The sophomore release from this twenty-something Minneapolis songbird finds her and her band winding their way through 10 ambitious indie tracks. Smith’s quivering vibrato calls to mind Leslie Feist and Joanna Newsom, although perhaps a little too closely and a little too often. There’s a difference between wearing one’s influences openly and being unrepentantly derivative. Smith isn’t quite the latter and not quite the former. Instead, she walks uncomfortably on some middle ground that never really allows her to flourish, at least not on the collection.
What has been described as “a unique pinch” to Smith’s voice often comes off as affectation, as though the youngster has been working hard at learning how to mimic certain mannerisms that have found purchase in the indie world in recent times. It’s cute, maybe a little sexy, but ultimately disappointingly familiar. That’s too bad because many of the songs here are buoyed by dynamic musical settings, thanks in no small part to the supporting cast of Arlen Peiffer (drums), Jesse Schuster (bass), and multi-instrumentalist David Earl. The band often carries the material into remotely refreshing territory, suggesting a detour down this or that stylistic avenue.
“Strong Shoulders Reprise” has vivid, imaginative, and poignant lyrics that are aided and abetted by plunky piano chords and a spare vibe that is too often absent from other, overstuffed tracks. On “Calliope”, for instance, Smith overworks the anticipatory nature of the lyrics and the character’s hunger for love and union. The opening “Tanktop” has the same problem; the track builds slowly, quietly, but when Smith’s voice enters the picture everything explodes in a textbook example of a BIG ROCK SONG, replete with first-pumping drumbeats and a noisy musical undertow.
By the album’s halfway mark, you get the sense not only that you’ve heard all the tricks and tropes not only in the record’s first half but in other settings as well. Songs such as “Scholarships”, “Hannah’s Song” and “Denim Boy” remain one-dimensional grooves that do nothing to live up to the promise that some believe Smith has shown. Naturally, there’s the quiet ukulele strummed closer, “Birch Trees & Broken Barns”, that wears out its welcome faster than the ukulele craze of 2011. (It is over, isn’t it?)
Many of this record’s weaknesses will doubtless mark it almost entirely as a record of its times, caught in the rapids of 2011, a year that threatens to pull many an artist under and drag them down the river of time, the way that cruel years often do. Too bad. The derivative nature of the songs aren’t the most troubling thing here: it’s that it also sounds affected as though the listener couldn’t possibly distinguish this from the countless other records that sound like it. None of this is necessarily Smith’s fault, it’s the nature of the sounds and songs found here. Perhaps there’s a different artist inside, struggling to get out, still hoping to find her voice. Let’s hope.