Four decades of music mastery and songwriting craft come together on Chris Smither's latest collection, Time Stands Still -- a gripping mix of originals and potent covers. The new collection puts the exclamation point on a legendary career that shows no signs of slowing down. On the contrary, this blues and folk superstar continues to build creative momentum. His latest effort features a slew of tunes stripped down to their essence, shining the spotlight on Smither's understated power as a
songwriter -- one who taps into emotions at their most elemental and powerful core. It's a reminder why artists as diverse as Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris and Diana Krall have mined Smither's catalog in the past.
This is my first album by Chris Smither. I came across `Time Stands Still' by accident, I listened to the samples and I was rather partial to his whisky-soaked low tenor, one which seems to have been fashioned by the vagaries of time and circumstances - a bit like my favourite pair of shoes (not the height of fashion, well worn, but soft and extremely comfortable). Instrumental accompaniment is spare and very 'rootsy' - David Goodrich (various electric/acoustic guitars, and occasional piano), Zak Trojano (drums/percussion) and Chris (acoustic guitar and foot tapping). On a couple of tracks, there are some overdubbed light harmony vocals from Chris.
The songs have wonderful lyrics - and Chris' writing often employs a colourful and witty turn of phrase (see Dr. Debra Jan Bibel's earlier review for a few examples). 8 songs are written by Chris and 3 are by other songwriters - a few comments about my favourites :
SURPRISE, SURPRISE (Chris Smither) - A fairly up-tempo topical song, in which Chris makes some wry (and slightly sarcastic) observations about the impact of the banking system meltdown - but why worry?, life's too short.
OLD MAN DOWN (Chris Smither) - A slow blues with a lot of fluent and delicate acoustic guitar picking (including a one minute intro). Listen out too for the percussion, which includes a bass drum thump on the backbeat. Also, in the background, there's some eerie electric guitar (referred to as 'ambient guitar' in the liner notes) weaving in and out. On this track, Chris' voice reminded me a little of Jeffrey Foucault.
IT TAKES A LOT TO LAUGH, IT TAKES A TRAIN TO CRY (Bob Dylan) - Rhythmically, a lot different to the mid-paced shuffle of the original - here, it's performed as a slow tempo folk-blues. Chris sings a little higher up the scale to give the song an achingly poignant rendition; beautiful acoustic and electric guitar playing.
MINER'S BLUES (Frank Hutchison arr. Chris Smither) - Up-tempo blues with terrific syncopated rhythms. Great playing (acoustic guitar and piano), and it's another track featuring super drumming and percussion.
MADAME GENEVA'S (Mark Knopfler) - A contemporary English folk song with a rather gloomy 19th. century theme; fascinating lyrics, sung with only acoustic guitar/foot tapping as accompaniment. Chris' rendition is quite close to the original.
With almost any album that I buy, there are usually 2 or 3 songs that don't 'grab me' quite as much as the others, the ones here are 'Someone Like Me' and 'I Don't Know' - but, along with all of the other songs on this album, they both feature outstanding lyrics (the latter in particular - sung in the form of a dialogue between an inquisitive child and his/her father).
I think 'Time Stands Still' is a solid album of good music - well written songs (with some exceptional lyrics) and strong performances all round. It won't be my last album by Chris Smither.
Mesmerizing folk-blues from acoustic guitar giant, September 29, 2009
By hyperbolium (Earth, USA)
Born and raised in New Orleans, Smither broke into Boston's coffeehouse circuit amid the folk revival of the 1960s. Raised on folk and blues classics, he developed a unique finger-picking style and waxed his first albums for the same Poppy label on which Lightnin' Hopkins, Eric Von Schmidt and Doc Watson also recorded. He's performed steadily for over forty years, but his recording career was marked by lengthy stretches of substance abuse that sidelined his studio work for much of the 1970s and 1980s. He warmed back up to full-time recording with 1991's live release, Another Way to Find You, and recommenced studio work with 1993's superb Happier Blue.
His latest album, his fourteenth overall, is a textbook of his art. Smither sticks to acoustic guitar, with David Goodrich playing atmospheric electric, and Zak Trojano adding sparse percussion. The mix of instruments provides a fuller experience than a solo guitar, yet leaves the spotlight on Smither's emotive playing. His voice has the raspy edge of Tom Waits but without the guttural bowery bottom end. He growls the half-sung/half-spoken original "I Told You So" like Mark Knopfler, who's own "Madame Geneva's" closes the album with the sound of traditional English folk. Dylan's "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" is reworked from the boozy, shambling backing of the 1965 original and sung in a haggard voice set to contemplative guitar.
Smither's picking is everywhere, and in his hands, the guitar is an uncommonly flexible instrument. His strings provide an insistently rolling engine beneath "Don't Call Me Stranger," create pinpoint flecks of melody atop the metronomic shuffle of "Time Stands Still," and stage an intricately picked opening to "Miner's Blues." Goodrich is no slouch either, adding superb electric and slide playing throughout; his dollar bill guitar on "Surprise, Surprise" is particularly memorable. Smither delivers lyrics with a sly offhandedness that undersells the beauty of his words and dovetails perfectly with his guitar playing. At turns he's a tempter, an aging philosopher, and a wry social observer.
