I'd seen Hawk Nelson play a high school here in Ottawa in 2002 or thereabouts on the strength of their introductory independent EP, and remembered their name when the Tooth & Nail signing was announced. But it wasn't til my burgeoning radio career took off that I realized two things about them: a) they're better than I'd given them credit for and b) they're valuable additions to the canons of Canadian content, something not to scoff at in the Great White North. Their debut, Letters to the President, has since sold over a hundred thousand copies for the Nail, landing a pop-punk band from Nowheresville, Ontario in mainstream television, movies and Olympic commercials. A more meteoric rise to fame would be hard to find coming out of the Christian evangelighetto in the last five or ten years, and it's tough to say that Hawk don't deserve it, having hit the road hard since Letters emerged in 2004. Touring almost year-round took its toll on the band's original lineup, and new drummer Aaron "Skwid" Tosti and guitarist Jonathan Steingard perform capably, though not outstandingly - this is essentially simple music done well(and if Tosti's name rings a bell, it's because he cut his teeth drumming for the defunct Pax217 - a criminally underrated band in their time).
I used to tip Hawk Nelson as the sanitized, squeaky-clean CCM version of Simple Plan, and admittedly that comparison can still be drawn, but Smile has done what Simple Plan's sophomore record didn't: elevated HN's game to another level, incorporating different textures and ideas, instead of being dictated to by the hidden record-label boardroom. Opener "The One Thing I Have Left" is a barnburner, bringing in New Found Gloryish gang vocals over a breakdown at the end and affirming something I'd suspected before: the band's roots in hardcore. Vocalist Jason Dunn's vocals remain the catchy, somewhat cliched pipes they were on Hawk's debut, but here and there he stretches, going for the Coldplay piano ballad thing on "Something On My Mind" and closer "Fourteen". "The Show" features the vocal help of a legit barbershop quartet the band happened upon in Seattle's Pike Market while recording the album; the song's '70s vibe evokes shades of The Elms' lively, foot-on-amplifier guitar histrionics. "Bring 'Em Out" has a structure reminiscent of something off of Green Day's Insomniac before breaking into a full-blown singalong, to great effect. The intro and general feel of "Everything You Ever Wanted" is a dead ringer for Acceptance's "Perfect" - is it a sign that Acceptance drummer Nick Radovanovich once played a mean guitar for Christian punk heroes Hangnail, a band surely influential in the evolution of Hawk Nelson? I dare say so.
Frontman Dunn breaks out some lively piano accompaniment with "Something On My Mind", a song containing the kind of sugar-sweet chorus the kids love, right down to the affected Johnny-Rotten Brit accent, just before "Is Forever Enough" and "Nothing Left To Show" crank the attitude back up with snarling chants. Make no mistake, kids, Hawk Nelson have beefed up their sound from the run-of-the-mill pop guitars of their debut, and lyrically Dunn takes on issues like suicide ("Zero", striking a remarkably mature sound akin to labelmates Mae) and maintaining Christian dignity ("The One Thing I Have Left") in ways that don't come off as stale Christian jargon. Whatever you might have to say about this record as a hackneyed, jaded critic, I defy you to listen to the chorus of "Head On Collision" or the drop-dead hilarious "Hello" (replete with a kazoo) without a big, fat, unironic smile on your face.