Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Chris Smither: "Hundred Dollar Valentine" (2012) CD Review

I got turned onto Chris Smither in the very early 1990s back in Boston, when he was already attracting a loyal audience.  Then a few years later I was working as a DJ in Oregon when Up On The Lowdown came out.  That's an album I really enjoyed, and we played the hell out of it (particularly its title track). If anything, Chris Smither has only gotten better since then.  His new studio release, Hundred Dollar Valentine (his fifteenth album) features good, well-structured songs, and his honest delivery.  There is something understated in these performances, nothing flashy. This is some of the best stuff Chris Smither has put out. 

There is a definite blues base to most of this material, as you might expect, but these are not simple blues tracks.  Obviously there is a heavy folk influence.  But it's not just that.  Listening to a track like "All We Need To Know," you hear a mix of genres and influences that add up to something that's all his own.  It's partly the musicians he's gathered for this release, including Kris Delmhorst on cello (I'm always a sucker for cello) and Ian Kennedy on violin.

By the way, Hundred Dollar Valentine has a "hidden track," though it's not really hidden, just not mentioned on the track list.  All songs on this release are originals.

"Hundred Dollar Valentine"

The album kicks off with its title track. This is loose acoustic blues, almost like a jug band playing blues (partly because of the way Billy Conway plays the drums on this track), and includes a count-off at the beginning.  Though this song has the great ol' back porch feel, and a timeless theme - how life is a mess when you're missing that special someone -  its lyrics show it to be a modern song, particularly in the line "I had a lighter in my carry-on/But the airline took it away."  I'm also fond of the line, "I called a taxi 'bout an hour ago,/But I think he's lost in the rain." And the backing vocals by Anita Suhanin are wonderful.

"On The Edge"

"On The Edge" is an interesting tune that creates its own world, has its own feel. It starts off seeming like it's promising to be a love song, with the guy stopping by to make sure the other person is all right. But by the end of the first verse, he sings, "We're dancing on the edge of the stage, it won't be long before we fall/The dance is the thing, the fall just brings us the news/That we don't get no curtain call." And by then, we know this is no simple song, no simple story.  In a verse about a clown is this line: "Funny ain't a joke to him, it's the heart and soul of all he'll be."  Nice.

"What It Might Have Been"

"What It Might Have Been" is closer to being straight acoustic blues, with some nice work on harmonica. But like a lot of Chris Smither's work, it's the lyrics that really make this song.  "It ain't what I know that makes me blue/It's what I thought I knew."  It's a strange song of acceptance tinged with sorrow. "I've learned that losin' is part of the game."  This is one of my favorites.

"What They Say"

"What They Say" is a lighter, more fun tune.  Like the opening track, this one has a loose, back porch feel.  Its opening lines are "They say the good die young, but it ain't for certain,/I been good all day, and I ain't hurtin.'"  What a great way to begin a song.  Robin Smither plays violin on this track, and in the liner notes it says "Introducing Robin Smither," so apparently it's his daughter's first appearance on an album.

"Place In Line"

"Place In Line" is a song about growing up, learning what everyone comes to learn - that we never really learn anything. "And now tomorrow's just your grand plan for yesterday."  This one features a nice mix of Chris' vocals with Anita's vocals throughout the song. This song offers some advice: "don't hold on too tight/Loosen your shoes, don't listen to news/That keeps you up at night/Don't try to explain, try not to complain, no one really cares."  And yet it's not a lonesome song - mostly because of the presence of female as well as male vocals. That keeps it from being sad.  Really, it actually has a hopeful, positive feel somehow.

"Every Mother's Son"

"Every Mother's Son" is a folk song about a man who becomes violent and kills six people before being killed himself. But it addresses the man's mother.  "You think too fast, yes, you love too slow/You know, you needn't feel that you're the only one."


The CD's "hidden track" is "Rosalie."  Chris Smither's voice is rougher on this track, which was apparently recorded late at night.  It's a good tune.  At the end, there is a bit of conversation.  Chris says he wrote it "thirty-five, forty years ago" and hasn't sung it on stage in years.

CD Track List
  1. Hundred Dollar Valentine
  2. On The Edge
  3. What It Might Have Been
  4. What They Say
  5. All We Need To Know
  6. Make Room For Me
  7. I Feel The Same
  8. Place In Line
  9. Feeling By Degrees
  10. Every Mother's Son
  11. Rosalie

Musicians appearing on this CD include Chris Smither on vocals and guitar; Billy Conway on drums and percussion; Kris Delmhorst on cello; Jimmy Fitting on harmonica; David Goodrich on slide guitar, diddley bo and xylophone; Ian Kennedy on violin; and Anita Suhanin on vocals.  David Goodrich also produced it.

Hundred Dollar Valentine is scheduled to be released on June 19, 2012.

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