Smoosh – Free to Stay

Smoosh
Free to Stay

It’s hard to believe that Smoosh has been around long enough to release two albums considering the all-girl band consists of two sisters aged 12 and 14. Not only do they have two albums under their belt, but Free to Stay was released on respected independent record label Barsuk, the same label that spawned indie all-stars Death Cab for Cutie. The Death Cab connection runs deeper than just sharing the same record label though, as Death Cab for Cutie drummer Jason McGerr doubles as the group’s drum teacher and mentor and also produced Free to Stay. This has helped lend some credibility to Smoosh and has enabled the sisters to avoid being instantly written off due to their ages.

In fact, if you didn’t know their ages, you certainly wouldn’t be able to extract that information from listening to their music. This is not teeny-bopper radio music, and Smoosh is not a novelty act aimed at a certain demographic. The music here is honest, stripped-down indie rock with a healthy dose of innocence. That’s innocence not in a naive sense, but innocence coming from a unique perspective, as all of the tunes are penned by both members of Smoosh: Asya (vocals, keyboards) and Chloe (drums, vocals).

The songs are made up of amiable melodies that contain enough animated rock elements and shifting beats to keep your ears contented but none that make a lasting impression. The reason for this does not lie in the lack of musical ideas but more from a lack of diverse instrumentation. All of the tunes on Free to Stay are performed using just drums, keyboards, and vocals, and there’s only so many ways to make them different. But those ways are attempted, from organ, piano, and synth washes to mimicking bass and guitar textures by adding effects and for stylistic expression.

The better musical ideas expressed here translate to something that a younger, tamer Sleater-Kinney may have pounded out. Songs like opener “Find a Way” and the aptly named “Rock Song” carry similar exuberant chops, and the properly treated keyboards adequately replace the guitars and bass. Offsetting these rockier tunes are a few slower numbers that approach Kristin Hersh territory, featuring a more stripped-down sound with little to no effects added to the chopstick staccato and occasional saloon-style piano licks and hearty rock drumming. Most tracks fall somewhere in between and include some minor-key brooding as well as some feathery light-rock fragments.

Asya “Smoosh” (last name withheld due to her minority status) employs a singing style reminiscent of Kristin Hersh but sounds more like a combination of Sheryl Crow and the vocalists from Sleater-Kinney and Deerhoof. This is a strange combination that works on some levels but eventually becomes stale by the end of disc, mostly due to her lack of mature emotion. For example, when Asya tries to belt out some classic rock and roll “yeah, yeah, yeah’s” on tunes like “I Would Go” and “Gold,” it just doesn’t carry the same pop swagger as the likes of the B52’s or boast the same visceral intensity as Sleater-Kinney.

Through no fault of their own, it’s impossible to listen to Smoosh without awareness of their ages. Partly thanks to record company publicity, their live shows accompanying the likes of Cat Power, Sufjan Stevens, and Rilo Kiley, and partly because by the end of the album’s 12 tracks, it’s eventually exposed in the music. But if each track is taken on its own merits, it’s apparent that these girls have real talent and there is some creative indie rock here.