Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Smitherology as musical preference and life option

How do I love the new Chris Smither album? Let me count the ways. I love it for its songwriting, which has never been sharper, its vocals, which get blurrier and more textured as Smither gets older, its guitar playing, which means Smither plus David Goodrich on electric guitar, its Bob Dylan cover, "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry," and, never forget, the foot stomping. The sound of that foot stomping evokes...stolid fortitude, compassion, spiritual uplift, courage in the face of the void. And it fills out the man's overall sound in a miraculous way. Think about how Johnny Cash sounded with the Tennessee Two (and Three) backing him; that's what I think about when I think about what the foot-tapping does for Smither's sound. It is unutterably simple and, like the simplest of things, profound. Every shade of meaning of each song is somehow, miraculously, deepened by the sound engineer's simple act of putting a separate microphone at the man's feet. The man stomps on a piece of plywood that he carries with him on tour for just this purpose, not just keeping the beat but creating a groove. I once heard him say in an interview that he has had his shoes resoled multiple times to ensure that the tapping is completely toneless. The worst thing, he said, is when you can hear his feet play notes. And the best thing I've heard him say in concert is an instruction to the sound man: "could I have some more feet in the monitors, please?"

Chris Smither, in case you didn't know, is one of my absolute favorites. I get as much pleasure out of listening to his music as I do Neil Young, Mississippi John Hurt, Sue Foley, Marshall Crenshaw, Hot Tuna, and Jefferson Airplane. Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell and Ani Difranco. Not to mention Chopin's nocturnes and etudes, and the second movement of Beethoven's seventh symphony. Gershwin's Concerto in F. Smither will never have the popularity or fame of any of the aforementioned, but I rank him in the same league. Apart from his songs, which I am partial to, he has a distinctive sound, a sound that has changed as he has aged and, if anything, has improved over time. His voice is rich and full and, as he has grown older, it has gained resonance and beauty. He has what the greatest blues singers have had, what Dylan and Mitchell have grown into in their own ways: an undefinable, undeniable presence. You hear these musicians and it is very difficult not to listen.

At least, that's what I think.

His newest album is called Time Stands Still. As usual with him, there are a bunch of news songs and a few songs written by others; in this case, Bob Dylan, Mark Knopfler, and Frank Hutchison. The eight originals deal with his usual lyrical concerns--selfhood, freedom, love, life and death, the process of thought--but puts new twists on them--questions from his new adopted daughter, grief over his father's death, gratified realization of love's persistence. There's even a topical song, "Surprise, Surprise," about the financial crisis which, as you listen, you realize isn't really about the financial crisis at all. The arrangements are typically austere: a drummer who knows how to stay out of the way, and his producer, David "Goody" Goodrich, throwing in some distorted guitar to add menace and gloom. But when those two guys back off during Dylan's "It Takes a Lot to Laugh..." leaving the featured performer to lay in to the song, I get chills. I've listened to this album 3 times so far, and I'll be damned if it isn't this track that stops me short every time I've heard it. It has the feel of his performance of "Killing the Blues," somehow cold and warm at the same time, mysterious and grand. It feels nothing like Dylan's original.

There are careful, subtle musical flourishes throughout the album. Check out the unusally hot groove to "I Told You So," or Goodrich's guitar work on the opening track, "Don't Call Me Stranger."

I contemplated throwing out sample lyrics, but narrowing down favorites is difficult. Let's just say that no song on the album is "ordinary," though some are perhaps ordinary by Smither's standards; that is, the standards of greatness. And many of the songs echo others. "Don't Call Me Stranger," for example, reminds me of "Drive You Home Again," which opens the album of the same name. Similar lyrical idea, similar overall feel. The language is spare. Nothing feels forced. Smither's best songs always have the feeling of being fully formed on delivery, as if the songs had been waiting to be plucked from the air. It's an illusion, of course, but some songs sustain the illusion beyond my point of (dis)belief. Listen to "Slow Surprise" from Small Revelations or "Tell Me Why You Love Me" from Drive You Home Again or "Time Stands Still" from the new album, and maybe you'll see what I mean.

In the Smither cannon, the two greatest are from the late '90s: Small Revelations and Drive You Home Again. After those two, and the two live albums, Another Way to Find You and Live as I'll Ever Be, I'd say that this newest one ranks next. But you'd wouldn't be sorry if you shelled out the money for Leave the Light On or Train Home.

He's playing the Iron Horse next week, and I do believe I'll stop by. You should too.

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