Masterminded by Wil Wagner, The Smith Street Band bring together the attitude of punk rock and emotion of emo — with the occasional dash of folk music — much in the same vein as close friend and touring partner Jeff Rosenstock and his former group, Bomb the Music Industry!. On the band’s latest record, More Scared Of You Than You Are Of Me, this is undoubtedly more true than ever before, which only makes sense, given that Rosenstock contributes production to the album. Indeed, the punchy, crunchy, punk guitars, ear for melody and the semi-sung, semi-shouted vocal delivery of Wagner all bear resemblance to Rosenstock’s last handful of solo releases, as do the lyrics of apprehension, self-deprecation and existential crisis. What’s less resemblant of Rosenstock’s own music, however, is the way in which such themes come together to form an underlying narrative across albums from The Smith Street Band. Rosenstock’s previous album, WORRY., was unequivocally his most conceptual yet, although in a way that largely dealt with issues of a sociopolitical nature, whereas Wagner’s storytelling efforts typically revolve around personal struggles. Case in point, More Scared Of You Than You Are Of Me deals with the breakdown of a relationship and the stages of emotions that follow, with the record being written in conjunction with the decline of a relationship involving Wagner. As such, with each song being penned at the time of the affairs it’s describing, the tracklisting is structured in chronological order, with the first song detailing the start of the relationship and the last song being about the start of a new relationship following the collapse of the one previous. Such a direct and instantaneous attitude towards the songwriting across More Scared Of You Than You Are Of Me makes for what is surely The Smith Street Band’s most emotionally engaging project thus far, which is especially true when paired with the impassioned and fiery vocal performances from Wagner and the blazing, pop punk instrumentals. However, this approach also shows some cracks, in that Wagner’s spontaneous writing process leaves certain ideas coming across as somewhat unfinished, arguably becoming lost in translation in the process, whilst the chronological ordering of the pieces result in a pacing that can be oddly jarring at times. Ultimately, across More Scared Of You Than You Are Of Me, The Smith Street Band double down on their brand of sensitive and sentimental punk rock, but there are nevertheless a few wrinkles in the narrative that prevent it from completely achieving the emotional depth for which it strives.
When it comes to the musical side of things, More Scared Of You Than You Are Of Me is, by far, The Smith Street Band’s most vibrant and generally explosive release thus far in their discography, much of which can be chalked up to Jeff Rosenstock’s production, with the album consistently meeting the same level of textured unruliness as WORRY.. The album features far more dynamic variety than any previous release from the Melbourne-based outfit, with the loud moments being absolutely booming and the quiet moments being appropriately hushed and reserved. Comparing the instantly hard-hitting introduction of the opening song, Forrest — for which the band wastes no time diving head first into a wall of blaring guitars, driving drumming and the partially yelled vocals delivered with Wagner’s thick Australian accent — to the dainty, duelling guitars that make up the intro to Passiona gives an idea of the sonic breadth of More Scared Of You Than You Are Of Me. This makes for some particularly gripping moments when the group forcefully transitions between the two dynamic extremes of the record, such as when the delicate guitar twiddling that introduces Birthdays gives way to an outbreak of accents, before the melodic noodling continues with the support of some beautiful harmonies from a second guitar, as the rhythm section holds down the fort. Indeed, most of the better moments from the album come when the band properly flexes their melodic muscles, with Wagner coming through with hooks on songs such as Death To The Lads and Song For You that reach the heights of anthemic belters, whilst the verse sections on Run Into The World and Suffer display some more finely-worked melodies that go over just as well.