A bluesman at heart, Smither can also be quite funny, as with the tangled riddles of "I Don't Know." He's self deprecating for "Someone Like Me" and sarcastic on "I Told You So," but mostly he's pensive, philosophical, exhausted and blue. Smither's a master of down-tempo crawls, mid-tempo grit and percolating shuffles, and though his guitar is played mostly for accompaniment its qualities shine as though spotlighted throughout. You could strip the vocals from this album and still have a compelling record; but his wizened, abraded voice is the perfect topping on a sweet cake.
Even though this album is not Chris Smither's strongest, there is much to enchant and delight. His songwriting skills certainly are as sharp as ever, and his first five tracks especially, whose poetic lyrics are included in the enclosed booklet, all have some phrases that persist and dwell within: I ain't evil, I'm just bad; My shadow often kicks me from behind; The trickle down will float you up; The wisest answer's one you learned a long ago: I don't know [there is a Zen school dedicated to that one]; See if you can answer your own call. Smither's soft, wistful voice and foot-tapping complement his catchy simple melodies. It is a pleasure to listen to this old guy. His cover of Bob Dylan's It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It takes a Train to Cry is a captivating rendition, a solid example of contemporary folk music; and the cover of Mark
Knopfler's Madame Geneva's demonstrates the keen influence of traditional British folk styles on
Knopfler's composition. Smither's has musical support by guitarist David Goodrich and drummer Zak Trojano, but their accompaniment is subdued and add color to the performance. Chris Smither fans will certainly enjoy this
latest opus of wit and simplicity.
1.Don’t Call Me Stranger
2.Time Stands Still
4.I Don’t Know
6.Old Man Down
7.I Told You So
8.It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry
10.Someone Like Me
Back in the old days,” muses resilient troubadour Chris Smither, “writing new songs and making new albums were just chores. My priority was, and still is, performing live. I guess I still write the songs and make the records so that I can go out and play – except that now I actually look forward to it. I’ve learned how to do it, and I’m very eager to get stuff recorded once I’ve written it.”
Recorded in only three days, Time Stands Still is just the eleventh studio album of a career that now spans over four decades. Time Stands Still (Signature Sounds/Mighty Albert) is both pensive and visceral – an album whose songs alternately ponder life’s mysteries in some moments, and let them lie undisturbed in others. Featuring eight new original compositions and a song apiece from Bob Dylan, Mark Knopfler, and 1920s country-blues songster Frank Hutchison, Time Stands Still’s immediate, intimate sound is the direct result of one gig, and the challenge it presented.
“This is the most stripped-down record I’ve made in a long time,” Smither explains. “That came about thanks to a trip to the Netherlands.” Invited to perform at the Americana-centric Blue Highways Festival in Utrecht, Smither was told he had to bring a band over with him. “I usually perform solo,” he continues, “but they said ‘We don’t hire solo acts.’” He reached out to producer and guitarist David “Goody” Goodrich, who produced Smither’s last two studio albums. “Goody said, ‘Let’s get you, me, and a drummer,” Smither says. “So I called and asked if a trio would be okay, and the festival agreed. So Goody, the drummer Zak Trojano, and I went there, and we killed them!”
“Playing with just the three of us was a lot of fun,” Smither reflects. “At first it scared me, but we did a few rehearsal dates before we left. We booked them under a pseudonym, so there was no pressure. Right after our set at the festival, the soundman gave me a CD he made off the board. I put it away for a while, then listened to it one day. It sounded so good to me, I called Goody up and said ‘I’m sending you a CD. This is how we should do the next record.’ And that’s what we did…”
For Smither, going into the studio is preceded by an intensive period of songwriting and road-testing new material. “I’m not one of these writers who write all the time,” he says. “I write for a project. If you want me to finish a song, give me a date that we’re going into the studio.” His process insures that the songs hang together as a group – forming a snapshot of Smither’s experience and perception in a given time. “They all relate to each other,” he says of the songs on Time Stands Still. “In a way, it’s a case of realizing after the fact how they fit together, not whether they fit together.”
“Writing songs is like exercising,” he adds. “There are certain muscles that have to get toned up. You work for a while, and eventually they get strong again. Eventually, once you’ve written five or six songs, songs number seven, eight, and nine come a lot quicker. You know what you’re doing. I learn a little bit more every time I write a new batch of songs.”
The songs on Time Stands Still are somehow both vivid and mysterious, evoking contemporary culture and circumstance while remaining touchingly timeless. Smither’s concerns – personal and political – are wed to music that, while stripped down in terms of arrangement and presentation, is among his most intricate, melodic, and challenging. The stark settings only serve to throw the album’s themes into higher relief. “I’m still talking about what I think of as nitty-gritty questions…” Smither says, “…essential questions, existential questions.”
