It starts with that elegant guitar tone, that delicate touch
of his fingers across the neck, the way he channels the intricately sweet
finger-picking stylings of his biggest influence Mississippi John Hurt into
something wholly his own. Once heard, Chris Smither’s guitar playing is
Then there are his feet, stomping quietly on a wooden board
placed and carefully mic’ed below him. Sometimes he stomps cross rhythms,
sometimes it’s just an insistent commentary on the beat of the song.
Smither’s vocals are strong and sensitive, sinuous and
stringent. He’s capable of blaring out exuberantly delighted songs or
whispering right into the ears of the saddest moments of our lives. Over the
years, Smither has lost a little precision in his voice, but his instincts
continue to hone in on the presentation of his music.
His career dates back to the 1960s blues revival, with two
albums released in the early 70s which placed him firmly in the ranks of
singer/songwriter icons like Neil Young and Randy Newman (whose songs he
covered), and blues missionaries like Bonnie Raitt (who turned his “Love You
Like a Man” into “Love Me Like a Man,” and kept
royalties coming to Smither throughout the lean years). But, it’s been since
the 1990s that Smither has consistently shown off his skills as a recording
artist and live performer. Hundred Dollar
Valentine is his tenth album since 1991, and it can’t be said to be better
or worse than any of the others, as he just doesn’t know how to phone in a
Valentine can be said to be the first album of Smither’s career to feature
nothing but his original songwriting. He’s done so many brilliant covers over
the years – Chuck Berry’s “Tulane,” Little Feat’s “Rock & Roll Doctor,” and
Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row” come to mind as practically definitive examples –
that this seems moderately disappointing. That is, until you hear the songs
he’s written this time around, and you realize that he’s in a place where his
own words are the perfect ones to tell his current story.
Smither has been philosophical before (“Small Revelations,”
title track of his 1997 album, pops into mind, though it’s as much love song as
think piece) and he’s written perhaps the greatest rebuttal to those who still
believe in creationism (“Origin of Species,” from his 2006 Leave the Light On). The new record is practically a term paper on
the subjects of who we are and where we came from, albeit one entirely more
entertaining than any college student has ever turned in.
The record is full of quotable lines. “They could have told
you, back in the day, / It all comes to pass, it don’t come to stay” (“Place in
Line”). “Don’t spend it on your knees asking someone won’t you please / Give me
a reason, a hint why I am here, / You’re here because this is where you are, /
When you’re not here you won’t wonder what it’s for” (“All We Need to
Know”). “They say the good die young,
but it ain’t for certain, / I been good all day, and I ain’t hurtin’, / Not in
any way, I’m too old to die young.” (“What They Say”).
Aside from two very sad break-up songs, and a very funny (or
possibly pathetic) song about life stopping during separation from one’s lover,
Smither is tackling the big subjects head on. At 67, he’s thinking about the
shorter time of his life ahead, and resolving to make the most of it by
concerning himself with where he is now, and what makes this time mean
something. He’s rejecting all dreams of a life after this one, and insisting
that this one deserves more attention. He’s worried about climate change and
the disasters which will come, and concerned that religion is helping to
prevent people from looking at what is happening. And he’s trying to figure out
his place in this world without outside meaning, with horrors and sadness and
ignorance and beauty and love and constant variance.
But let’s get back to Smither’s guitar, feet, and vocals for
a second. Of course, when he plays live, that’s all he brings with him. Every
time he releases a new album, the first listen brings up questions of why he
adds other performers to the mix on his recordings. It never takes long to get
used to them, however, and this time is no exception.
Smither plays beautiful and well-designed guitar figures, and provides strong,
focused melodies for his elaborate turns of phrase, full as they are of
internal rhymes and rhythmic complexity. His collaborators merely comment on
what he does, sometimes amping up the emotional meter (particularly the
soulful, bluesy harmonica of Jimmy Fitting, and the gorgeous counter-melodies
of Kris Delmhorst on cello and Ian Kennedy on violin), sometimes bringing witty
musical responses (most especially the work of drummer Billy Conway, who has to
fit in between Smither’s rhythmic interplay among voice, guitar, and feet).
What we have here is another excellent Chris Smither album,
reason enough for celebration, which also happens to churn up a whole lot of
thinking about our place under the sun and how we deal with everyday life in
the face of ultimate nothingness. There aren’t many who could make those ideas
so darn pleasurable, but Chris Smither proved long ago he’s no ordinary human.
DOWNLOAD: “On the
Edge,” “What They Say,” “Place in Line.” STEVE PICK