The most obvious chink in The Smith Street Band’s armour on More Scared Of You Than You Are Of Me, however, is how familiar much of the record sounds, not simply in that it conforms to the same pop punk/emo crossover that other significant artists, such as Jeff Rosenstock, as well as PUP and Modern Baseball, have recently put their own, definitive twist on, but the group also offer a limited amount of compositional variety between tracks. This is one of the few drawbacks of Wagner’s bellowing, Aussie voice, in that it’s often so heavily put to the forefront of these pieces that a handful of cuts could be said to sound rather similar due to the emphasis placed on his unique singing. Other tracks don’t take full advantage of the opportunity presented by Rosenstock’s grandiose production and adhere to a largely clear-cut blueprint that reveals an underwhelming level of substantial songwriting under the flashy surface. Forrest, for instance, is one of the most rudimentary songs on the album, following the average emo formula to the letter, which means that its positioning as the first song in the tracklisting makes for a disappointingly inconspicuous start to the record. On the other end of the spectrum, It Kills Me To Have To Be Alive seems to simply fulfil the role of the soft, emotive pop punk tune that constantly edges towards a big climax throughout the entirety of its runtime, but with this song model being so commonly used by outfits similar to The Smith Street Band, the effectiveness of such an approach is relatively restricted. All this being said, the overall sound across More Scared Of You Than You Are Of Me is very impressive, standing as the best album from the band based on its sonic qualities alone, especially given the ample supply of catchy refrains and soaring melodies to feature throughout the tracklisting. Nonetheless, The Smith Street Band could certainly still bring more to the table from both a songwriting standpoint and in terms of the variety available across the record. After all, with such a massive sound, an equally grand songwriting style could easily yield even more explosive results.
As for Wagner’s lyrics, More Scared Of You Than You Are Of Me highlights the singer’s wit and raw emotion more so than any previous album from The Smith Street Band. On the other hand, such enticing lyrical abilities largely come in the form of amusing or relatable one-liners, rather than as conveyed by the record’s overarching narrative, which, at times, flies a bit too close to melodrama than engrossing storytelling. When it comes down to Wagner’s witty chestnuts, however, the musician’s execution is impeccable for the most part, with the dynamics of the band playing into the impact of his delivery. This often comes in the form of a droll or funny opening couplet that sets the scene to a song in an enticingly humorous fashion, such as the opening lines of Passiona, (“The people in the apartments across the street literally and metaphorically look down on me”), and Birthdays, (“Spent the morning cleaning my room / In the hope you’d ask to see it soon”). Other moments, however, come off as contrived or exaggerated in a way that feels rather out of place within the context of the rest of the record. Young Once, as the title suggests, sees Wagner agonise over memories from when he was younger, but given that the singer is not even 30 yet, the entire premise of the song comes across as either forced or overly dramatic. Birthdays, on the other hand, sees an oddly inconsistent lyrical approach, in that Wagner employs both light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek quips, (“I don’t mean to put the pressure on / But I got a few names for a daughter”), and excessively serious remarks, such as the line depicting a pair of lovers jaywalking over petrified earth, in a way that arguably comes across as if the singer simply couldn’t decide how to approach this particular song. Overall, however, More Scared Of You Than You Are Of Me is successful in conveying the emotions listeners would look for in an emo record in a individual, charismatic and epigrammatic fashion that likely gives this release a significant amount more staying power over much of its competition.
Ultimately, More Scared Of You Than You Are Of Me is successful in a substantial number of striking regards. Rosenstock’s production is stellar throughout the entire duration of the album, with the producer’s explosively expansive style capturing the rawness of The Smith Street Band’s brisk and intense performances without sacrificing any clarity in the process. Similarly, the band, once again, conveys a great sense of melody that translates into an abundance of captivating guitar lines and infectious hooks that are perfectly tailored for a live setting. Nonetheless, the album is sometimes lacking, both in terms of the group’s occasionally formulaic songwriting style and Wagner’s slight lack of focus when it comes to completely committing himself to the lyrical themes across the record. All this being said, however, More Scared Of You Than You Are Of Me sees The Smith Street Band come closer to unlocking the full scope of their potential more than ever before, with the best moments in the tracklisting meeting raw energy with raw emotion in a way that is compellingly upfront and engagingly personal.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7/10