Back in late 2019, I went through a stint of stumbling across rarer songs on Spotify. I do this every now and again; it’s yielded surprisingly awesome results (including otherwise-popular musicians who just aren’t listened to through the platform, like Joerg Reiter). But nothing compares to The Smelling Fresh, a university bedroom recording project by Brian Yates and James Matthews that was quietly and independently released in 2012.
First, the original album. ‘Grounded Skies’ is a Moody Blues-esque opening track, showcasing Yates’ voice and lyrical prowess paired with Matthews’s guitar work. The mixing on the whole album is wonky; the louder bits have static buzz where it hits the limits of their microphones, the vocals could be a bit louder… and it is a testament to the skill on display that it does not matter. ‘Touch the Ceiling’ is just as grand, and actually the original track I stumbled on – a fairly relaxed verse leads into a killer chorus that seems tailor-made to get people singing along.
The influences on the album are clear, too; ‘Whoa Oh! She Go!’ is firmly in the arena of Blink-182, Bowling for Soup and early Sum 41 (and almost feels like it came through a time machine from 2005, in the best, most complimentary, most devotedly scene kid way possible). The reflective ‘Not the Same’, meanwhile, is heartbreaking and possibly Yates’s writing at its best – “It’s all the same/you told me you’ll never change/but I’m not the same/are you?” (Sobs into my T-shirt. It’s fine. I’m fine.) And the catchy ‘Daydreamer’ betrays some of their hidden but emerging jazz sensibilities underlying the pop-punk exterior, evoking both McFly and a little je ne sais quois. All through the album are the aches and worries of growing up and becoming “real” adults, both silly and serious, relationships and friendships, and even lifelong dreams – “I don’t wanna give up on my dreams at twenty-one,” is one of the most striking lines in Touch The Ceiling for its naked sincerity.
Of course, this is an album from 2012. The Smelling Fresh was a one-off, a small collaboration between friends. Brian Yates did some EDM work, but currently works in software in North Carolina; James Matthews works in New Jersey, both of them far from Penn State where they created the album. When I contacted them about the album, they were both surprised to hear that it was still circulating; Yates even said that he’d strained his vocal cords a bit.
So imagine my joy to hear, two years later, that They Fucking Did It.
If Grounded Skies was an amazing debut, Colors has – possibly through the sheer length of time between releases – completely avoided the sophomore curse. Every song on the EP takes the building blocks from Grounded Skies and builds upwards on it, leaning into aspects they shied away from on the first album. Where Grounded Skies suffered from quiet vocals and buzzing on higher/louder notes, Colors is crisp and clear; where Grounded Skies played lightly with but then veered from jazz influences, both the songs ‘Count On You’ and ‘The Smooth Interlude’ lean completely into it. In fact, ‘The Smooth Interlude’ is entirely instrumental, the kind of thing pop-punk/grunge outfits usually don’t have the guts to do until much later in their careers (or the skill to pull off, which TSF does in grand style!). The bouncy bridge in ‘Count On You’ is slick and cool, which sounds ridiculous to say about music, but it’s the best words coming to mind — and it’s well balanced out by the crunchier guitar and soaring riffs on ‘Colors’ and ‘Fade Away’.
The lyrics, however, are another level of awesome. As mentioned above, Yates and Matthews weren’t even in the same state; whether they made this through long-distance or got together in person to make the album, I don’t know, but the lyrics in the whole album are about the importance and value of long-term friendships, reminiscing on older times and rekindling things once thought lost. Especially together with the first album’s fear of the rapidly-approaching future, it’s hard not to feel the joy coming off of every song. ‘Laughing At Ourselves’ says, “We found our way through the storms with our lights on bright and never looking back… When we were younger we had no fear of the end, like the last song we sang of the summer,” and ‘Count on You’ follows it up with “this time I won’t take for granted, you’re still on my mind/we’ll make the most of the days we have left, all the precious time”.
I dearly hope — and almost expect, at least if anybody has any sense — that this second EP will be what gets The Smelling Fresh some radio play or at least some attention. If you don’t believe me, take a listen for yourself – and let’s raise a glass to one of the sweet successes of an otherwise-grisly two years. I’m hoping there’ll be a third album, but even if there isn’t, this is a hell of a triumphant return.