Smith has always seemed to be the musician’s musician: the people we know who like him are musicians. We tried one of his albums once, but it was a little too workmanlike (sorry, “critically acclaimed”). This new one is much better, evidenced by the fact that we’ve been sent a review copy. They must be expecting to sell more.
It’s produced by Sam Lakeman who, like Smith, is from Devon but the latter’s understated charm and hushed vocals remind us most of some (probably obscure) Americana, particularly the veteran Kelly Joe Phelps, who plays dusky folk / delta blues. And Ray Lamontagne, obviously.
The album is mainly traditional songs that Smith has been playing for years, plus a cover, The Time Has Come, as well as originals including Axe Mountain and title track, which kicks off proceedings.
Hummingbird is a delicate song with finger-picked guitar and an appealing sparseness, which suits Smith’s husky vocals. Lowlands of Holland is next, the strummed guitar accompanied by fiddle (we assume Lakeman’s). This has the cadence of an English folk tune, but the vocals drag it towards Americana.
Boudica is more brooding, the low violin and other strings suggesting ancient sadness, Smith’s voice even more hushed; imagine it as the soundtrack to a movie starring Russell Crowe and a sword, where he surveys the slaughter after battle. A powerful song.
Elsewhere, even the songs that don’t match the best are still good: Lord Franklin laments Captain Sir John Franklin, who left England on HMS Erebus and HMS Terror to traverse the last unnavigated section of the Northwest Passage but disappeared; his crew died a lonely and miserable death, some resorting to cannibalism to stay alive.
It’s all good but the standout on early plays is Hares On The Mountain, an old English ballad. It’s beautiful. Smith’s playing is loving and the sound pastoral, with lots of silence and space for the beauty to soak into.
A sign of how we missed Smith’s charms previously can be heard in Axe Mountain, a mainstay of his live set apparently, for years, which veers towards the pedestrian.
Still: an excellent album that could become a folk classic. Well worth buying. For fans of Ray Lamontagne, David Gray etc.