Mysterious Indie Pop Outfit smiles Shines on Slumberland 7″

Playing The Bay
smiles new ep

Oakland band smiles are elusive – despite releasing a steady stream of stand-alone singles throughout the summer via a bandcamp account that stretches back to 2014, there isn’t much available information on who is behind the music. Melters, the San Francisco record shop distributor of one of smiles’ earliest EPs, cites echoes of late Elliot Smith in their descriptor, a comparison I wouldn’t have considered but now can not unhear, especially in the drawn-out vowels and throaty delivery. It isn’t a ghost you’re hearing though – a song called “nothing matters anymore,” posted in 2018, credits the project to someone named “manny” – and recently, 7″ purveyors Slumberland Records added some legitimacy to the entire operation by including two smiles tracks (“Gone for Good” and b-side “This Boy”) to its 30th anniversary 7″ subscription service, which wraps up this December.

“Gone for Good” falls under a genre I like to call “Acoustic Plus”— not as stripped-down as pure acoustic, but still holding simplicity close to the chest, any additional instrumentals served pillowy and light. smiles’ lead singer rasps his way warmly through the song, his vocal affectations a wink and nod to the chillest purveyors of early 2000s indie rock.

Even if the lyrics hint at some greater desperation — and I know that I let you down/this time for good — they are still delivered with what I can only describe as a purposeful tenderness, even as we hear lyrics like you’ve got your finger on the trigger during the outro. “Finger on the trigger” is a classic analogy for a slate of lyrical needs — sexual tension, righteousness, anger — but when proceeded by twangy guitar and a sighing Greek chorus backup, “Gone for Good” manages to deliver its melancholy with a spoonful of sweet meringue.

“This Boy” opens with a question — this boy/wants to know/when will you go away?/ when will you say goodbye?/but I’ll never let these feelings show/keep them away inside. Lyrically, this sounds like a fatigued diary entry written after a eighth grade dance, yet somehow, it works. “Boy” is rarely how an adult man will refer to himself, and is likely to be disparaging when used as a self-descriptor, but here, it comes across as an honest look at the self in the mirror — smiles really does feel young and naive in the face of a slowly encroaching loss.

Barely over two minutes, “This Boy” feels especially abrupt;  with only these two songs to go on, whatever story that’s being told here feels a little unfinished (though the spate of tracks on bandcamp hopefully hints at a larger project in the works). It’s as though the 7″ is sat firmly in the middle of the five stages of grief, with “Gone for Good” as Denial and “This Boy” as Bargaining. Regardless, I’m ready for Depression and Acceptance, especially if it is delivered with the same soft hands as “Gone for Good.”

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