Acoustic folk and blues musician Chris Smither sings in a low, grumbling voice that makes one attend closely to understand the words, which creates a forced intimacy between the musician and his audience. After more than four decades as a performer, Smither knows this and takes full advantage of the situation. During a song he’ll mumble a joke, mutter a poignant observation, and/or murmur a declaration of love, well aware of how private the connection feels to the listener. Meanwhile, Smither’s fingers delicately dance their way across the fret board to create a (mostly) upbeat tempo that just makes one feel good all over.
It’s a pretty good formula, and Smither mines this territory again with much success on his latest album, Leave the Light On. The eight original tunes and four covers span a wide range of topics and moods. Smither takes on big subjects like war (“Diplomacy”) and creation (“Origin of the Species”), as well as enduring but more focused concerns such as coming back home (“Father’s Day”) and keeping love growing (“Open Up”), in addition to a few songs that just continue the folk and blues traditions — a Lightnin’ Hopkins inspired arrangement of “Blues in Bottle” and the old folk melody about a desperate killer wantin’ to be hung, “John Hardy”. The notion of finite time casts a shadow over all of these songs, in the sense that this is the only world we have, the only life we lead, the only love we’ll know, etc. Let’s make our time on this planet count, not in the grand sense of destiny or history, but in terms of personal satisfaction.
The title song makes this explicitly clear. Smither begins singing over a faced past beat, “If I were young again I’d pay attention / To that little-known dimension, the taste of endless time”. The seeming contradiction — if one had endless time, why would it matter if one was young again — forms the tune’s central conceit. “Leave the Light On” refers to the place we go when we die. He’s in no hurry to get there. Smither knows there is enough happening in the here and now to give him pleasure and wonder, and sooner or later, we all get to that location where time doesn’t matter.
Smither’s original tunes betray a sharp sense of humor, even when he’s being serious. He begins the disc with the line, “I don’t think for pleasure, it’s just hard not to do”. Smither is wryly conscious of his self-awareness and pokes fun at himself for analyzing too much and not feeling enough, when he believes having an open heart is more important than a keen mind. Jokes are his way of mediating between thought and emotions. Besides, he obviously likes throwing out good one-liners. For example, the key to evolution can be summed up with the Lord saying to himself, “I’ll just sit back in the shade while everyone gets laid / That’s what I call intelligent design”. Thus, Smither proves contrary to both conservatives who find the world so complicated that God must have meticulously made it, and liberals who scoff at the notion of a divinely created world. Smither doesn’t pretend to know the answer, but he finds the notion of God taking pleasure in all of his creatures having sex to be a funny thought.
While Smither’s lyrics and vocal delivery are in the forefront of the production, his excellent acoustic guitar playing should be noted. Producer David Goodrich keeps the strings sounding clear and bright. Session musicians Mike Piehl (drums) and Lou Ulrich (bass) play back up on most songs, and Anita Suhanin joins him on vocals. Multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Tim O’Brien guests on a few tunes, as does the Americana roots band Ollabelle. These people provide some fine accompaniment, but Smither is the star here. His songs, his singing, and his playing make this a wonderful acoustic folk and blues album.