• Review

Album Review: Ryan Rockwell's Debut LP, Smurf King, Rules

If you’ve been in or around the Cincy music scene anytime throughout the last 10-15 years, you probably either know or know someone who knows Ryan Rockwell. Whether it was pop punk darlings Mixtapes, his various hip projects and podcasts, or, maybe most recently, his own solo material, the dude has hustled.

I’ve been a fan of his various projects for a while now, and always enjoy randomly running into him at shows from time to time. For those following along with what he was up to, the second half of 2023 saw the release of several singles and videos for what would become his first full-length release, Smurf King.

The end result is a delightfully listenable journey through all the the things Rockwell appreciates in the music he listens to - short, catchy pop tunes, 90’s alt and pop inspired radio worthy jams, pop punk with big hooks and choruses, and hip-hop - which he somehow brings together in a way that isn’t just organic, but right.

Starting off strong with the sound most associated with Rockwell’s particular brand of songwriting, “Save the Sassy” is an under 2 minute pop punk gem. “OPE”, which got a lovely video to go along with the single release last year, is a bubble gum sweet little ditty that is endearing rather than twee, sincere when it could be read as maudlin. “Brownie,” combines his love of 90’s hip-hop and 90’s/early 2000’s pop to offer a track that wouldn’t have been out of place on that one LEN album everyone geeked out about way back when. “You’re Right” leans into the hip-hop, and the production matches it beat for beat (really, the production is on point throughout the album’s runtime).

The album closes on another track in Rockwell’s wheelhouse, and one that I think will make for a great song to sing along to when he takes these songs to the stage. “Christopher Walken Walked in Talkin’ Like Christopher Walken” is maybe my personal favorite of the album, and another one that shines because of both the mix and the production. Oddly enough, it’s also the one that feels like it could be another minute long and it will still work really well.

With that in mind, there’s a lot to be said for writing songs with brevity in mind. Only one track bumps up against the 3 minute mark, while all the others play in full at 2 minutes or so. And I think if it wasn’t Rockwell putting these tracks together, there’d be a lot of dissatisfied listeners. But what he’s always excelled at is taking what would be a sketch for most and fully fleshing out tracks to make them feel cohesive and whole. With Smurf King - named after a friend who recently passed away - he doesn't just make them feel that way, but actually structures them so that they are as satisfying as they are catchy, earworm-y as they are tight, and varied as they are cohesive from a songwriting and production standpoint. It shouldn’t be a surprise to hear such confidence on display from someone who’s been doing this for as long as he has, but I’ve still found myself genuinely impressed by what he’s put together here.

Smurf King is currently “pay what you want” on Bandcamp, so now’s a great time to check it out. I’m sure it’s readily available on your streamer of choice, as well. Look for more from Ryan soon - he’s promised more new music and some live dates are on the way, so keep an eye out, and an ear to your speakers. You’ll want to listen a bunch so you can sing along with the rest of us.