While not perfect, the music of the Smyrk is promising, at once thoughtful and tough, bravely vexing and also a bit visionary.
I had heard of the Smyrk from sources that tend to keep their fingers on the pulse of what’s happening now; and I was curious about the band, which includes Nick Logan on guitar, Ari Sadowitz on bass, Chris Barone on drums, and singer Doron Flake, who also writes the lyrics for the band’s music. Doron Flake’s voice reminds me of Darius Rucker of Hootie and the Blowfish and Murray Lightburn of the Dears. He is, like Rucker and Lightburn, reclaiming a place for persons of African descent in rock music, the music of Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Garland Jeffreys, Bad Brains, Fishbone, Living Colour, and Lenny Kravitz. The Smyrk’s two short albums -- containing six complete songs each -- are interesting, promising.
Monsters on Maple Street contains an intro and an outro and the songs “Monsters on Maple Street”, “It’s Not Love”, “That Ain’t Lake Minnetonka”, “Sweeter Cyanide”, “Cope Aesthetic”, and “Shot and Buried: Sudan”. After the piano intro is the song “Monsters on Maple Street”, with crashing guitars and lyrics about individual control and the weight of social power, and its first lines, “This is our loyalty review ‘cause history repeats / Nobody wants to say a thing about it, but we got monsters on Maple street / They want our hands up / They want you all afraid”. It is a short, thrashing song, and without recourse to the lyric sheet, the song sounds at first as if it is about the personal distance between people. With a review of the lyric sheet, it becomes clearer that the song is about the relationship of individual citizens to official society: “You don’t see / You don’t hear me / You don’t understand so you don’t speak for me”.
“It’s Not Love”, about an unhappy relationship, has a terrific chorus -- it sounds like a melodic shout. “That Ain’t Lake Minnetonka” features Flake in mellow voice, and the guitars are intense. In “Sweeter Cyanide”, Doron Flake sings about disrespected (or unaccepted) vulnerability. Most of the band’s songs on Monsters on Maple Street are about understanding and acceptance, as is “Cope Aesthetic”, which directly states, “What can I say? / What can I do to make you understand?” and “Tears stain your pillow / And I wonder if you ever let go”. (The person spoken to seems a bit of a drama queen.)
There is a political turn in “Shot and Buried: Sudan”, a somber song about ignoring what is happening in the Sudan, “the murder of a culture”, in which people are “calling for help but nobody’s listening” and “we can’t justify another sanctioned genocide”. The sentiment is admirable, though one cannot congratulate anyone for fresh or eloquent lyrics that conclude with “If someone shot the future and buried yesterday / Wouldn’t you care about them? / Could you live without them? / Is there any way?” Finally, the outro consists of piano and a few spoken words.
New Fiction, like Monsters on Maple Street, is dense with guitars and drums, and while Flake’s voice is appealing, I am compelled to look at the lyric sheet to be sure of what he is actually saying (on New Fiction his voice is sometimes deep in the mix). There is a crisp sound, with a tautly repeating guitar rhythm, in New Fiction’s first song, “It Was Nice Meeting You Again”, and “Dial V for Venom” is even melodious. “Conflict Addiction” has sharply swirling guitar-playing as the song’s narrator talks about trying to compromise. Then there’s “Aphasia”, and “My Weakness”, a song about infatuation that seems sodden with sentiment. The collection closes with the song “New Fiction”, about perception, manipulation, and interpretation; and it gets what I might suppose now to be the band’s typical treatment -- chaotic (a controlled chaos), loud, and also captivating.
Some of the lyrics on New Fiction are intriguing, such as “You’ll try to paint me into the lines of a past love / But the tint won’t saturate” and “I’ll try to make you into who I wanna see / But you won’t change” in “It Was Nice Meeting You Again.” That seems a useful perception for a young man to have -- the tendency to turn the present in the past. Other lyrics are awkward. Novel but rough lines such as "You're a Rorschach spot in my mind / All black and white" are found in the song "Dial V for Venom", a song about a brief, frustrated relationship, still remembered, still desired. The narrator sings “My baby got a conflict addiction” in “Conflict Addiction”, an idea that is both terrible and funny. Promises, doubts, resignation, indifference, self-division, disappointment, anger, disgust -- it’s all there in the short lines of “Aphasia”.
The social observation in the song “New Fiction” leads to a political dimension: “Keep us all contained and paranoid, dependent, won’t you? / Keep us in the dark and just destroy our common sense / Won’t you just feed us what you want us to hear?” The Smyrk’s Monsters on Maple Street and New Fiction, are two promising recordings, suggesting the band has youth, ambition, intelligence, and a grasp of rock music fundamentals in its favor. Youth will not last, but the other elements may.