16 songs – 61 minutes
There was something that felt almost elegiac about Chris Smither’s last release, Still On The Levee, in 2014. On that album, one of the finest modern American songwriters looked back over his near-50 year career, re-interpreting and re-envisaging some beloved classics from his own songbook. At the age of 69, was Smither indicating that he had served his time and that it was time for well-deserved retirement? Well, if the evidence of Call Me Lucky is any indication, thankfully not. Fingers crossed, we can expect a lot more Smither to enjoy in the future.
Call Me Lucky, Smither’s 18th album, was recorded just outside Austin, Texas, with several of the musicians who appeared on Still On The Levee. In attendance are David Goodrich, Billy Conway, Matt Lorenz, Keith Gary and Mike Meadows, laying that distinctly greasy low-down sound that helped to distinguish that album: part-blues, part-country, part-Texas, all Americana. The original proposal was to record ten songs. Instead, they ended up with a two-CD release.
The first CD contains the eight originals and two covers that were originally envisaged for the album. The second CD contains re-workings of five of those songs together with a version of the Beatles’ “She Said, She Said” stripped of its “acidy” psychedelic stylings and re-tooled to sound not unlike a Smither original: wistful and wounded; philosophical and enduring. The other bonus tracks see the musicians swapping instruments on different tracks, so the engineer may play the piano; the drummer may play the guitar.
On a track like “Everything On Top”, Smither sings with a punk-like attitude and the result is a raucous mess that only serves to emphasize the quality of the song. On “Down To The Sound”, he adopts a lower register than usual for his voice, giving his half-spoken lyrics a hint of Leonard Cohen. The upbeat roots rock of “Nobody Home” is dramatically slowed down, removing the humor from the lyrics and leaving a stark message of isolation in the modern world: “It’s getting’ hard to maintain connections in a personal way. Everybody wants to text me cuz they ain’t nothin’ to say. Believe me when I tell you it’s like being alone, hangin’ out with numbers in a cyber zone and you pay to play.”
As one would expect from a Chris Smither album, the lyrics throughout Call Me Lucky are as sharp as the tooth of time, by turns poetic, philosophical, wise and wide-eyed, with music that is equal parts blues, folk and roots rock. And every song is shot through with Smither’s endless invention and wry humor. The inclusion of “She Said, She Said” and Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” are also a fine reminder of his oft-overlooked abilities as an interpreter of the songs of others. “Maybellene”, for example is disassembled and rebuilt as a minor key, pained reminiscence about the protagonist’s behaviour. The other cover on the album is a beautiful version of “Sittin’ On Top Of The World” played relatively close to the version on Smither’s 1984 live album, It Ain’t Easy. Interestingly, “Maybellene” is also on that album, but that version is played at breakneck speed.
While it may not contain an “instant classic” such as “No Love Today” or “I Am The Ride”, Call Me Lucky is a fine addition to the body of work of a very singular and distinctive artist. Highly recommended.