To be sure, Micah Blue Smaldone’s songs can be awfully antiquated. He sings of time long past, of hunters from ages ago, of lands we read about in books. But like Fire on Fire, the band he plays with, he never uses his old sounds as some clever crutch to rest borrowed sounds on. Smaldone channels old voices rather than co-opting them, and uses them to create folk music that is infused with a very present and immediate emotion, while still touching on themes that can resonate in near any time. The Red River touches on the darker side of human nature, and assumes that evil is not always something that exists outside of us. The sinister cadence of “A Guest” builds over six minutes until you’re sure something terrible will befall that guest, and while you don’t know what, you know whatever happens is well-planned. “The Clearing” is another harrowing tale, telling of a group of hardened men clear cutting the land around them.
In other places, the songs aren’t quite as dark, but are much more internal. “The Red River” is an aching tale of an observer coming across a woman where the water’s start, in a quarry. His description makes his feelings clear, but some tangle inside him keeps him just an observer and not the man who walks up to her. There is a glimmer of hope running through The Red River. If only in the sweet lilt of Smaldone’s voice, we feel that we do have goodness in us to battle the darkness. That if we trust people to be good, sooner or later, they just might prove us right. This album isn’t always a shining declaration of hope—it explores some pretty deep, dark wells—but it all the more powerful for its scope of emotions. For a while now, Smaldone has been the kind of singer-songwriter who deserves more attention than he’s getting, and The Red River is further evidence of that.