Review Summary: A band at the crossroads of where they've been and where they're going.
As one of the longest-running (but arguably most under-appreciated) bands in Japanese popular music, The Pillows' career has involved many more stages of change and growth than other bands. After shuffling a variety of styles in their early years, ranging from Smiths-inspired jangle pop to the edges of jazz fusion and bossa nova, the band settled on a recognizable alternative rock style for 1997's Please Mr. Lostman, and their successive releases followed suit.
But 2001's Smile comes at an interesting point in the band's career, between their boisterous late-90s style and their alleged devolution into a less creative and inconsistent style in the new millennium. 2000 was the first year since 1996 (!) that the band didn't release a new album, instead offering a best-of collection and a few new singles. Inconsequential for some bands that take years to release a new album, but a long time for a group as proactive as this. The result is a subtle but distinct difference between this album and their preceding material that is under-appreciated despite being one of the last genuinely ambitious releases by the band.
Good as their albums may be, opening songs have for some reason never been a particularly strong point for The Pillows, generally eclipsed by following tracks. Fortunately, Smile is the exception and gets off to a kickass start with Good Morning Good News, a powerful tune bristling with energy. The entire band sounds electric here, with an enthusiasm and punch their last few records have been sorely missing. Guitarist Yoshiaki Manabe unleashes two fiery guitar solos here, and singer Sawao Yamanaka sounds terrific. Waiting At The Busstop somehow manages to be even more energetic, with Shinichiro Sato's drumming giving the punk vibes of the song a propulsive drive.
The next song, Kono Yo no Hate Made (All The Way To The Edge Of The World) is similarly exciting, and lifted by a great chorus and more excellent singing from Yamanaka. Monster C.C. shows the band is just as willing to write slower songs; but considering they do this same style better elsewhere, it feels weaker in contrast to the preceding tracks. Skim Heaven is a fun but not particularly memorable song, quickly redeemed by the crazed pace of Winning Come Back!, which is only one minute and sixteen seconds long but somehow manages to cram in a tasty guitar solo from Manabe around the humorous lyrics.
Vain Dog In Rain Drop is symptomatic of the problems the band faces later in their career: parts of the song echo brilliance, only to be dragged down by other elements. The verse offers a great vocal melody, but the chorus feels grating and repetitive in comparison, in spite of nice guitar throughout. Fun Fun Fun OK! is a stronger track, with an energetic yet relaxed sound that offers the most effective contrast with the record's faster tunes. But Thunder Whales Picnic is a true standout, an all-instrumental track that offers a terrific blend of surf and punk. Once again, The Pillows are at their best when they're playing their fastest, Manabe's guitar morphing between twangy lead playing and blistering tremolo chords.
The next track, Hibi no Uta (Everyday Songs), is one of the best mid-tempo tunes the band has ever recorded; it's pop rock at its finest. All of the instrumentation comes together with Yamanaka's vocal melodies to make an almost-perfect song from start to finish. The following title track is probably one of the most progressive songs the band ever recorded, starting slowly with a clear guitar and great melodies before shifting gears to abrasive punk and back again. Of particular note is Manabe's solo, one of the finest in his long career. The track isn't perfect (there's a sense that the more aggressive portions of the song could have been done better) but the sheer ambition of the song outweighs its few weak points. Calvero closes the album with more surf vibes and memorable melodies, influenced by Yamanaka's love of old movies.
Almost ten years later, Smile might seem more distinctive than at its time of release, simply because the band explores certain ideas on this album, such as the surf elements, much better than on future releases. It's also a standout recording because of the warm-sounding production, which sadly seems to get more and more artificial and tinny-sounding on each successive release by the band.
But it's the fast songs that are best here, and ten years later it's hard to listen to this record and not wonder why more rock bands can't make albums like this – with thoughtful songcraft and instrumentation, yet boasting great melodies and consistent accessibility. While the group has written plenty of great songs since 2001, Smile might be the last record they ever released with a strong sense of cohesion and overall quality from start to finish. It may not get enough love from fans of the band, but it's actually a great place to start for someone who has never listened to The Pillows before.