Chris Smither’s voice is like good, aged whiskey. It goes down smooth but still burns and yields a hefty kick. Extending the metaphor, his deft finger picking acoustic guitar riffs are the wooden barrel that gives the alcohol its flavor. The playing contains rich resonances that make one pay attention and savor the quality. Smither’s folk blues are the aural equivalent of good American spirits like Knob Creek or Maker’s Mark, and listening to him will make you thirsty for more.
That’s just as true now after releasing more than a dozen records than it was when he put out his first album, I’m a Stranger Too, back in 1970. Coincidently, his new disc leads off with the track, “Don’t Call Me Stranger”. The Smither original composition highlights many of his best musical attributes. The lyrics are catchy and clever (e.g., “I ain’t evil / I’m just bad”), the melody full of hooks, but most importantly Smither delivers the words and music with panache. The insistent beat and upbeat phrasing complements the flirtation and seduces the listener. He’s the kind of person worth becoming familiar with and getting to know. He’s just a friend of the romantic persuasion one hasn’t got together with yet.
That persona is quintessential Smither. He’s the guy, part con man, part charmer, who’s one step ahead of you whether advising you on money matters (“Surprise, Surprise”) or on your love life (“Someone Like Me”). He can be a huckster warning you away from a hustle one minute, and then aggressively try to trick you the next. Smither’s best when he keeps things light. His earnestness can get in the way, as in “I Told You So”, as his rants do not always seem earned. Still, he’s always saved by his guitar playing that can turn his dirges into more compelling fare through Smither’s emphasis on always keeping the tempo moving forward.
That’s why Smither is smart enough to put his guitar in the forefront of the mix. He keeps his accompaniment spare. Drummer Zak Trojano brushes his pads more than beats them and producer David “Goody” Goodrich seldom joins in except to provide some colorful accents now and then, such as on the cover of Bob Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”. Smither slows the tune down, which brings out the bittersweet nature of the song (e.g., “If I don’t make it / You know my baby will”). The song’s narrator sings his blues out of love.
The two other covers on this 11-track disc also fit in thematically with Smither’s self-penned material, even if they are on very different topics. There’s Frank Hutchison’s “Miner’s Blues” that belongs to the tradition of good time songs in the face of hard labor and Mark Knopfler’s ode to the times of troubadours, drinking, and hangings, “Madame Geneva”. Smither brings out the importance of song in dealing with our troubles and then shows the merits of music in the very way he sings and plays. It’s a neat trick, if you can pull it off, and Smither does on almost every cut on his latest disc. He makes Time Stand Still while he captures your attention.