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Blue Smiley - Ok | Album Review

by Zak Krone (@leftandrightva)

We all have albums where we not only remember every drop of music, but the exact moment it entered our lives as well. I wish, dear reader, that you could have attended the slummy Temple University house show I was at when Blue Smiley’s Ok and I met for the first time. The ability to make a room of musicians stop and ask “what is this playing over the speakers?” is a rare feat indeed, but Ok managed to achieve more than its modest title would suggest.

At their core, Blue Smiley is your standard indie-rock power trio. Primary songwriter and guitarist Bryan Nowell is joined by the solid-as-a-rock rhythm section of Matt McGraw and John Slavin. While their guitar, bass, and drums setup might be painfully standard, the songwriting is not. Nowell and company dance around the standard “LOUD/soft” structures that dominate rock music by switching up tempos with uncommon frequency. Dissonance is hurried along at a frantic pace during verses while major-key “choruses” take their time to bludgeon you over the head. Guitar and bass quietly edge further and further away from each other before crashing into one another to achieve riffs that are heavy as hell. Changing pace, though, never detracts from the grooves your ear settles into. The cumulative effect of the back-and-forth is, for lack of a better word, a “sway” to the album that resides in your gut as you work your way through it. Nowell’s songwriting is a lean vehicle, and it is an accomplishment his band is able to cram as many cohesive ideas as they do into these songs.

What truly puts the album into another league though, is the unique palette of sound that Blue Smiley paints overtop of an already enjoyable foundation. Within 15 seconds of the album’s opener “Demon” kicking off you’ll find yourself asking “what IS that sound?” It’s a question that resurfaces during the meditative interlude “Ghost” and album highlights “Flower” and “Rain.” I had my theories as to what I was listening to, and when the band finally told me I was way off base. Take my advice, and just let it remain a mystery. Your guesses are probably wrong. Nowell’s vocals establish a call-and-response relationship between melody and the strange sounds that exist in the world of Blue Smiley. Like a soothsayer, he’s coaxing bizarre machines and strange cartoon characters to life during the course of the record. Hours after listening I find myself humming his lines expecting a response from some strange otherworldly alien. If you’re curious as to what he’s actually saying, though, you’ll need to delve onto their bandcamp page to correctly sing along. Nowell’s voice is delicate, and the harmonies he composes are beautiful, but he seems shy to let on exactly what he is saying.

Maybe the obfuscated words just add to the ethereal qualities of the albums? Ok is the rare work of music that seems to transcend setting. It’s as equally digestible as it is intricate. You can sit with it and intently wait for it to reveal its secrets, or put it on and let it work its way through the atmosphere of the room. Either way, Blue Smiley have created a remarkable work that requires your immediate attention.