[10 October 2006]
Mindy Smith first caught the eye with an outstanding contribution to the Dolly Parton tribute album Just Because I’m a Woman. Her “Jolene” was one part bluegrass, one part Celtic folk, and three parts simple evocative beauty. It didn’t just compare favourably with tributes from luminaries such as Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris, it also out-reached both Parton’s original and the previously definitive Rhonda Vincent cover version.
Released in October 2003, Just Because I’m a Woman quickly became a highly effective advance marketing campaign for Smith’s own debut album. So much so that four months later, when her own One Moment More was finally released, music fans were already very well aware of Mindy Smith’s potential. The video for “Jolene” had been shown in heavy rotation on CMT, and she’d also appeared both on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and in a Women Rock special on the Lifetime Network.
Happily, One Moment More didn’t disappoint. Indeed, it was an astonishingly accomplished debut. And while the lead track, the genuinely and literally awesome “Come to Jesus” quite rightly drew the bulk of the plaudits, there was barely an ill-judged moment, let alone a bad song, on the entire CD. Little wonder then that in the 2004 AMA Awards, Mindy Smith was acclaimed as the Emerging Artist of the Year, or that she was only a Van Lear Rose away from winning Album of the Year as well.
Since One Moment More, this most impressive singer-songwriter has released only other people’s songs. Recording a top notch cover of “The Word” for This Bird Has Flown - A 40th Anniversary Tribute to The Beatles’ “Rubber Soul” and a decidedly non-essential version of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkely Square” for a Starbucks Valentines CD. But now, almost three years after her debut, it’s finally That Difficult Second Album time for Miss Mindy Smith.
Scorning a high impact opener such as “Come to Jesus”, Long Island Shores is a much less immediate experience than its predecessor. But persevere and forgive Smith her refusal to fall neatly into a single comfortable musical pigeonhole, and her second album soon becomes something almost as enduring and valuable as her first.
Long Island Shores begins with “Out Loud”, a gentle statement of dissatisfaction and faith, a call for a non-specific change that seems to lay out a blueprint for the entire work. Building slowly from strummed beginnings, “Out Loud” gradually increases its intensity out over (what sounds like) a lap steel guitar and up into a pop rock crescendo before it falls away once more to a subdued yearning fade.
Having first told us where we’re going, Smith now shows us where she’s coming from. More or less. A generic and (again) non-specific lover’s plea, “Please Stay” is a mid tempo country piece shaped into something significantly other by her evident interest in classic English indie sounds, and graced with a brief fractured guitar solo that could never find a home with Montgomery, Gentry, Brooks or Dunn. And then, when “The Edge of Love” provides the first opportunity for Smith’s voice to truly soar, it becomes clear for the first time on Long Island Shores that Mindy Smith, at her best, combines a more prosaic and traditional American singing style with something that approaches the ethereal reach and feel of a Liz Fraser or, perhaps more correctly, a Harriet Wheeler.
Following the under-stated, delicately captured vision of “The Edge of Love”, the tempo switches up a gear or two and the silver-haired Buddy Miller joins the party, crooning all-velvet-like with Smith on “What If the World Stops Turning”—a song that it is every bit as much the Beautiful South as it is Thee South.
Taking the pace right down again, “You Just Forgot” is the only song on Long Island Shores that Mindy Smith didn’t write. She wears it well, however. Very well. In her hands, it rings like the purest, clearest bedroom lofi classic every recorded. If Stephin Merritt had recorded “You Just Forgot”, it would be the funeral music of choice for lovelorn indie suicides everywhere.
Sadly, the next track takes us from the sublime to… well, you know where. Continuing the musical mood, but blowing the atmosphere, “Tennessee” sinks quickly into mawkishness as Smith sings of her love for her adopted home state over a picked accompaniment not a million miles away from a Bert Jansch out-take. “You Know I Love You Baby” begins the climb back to quality by introducing a lively jazz feel that’s then echoed in “Little Devil”, which is quite the oddest song on Long Island Shores. Smith clearly sees temptation as the Devil’s work, and sees temptation everywhere. Especially in pretty men!
After this somewhat weaker three song section, “Out Of Control” marks a distinct return to the British indie-Americana crossover that I’ve just decided is Smith’s hallmark. On this clearly personal admission of inner turmoil and insecurity, her voice is so very Harriet, so totally Wheeler that I find myself inadvertently humming “Everyday Is Like Sunday” to myself.
By contrast, but equally strong, “I’m Not the Only One Asking” is this album’s “Come to Jesus”. Both musically and lyrically. A less intelligent performer would have placed this blend of gospel spirituality, Appalachian purity, and dirty swamp blues at the start of their album. But then no-one would’ve looked past the comparison, and Long Island Shores would’ve lost the chance to stand on its own terms. As sequenced by Smith, “I’m Not the Only One Asking” is this album’s delayed crescendo.
Which, of course, means that the rest is a descent into silence.
First, the title track speaks of a visit back to Smith’s roots, and paints in bold green Irish strokes across a familiar country landscape. And then the pure folk of “Peace of Mind”, which reads very much like her own response to the confessed insecurity of “Out of Control”, provides the promised yearning fade into closure.
Without wishing to denigrate her songs at all—except perhaps “Tennessee”, it’s Smith’s voice that provides the identity here, the constant that allows Long Island Shores the almost absolute freedom to wander without fear of losing its audience. And underneath that alluring collision between trad-Americana and British indie tendencies, there’s a solidity, a strength of purpose to Mindy Smith’s work that speaks to me of Lucinda Williams. Clearly, the two have nothing like the same voice. But they both have the same strong and purposeful sense of voice.
Listening to Long Island Shores, it seems clear that Mindy Smith, like Lucinda, is determined to control every step of her recording process and to insist on the absolute quality she requires. A lesser artist would have rushed to follow-up the success of One Moment More. A less intelligent performer would have opened Long Island Shores with “I’m Not the Only One Asking”. Mindy Smith, however, got her traditionally difficult second album almost entirely right.