These questions can be examined on a grand level – “Surprise, Surprise” aims a raised eyebrow at how society is coping with (or not coping with) the current economic slowdown – or can be evoked in the smallest gestures between people. The title track, to a brisk pulse propelled by Smither’s percussive feet and Trojano’s brushes, is a potent meditation on love and vulnerability – the paradox that in order to be strong and complete, one must lower one’s defenses and trust in something that you cannot see or explain. “I thought in my heart it would tear me apart,” Smither sings in his inimitably soulful growl, “but it made me whole.” The playfully exasperated “I Don’t Know” is Smither’s first song about parenthood, set as a dialog between an inquisitive youngster and a parent who finally concedes that he may not know it all. “When my wife and I adopted our daughter,” he says, “people thought I would write a billion songs about her, or about children – but so far, this is the only one. It came to me in a flash, very quickly.”
“The leadoff song was like that too,” Smither says of the ominous, enticing “Don’t Call Me Stranger.” “I think of it as a straight up seduction song,” he continues, “that is interesting because it doesn’t make any specific promises or claims or suggestions. It just says ‘Come. Trust me on this.’ There’s no hint of what’s coming…that’s all in your imagination.”
In keeping with his long-standing tradition of performing other writers’ work, Smither includes a trio of cover songs, including a version of Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” which is curiously severed from the original version’s bluesy shuffle, to better reveal the aimless sadness of the lyric. “I refused to go back and listen to the original before I recorded it,” Smither says, smiling. Closing with Mark Knopfler’s “Madame Geneva’s” will surprise more than a few, but Smither sees it as perfectly natural. “People think of him as Mr. Rock’n’Roll,” Smither says of Knopfler, “but the last couple of albums he’s done have been songwriter expeditions. He writes these beautiful biographical expositions, and this song is a shining example of that kind of work. It concerns itself with a period in British history when there wasn’t much entertainment for the lower classes except for gin and public executions…”
The songs are met with a studio sound that is loose yet clear, highlighting the natural empathy of Goody on array of guitars, Smither’s intricate finger-picking, and Trojano’s wide-ranging percussion. “It doesn’t sound over-worked or labored,” Smither says. “We’re the only three guys on this record, and most of the songs only have three parts going on. We had a freewheeling feeling at that festival gig, and we managed to make a lot of that same feeling happen in this record.”
Already, the material on Time Stands Still has been met with enthusiastic approval from Smither’s concert audiences. “If I had my way,” he says, “I wouldn’t record a song until I’ve played it for a couple of years…but I’ve gotten better at getting it ready faster. Still, before I actually get out there and introduce new songs, there’s always a part of me that says, ‘Is anyone going to like this? Is anyone going to get it?’ Usually those fears are exaggerated. I do tend to go out on a limb more these days. I take more risks…but I’ve gotten to a point with my audience where they give me a lot of slack. They work at it with me. You can’t overestimate how much that’s worth. It frees you up to do your work.
“I love it when people say at the record table after the show, ‘Do you have such-and-such song on a CD?’” Smither concludes, “and I say ‘No – that’s a new one!’ It’s great when they start asking about it right away, which is what’s happening now with these songs.”
A Few Press Quotes
NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO: [Smither] taps his foot to keep the rhythm, much like the late blues legend John Lee Hooker. His finger-picked guitar lines are sleek, unhurried and insistent. And then there’s the voice –equal parts gravel and molasses, Smither’s singing sounds like a distillation of the folk and blues heroes he grew up listening to in New Orleans.
ASSOCIATED PRESS: Smither is an American original, a product of the musical melting pot, and one of the absolute best singer-songwriters in the world.
ROLLING STONE: Bathed in the flickering glow of passing headlights and neon bar signs, Smither’s roots are as blue as they come. There is plenty of misty Louisiana and Lightnin’ Hopkins in Smither’s weathered singing and unhurried picking. So fine.
WIRED: The masterful combination of pure folk songwriting and intricate guitar blues are tangible signs of the singer-songwriter’s vigorous genius. A megawatt solo performer.
NEW YORK TIMES: With a weary, well-traveled voice and a serenely intricate finger-picking style, Mr. Smither turns the blues into songs that accept hard-won lessons and try to make peace with fate.
AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN: Chris Smither is America’s great blues poet, a master acoustic guitarist whose music suggests the power of Son House and a wisdom informed by the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.
WASHINGTON POST (Live review): Chris Smither has been so good for so long that it was a given that his show Saturday night would be nothing less than a competent, entirely professional exhibition of American blues-based folk music. Smither shapes the chords to fit non-traditional tempos. It’s that missing beat that draws in the ear and points to the lyrics, lyrics that find the compelling crease between literature and poetry.
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE: Smither continues to give ample proof that he’s matured into one of roots music’s most passionate, soulful songsmiths and interpreters. He has the perfect husky, country-music voice, and he keeps the tunes clipping with crisp acoustic picking.
NO DEPRESSION: If you’ve ever caught one of Chris Smither’s live performances, you know it’s hard not to come away knocked out by the amount of music that comes out of one man. His guitar playing is remarkably fluid. His songs are gleaming bits of gold performed in a variety of styles.