew Sweet and Ben Lee were power-pop sweethearts for several years, the former certainly longer than the latter. Is Graham Smith, former leader of Kleenex Girl Wonder, the next indie boy genius of clever power-pop? He makes a somewhat convincing case for the title and accolades on his latest album, Final Battle.

The album opens with two winners, “HDTV” and “The Heat.” The latter comes off less lyrically witty but instantly more enjoyable. On “The Heat,” Smith narrates a broken relationship with some of the best singing on Final Battle. His voice isn’t impressive on most tracks, but he hits the mark on “The Heat,” matching the emotions and anecdotal statements with his vocal performance. Subsequent songs like “Lots of Love & a Long, Long Ladder” and “Let the Eagle Soar” disappoint because Smith shifts the focus to repetitive lyrics and louder feedback instead of continuing the wordplay and ideal volume.

Nonetheless, there are more rewards on Final Battle for patient listeners, and “You & Me & Leslie” is one such gem. Smith alternates the pace with his guitar and multi-layered vocals, hitting you with sharp lines like “So she’s tempting me / By taking her clothes off / And feeding me Zoloft / Because I know I’ll be blown off / But her voice is so soft.” The song has a beautiful ring and an affecting combination of direct lyrics and slow melodies. “My So-Called Secret Life” is faster and edgier than “You & Me & Leslie” but grabs listeners with equal ease. Unfortunately, “The Nondescript” proves that Smith’s occasional abandonment of melodic pop for raucous rockers misfires without exception. He’s best with the mid-tempo songs that use sharp, slicing guitar lines to redraw the route without missing the ultimate destination.

Of the better songs on Final Battle, “USHC Brand Men’s Jeans” stands out for its 80s licks and singing style. Smith’s exquisite guitar playing recalls The Smithereens and The Go-Go’s. Imagine Pat DiNizio trading vocals with Belinda Carlisle in a louder, bouncier manner than on their duet for “Blue Period” and you may get a hint of the pure pleasure of “USHC Brand Men’s Jeans.” Overall, Final Battle is a good album with some instantly memorable songs that exemplify perfect indie power-pop. Unfortunately, the album suffers from some amateurish mini noise-fests with sporadically bad singing. Final Battle is a hard-fought victory; not bad, not great, certainly nothing to be ashamed of.

Smith may be the next power-pop maestro, and numerous songs on Final Battle point to that conclusion. Still, the 25-year-old has some refining to do before he’ll earn this listener’s loyalty.