november 2009

Chris Smither Time Stands StillTIME STANDS STILL
Chris Smither
Signature Sounds/Mighty Albert

Artists like Chris Smither are treasures in any country, but our Chris Smither is an American, so it’s high time to designate him an official American Treasure. This is too often applied to an artist past his or her prime and living on reputation, but after 11 albums Smither may still be approaching his prime. His music has a lived-in feel-especially his raspy, bluesy vocals—but sounds ever fresh with each new long player.

Working with producer/guitarist David Goodrich and drummer Zak Trojano on Time Stands Still, Smither struts out a little more aggressively than in the recent past, and despite the title and the accompanying outstanding, knowing title track, Smither’s moving forward every time he gets his foot-stomping rhythm support going. Current events and fatherhood inform some of the best songs here, in addition to a sense on Smither’s part of fully appreciating at long last an abiding love his partner has demonstrated over the time that stands still for no one. Better late than never, though. One tune, the delightful “I Don’t Know (Robin’s Song),” was apparently written by his daughter, but dad “tagged along and cleaned up her grammar.” A buoyant, fingerpicked query into the ways of the world—“If they sleep while I’m awake/when do we talk to them”; “what time do we/how do we know when?”—it sails along on a Smither’s sprightly lines, a tasty electric interjection by Goodright and a subtle brush shuffle pattern by Trojano, as Smither eats up the lyric, delighting in matters getting curiouser and curiouser. The song actually bears a lot of similarities to some of the young Tom Waits’s wordplay, and maybe it’s no accident that Smither’s voice summons memories of Nighthawks At the Diner-era Waits. The gloom-and-doom trumpeting that’s abrogated by cash contributions to the till of religious fundamentalist gets a going over in “Call Yourself,” a brisk, strutting shuffle with Smither musing wryly over all-consuming hypocrisy, noting, “If you give them all your money/they’ll say thanks and call you honey/tell you silver is the way to save your soul” and “if you’re empty deep inside they’ll take you for a ride/charge you double just for pointing out the holes.” Beautifully put. These two back-to-back winners become a trifecta bonanza with “Old Man Down,” a dark, thumping meditation on fathers and mortality that sounds like a reality check from the man who only two songs earlier was enjoying his daughter’s song to the hilt. To his own superb songs Smither adds three memorable covers: the best of the bunch is a deliberate, ruminative take on Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” now a smoky, seductive come-on in Smither’s hands. Right behind it, literally, is a high-stepping rendition of ‘20s bluesman Frank Hutchinson’s oddly upbeat tale of romantic and professional woe, “Miner’s Blues.” (Reputedly the first white bluesman to be recorded, Hutchinson’s career spanned only three years—1926-1929—but his fingerpicking style has had wide reaching influence, not the least among his acolytes being the aforementioned Bob Dylan as well as Leo Kottke). Mark Knopfler’s historically based ode, “Madame Geneva’s,” brings Time Stands Still to a somber close with a Smither’s brooding vocal accompanied only by his spare, elegantly fingerpicked acoustic guitar in this atmospheric tale of a watering hole for onlookers to “a hangin’ day.” It’s a bit of an enigmatic ending to a fairly upbeat album, but Chris Smither wouldn’t be Chris Smither without a trick pitch or two in his repertoire.  -–David McGee

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024