victorthecook: (Default)
So I think about reviewing stuff way more often than I do it. Some of that is a worry about generating boring posts, but I think my posting frequency is light enough that people will cope. If not, hit me with comments and I'll set up an opt-in filter.

The artist: Chris Smither. The album: Another Way to Find You, a live album from about 1990. The genre: American folk and/or blues.
My rating: Wow. Worth the 15 year wait.

The summary: Every copy of this album should be in the hands of somebody I'm friends with. Other people can get on the phone and demand a re-issue from Hightone Records. (I feel this way about every bottle of 1979 Francis Darroze Bas-Armagnac, too -- the stuff is too good for people who might not offer me some.)

My history with this album goes back to 1991, in Oregon. I was in the habit of taping a Sunday morning folk program (Sunday Morning, hosted by Gray Eubanks) and listening to it later, since the college served only brunch and dinner on weekends, and I needed to eat once in a while. A song from this album, "Lonely Time", was the next-to-last thing on the tape. What was not on the tape was any title or any hint as to who had done this thing, which just blew me away. I played that track until it wore out. (Tape, remember?)
I looked for that song, off and on, for more than a decade before finding it again. Mr. Smither had finally posted lyrics on the 'net, so I could find this thing with a web search.

Next -- find an out-of-print folk album from 15 years ago, when (if you can believe it) the CD format was brand new and people were just abandoning vinyl and cassette. The usual sources either had no copies, or were willing to sell me one for, oh, $75 or so. Not likely. Fortunately, I discovered GEMM.com, which is a sort of ABEbooks for the music market. Soon, a copy was winging its way to me for under $20 delivered.

And, with fifteen years of anticipation, the buildup undersold the final product. It's just superb from start to finish. When was the last time you heard an album of songs without finding tracks you'll skip pretty much every time?

The album is an attempt to capture Smither's concert style of the time -- it's an in-studio album with a small audience, just Chris and his guitar playing. They appear to have done two concert sets this way, then picked the best cuts and put them on the album. The pacing feels like a concert -- delicate sad songs are periodically relieved with the energetic and rowdy. The setup is: man, guitar, chair. No backup. No drum set, no string section, no Smitherettes adding high notes, no special guest appearance by big-name-star-who owes-me-one.

So what you get is a concentrated dose of Chris Smither's guitar wizardry, without the distractions of an overproduced studio album, on a beautiful set of both his own material and some lovely covers, including (for example) a one-man rendition of "Friend of the Devil".

Pause a moment so we can all recover from that sentence. Now, drag out your old copy of American Beauty and listen to that song, as done by Jerry Garcia et al. in their more focused mode. Imagine doing that with one guitar and one voice. Tour de force. Coup de maƮtre. Better than the original. Better guitar than the original, with only half as many fingers.

Don't like the Dead? Well, nobody is surprised when somebody covers Dylan and the result is musically superior. But "Down in the Flood", as done here, rocks and rolls way beyond its lyrical merit.

Or is all this too folk-y or folk-rock-ish? Try "Statesboro Blues", a fast-paced straight-up blues tune. Or "Catfish", a slyly suggestive change-up between some poignant melodies. Here's where the audience helps -- you can hear them get the joke about the time you do.

Prefer poignant singer-songwriter stuff? Yeah, we've got you covered, too. Try "Don't It Drag On", or "Lonesome Georgia Brown", or "Every Mother's Son", or the one that got me started so long ago, "Lonely Time".

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victorthecook

June 2011

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