CROSSWORD SMILES is a new band, and it’s a new sound even for the the deeply respected Michigan-based guitar-pop stalwarts at its core. The band was quietly formed two years ago by TOM CURLESS, formerly of Your Gracious Host and currently enjoying solo success, and CHIP SAAM, best known as the bassist for The Hangabouts and Curless’s backing band The 46% and the host of the indispensable Indie Pop Takeout show on Neighborhood Weekly Radio. The impulse behind the new collaboration? A pure and simple wish from a pair of like-minded music fans to hear something different.
The shape of that “something” was suggested by (but not limited to) the thrillingly diverse sounds of ’80s college radio. Think, perhaps, of the endlessly inventive ways in which the pop form was twisted into new forms of stark, clean-guitar beauty by the likes of XTC, Aztec Camera, the dB’s, or R.E.M. at their early peak. That’s not the full story, though: Crossword Smiles is born not of genre purism, but rather the unerring instincts of Curless and Saam for drawing on their mutually encyclopedic and eclectic knowledge of rock’s full and rich history to create something new, just as those bands had done.
And so while the overall sound and evocatively conversational lyrical approach of Pressed & Ironed might suggest a great lost Crowded House album – particularly on the gorgeous lead single “Parallel Lines” and the eerily angular-yet-lush shuffle “October Leaves” — there’s much more at work beneath the surface. When discussing the songs of the record, Crossword Smiles will cite inspirations as diverse as Steely Dan (Curless’s guitar solo on “Lines”), Rockpile (the whole of the deceptively direct “Where’s The Sense”) and The Replacements on both the opening “Feet On The Ground” and closing “Take It On The Chin”. You can hear textures evoking everyone from The Modern Lovers to Talk Talk rubbing shoulders from track to track, or even within the same song. And the eclectic but completely consonant nature of the album owes everything to the band’s genesis in a music-geek conversation between Saam and Curless after wrapping a recording session for Tom’s last record. As he tells it:
“So, here we find ourselves, sidled up at the bar like a few regulars, sipping our quickly warming beers at an Ann Arbor saloon. Between exchanging glances with the insanely busy bartender, we are extolling the virtues of Joe Jackson’s Look Sharp. The stark, simple beauty of The Go Between’s 16 Lovers Lane and the sharp songwriting on Freedy Johnston’s This Perfect World. Another common point of reference was The Cars, their knack for melody, musicianship and that infectious new wave energy. Often, in our mind at least, in different ways all somewhat overlooked bands or artists that we don’t hear anyone sounding like anymore. We fell into talking about putting together a project where we could try to replicate or at least in our own way pay tribute to these types of artists.”
And sure enough you’ll get a Cars-like rush from the driving “Lotus” (best experienced as the opener of Side 2 on the vinyl LP). “This Little Town” is indeed an unmistakable nod to The Go-Betweens, albeit one that somehow evokes both the Grant McLennan and Robert Forster sides of the ledger equally. Johnston’s vibe is all over the pedal-steel-and-open-snare sonics of the beautiful “Walk Softly”. And we haven’t even mentioned the sweetly wry jangle-rock character sketch “Second Guesser”, with its spiraling Television-like guitar leads courtesy of Saam’s Hangabouts bandmate Greg Addington. Or the brilliantly-titled “The Girl With A Penchant For Yellow”, which is probably the only song you’ll hear this year to mix equal parts of The Who and Split Enz and spike the resulting cocktail with a dose of vocoder.
But as much as Pressed & Ironed leans into those influences, it doesn’t sound precisely like any of them. Nor does it line up exactly with the superb back catalogs of either of its two chief architects. It’s something completely new. Would it have sounded completely at home on college radio circa 1985? Hell yes. But what Crossword Smiles have crafted on their debut is maybe even more vital on today’s melodic rock scene where too many bands are sheltering in the shade of the the same weather-worn Merseybeat and power pop touchstones. The record amply demonstrates that there’s more than one way to hang a hook… and the indie pop world is already richer for having CROSSWORD SMILES in it.