Friday, November 2, 2012

Chris Smither Hundred Dollar Valentine CD Review

Hello!

This CD review was originally published in the July 26, 2012 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at thebluesblast.com

Chris Smither – Hundred Dollar Valentine

www.smither.com

11 tracks / 38:56

Chris Smither describes his sound as “cosmic blues”, and though I may not be on the same spaceship as him I really like his sound and his message. And he has had plenty of time to work out his sound and figure out who he is, having released his debut album in 1970, when I was just a lad. He has recently finished his 12th studio album, Hundred Dollar Valentine, which is his first that is comprised solely of original material. You will find that it is not all new, as he has revisited a few of his older tracks and approached them from a different direction.

Smither moved to New Orleans as a youngster, which accounts for the delta blues influence in his sound, but he has long been a fixture of the northeast, where he has garnered a loyal following. He does not have a regular band, so they brought in some fine folks to work with him on Hundred Dollar Valentine. This includes Billy Conway on drums, Chris Delmhost on cello, Jimmy Fitting on harmonica, Ian Kennedy on violin and the golden-voiced Anita Suhanin on vocals. Producer David Goodrich kicks in some slide guitar, diddley bo, and xylophone, while Chris provides the vocals and the lion’s share of the guitar work.

Goodrich has worked with Smither a few times before, and has done a fabulous job of keeping things from getting out of hand, and the album sounds natural and uncluttered. As I said earlier there is a delta blues sound, but there is also a folk element to this album. These combine together with his unique voice to give Smither his own sound that is hard to fit into any one box. Maybe that is what the cosmic blues are.

The album starts off with the title track, “Hundred Dollar Valentine,” and true to its name it is an ode to a love that describes how nothing is right when they are separated. The lyrics are a poetic and clever use of words, and are a bit more melancholy than the upbeat score would imply. The overall sound is not over processed, with a perfectly raw drum sound and a dynamic harmonica tone. Anita’s backing vocals work well with Smither’s voice.

“On the Edge” comes next, and the tone of the music becomes more somber at the same time as it becomes more polished with smooth violin and cello that merge well with Mr. Smither’s fine picking. The words to the song provide a few surprises, as it ends up in a totally different place than it starts – it is not the usual love song I expected it to be. This is the blues, and Chris has a great voice for it: raw, strong, emotional and experienced. By the way this is the only track on the album that has any co-writing credit, and it goes to David Goodrich.

From there, the songs use fertile lyrical material, such as disillusionment and disappointment (“What it Might Have Been”), love and loneliness (“I Feel the Same”), getting older (“Place in Line”), and death (“Feeling b y Degrees”). A bright spot in the midst of these blues is “What They Say,” a jaunty tune featuring Chris’ daughter Robin Smither on the violin. She is a fine fiddler, for sure.

“Every Mother’s Son” is the final regular track on Hundred Dollar Valentine, and pretty music cannot hide that the lyrics provide plenty of food for thought. It dares to speak of today’s all too common theme of young men who see no solutions to their problems other than violence. That “this could happen to every mother’s son” is a parent’s nightmare, and might make you hug your kids a little tighter and longer the next time you see them.

The album finishes off with a hidden track that is not terribly well hidden – it is credited on the liner notes as “Rosalie,” which is an “after-hours ‘B’ Room field recording.” This song is the closest thing you will find on this album to his live show, a weary-voiced man and his six-string guitar. It makes me want to seek out one of his shows the next time I am in New England.

Hundred Dollar Valentine is not what one would expect from a modern blues album (not a Howlin’ Wolf cover in sight), and that is one of the things that is so great about it. Though it is not conventional, Chris Smither’s original work has gotten closer to the roots of the blues than most, and his songs’ unique tonal character and smart lyrics combine with superb production and true emotion make this album an enjoyable listening experience.

Mahalo!

1 comment:

  1. I have seen Chris Smither live- he's pretty hard to categorize as a player.
    The review is intriguing, and makes me want to seek out this album.

    ReplyDelete