A return to roots for the alt-country(ish) singer-songwriter.
Mindy Smith is country singer for you folks (you know who you are) who just don’t like country music. I guess that makes her "alt-country", whatever that means. She is from Nashville these days, but her roots are on Long Island, NY, and her sound is mostly devoid of that distinctive country twang. Maybe that makes her more of a folk singer—like a Lucy Kaplansky or Shawn Colvin.
But Smith's approach on her fifth recording, Mindy Smith, is bathed in the textures and flavors of country music, even if Smith continues to develop an identity that is eclectic in influence and approach. But because she is a storyteller as a songwriter, and because the instrumentation here favors pedal steel and acoustic textures, Smith remains that elusive thing: a rootsy country artist who can harness a non-country audience. Or, as Duke Ellington liked to say, she is "beyond category". And glorious.
Mindy Smith is the artist's first disc in three years and her first not on Vanguard Records. 2009's Stupid Love put Smith's bell-clear singing voice in front of a band with more of a pop-rock sound—some keyboard sounds, some tastefully fuzzed guitar, a more slap-happy backbeat on the drums—and made the case that Smith is a perfectly viable not-country singer. Which she is...except where her confident and rich style seemed slightly stodgy on tracks that might have done well with more vocal flash.
And so the new record is a heartfelt—and wise—return to her country sound. The band plays with bounce and ache rather than pop polish, and Smith responds by delivering a series of coolly soaring vocals on original songs that deserve the find performances. The powerful punch of her pop songs is still intact on many of these new tracks, but they don't sound like they are striving for anything other than pure expression.
A tune like "Pretending the Stars" has everything a pop song could want—a propulsive groove, a story about cruising in a car looking for a sense of release, a sultry minor-mode guitar hook, and then a chorus that sounds like a good friend you want to see again and again. But the song is also bathed in the nuance of a great country song, particularly a lovely harmony part that no pop song would bother with in 2012. "Sober" works the same way—using the sound of a big-guitar rock song to underpin a classic country narrative: a story song of disaster that repeats the line, "I tried sober / But I can't get you out of my head / It's over / And I can't get you out of my head".
The reverse of that formula works here too. "Closer", the opening track, starts with a twangy guitar lick that rides under Smith's pleading singing and seems as country as you can get. But then the song's chorus rises up into sunny, pop song territory, inviting a second verse to include more rocking guitar and, eventually, a ripping guitar solo. Or how about the plaintive "Everything Here Will Be Fine", a gentle country waltz drenched in pedal steel that is nevertheless delivered with a cracking, confessional pop voice that could belong to, say, Rickie Lee Jones or Feist?
This is a country record with a pop heart. Or vice versa. A great idea.
The tunes that trade more clearly in non-pop styles are, perhaps, what tilt the balance back toward Smith's earlier records. And these songs are among the best on Mindy Smith. "Tin Can" sounds like a toe-tapping Tim O'Brien song, with Smith really swinging the vocal while still getting a sonorous bluegrass cry out of her upper register. "I ain't got your sugar / I ain't got your cream / I'm just a happy old fool / Set free!"
Smith is strong on the rootsy blues material as well. "Don't Mind Me" is a 12-bar blues of a sort in a sexy 6/8 backbeat groove, and Smith gets to move her voice all over its textures. When she reaches up and cracks her throat a bit on the bridge section, the band responds by turning up the volume and pressing the distortions pedals some. This tune starts as a blues but ends up being a ripping collision of guitars—until the third verse gets even quieter and then winds down.
There isn't anything lovelier on Mindy Smith than the loping "Cure for Love", which she tosses off with such skillful nonchalance—the kind of thing that wouldn't appear on a mannered pop record or on a strongly sung country effort either, perhaps. Instead, Smith delivers a song that feels like could come only from a back porch or a quiet living room, all heartfelt emotion and ache: "It's the kind of pain / Keeping me from sleeping right / Keeping me up all night / And I ain't got a cure for loving you."
And so the whole record goes, kaleidoscopic, as it shifts from country to pop to folk to blues and back again and again—with each incarnation seeming still to include all the others. This seems to be the place where Mindy Smith is most comfortable, in this sweet juncture between styles and identities—not trying too hard to be one thing or the other. It's a great place, artistically, even if some marketing guy probably won't like it.
But that, no doubt, is why Smith is out on her own now, self-producing and yet also creating music that well ought to find many happy ears. Mine are certainly among them.