Chris Smither – Still On The Levee | Album review

chrissmithercdChris Smither – Still On The Levee

Mighty Albert/Signature Sounds

25 songs – 93 minutes

Singer/songwriter/guitarist Chris Smither is currently marking his 50th year of music-making with three separate projects: a book containing the lyrics to all the songs he wrote between 1966 and 2012; a tribute album featuring the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Dave Alvin, Tim O’Brien and Loudon Wainwright III; and Still On The Levee, a two-CD retrospective featuring his own new recordings of a selection of songs from his vast back catalogue.

Smither has long been one of the most intelligent, articulate songwriters in modern music. His philosophical lyrics are perfectly in tune with his complex, subtle, finger-picked guitar playing and gravel-voiced vocals. On Still On The Levee, Smither has given fresh perspective to a selection of songs covering his entire career, from his first composition, “Devil Got Your Man”, to several recent originals.

A deeply profound lyricist, Smither raises existential questions in his songs, whilst also displaying an abiding love of language and wordplay, not to mention a rare wit. He is also a fine interpreter of the songs of others: his duet with Bonnie Raitt on Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row” on his 2003 album Train Home remains chillingly effective.

Smither’s distinctive, singular guitar playing strongly reflects two of his primary influences: Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt. In concert, his mic’ed, tapping feet provide propulsive rhythmic accompaniment. On record, as here, his songs work equally well with a full band backing.

His primary backing group on Still On The Levee is The Motivators, featuring Billy Conway on drums, Jimmy Fitting on harmonica, David Goodrich (who also produced the album) on guitars, piano and diddley bo, and Anita Suhanin on vocals. A number of other musicians also contribute to various songs, however, including Allen Toussaint, Loudon Wainwright III, Jeremy Moses Curtis, Kris Delmhorst, Ian Kennedy, Catherine Norr, Barry Rothman, Robin Smither, Dana Colley, Jeremy Lyons, and Kate and Matt Lorenz and Zak Trojano of Rusty Belle.

Given the sheer number of songs that Smither has written over the years, there will always be some personal favourites omitted in any retrospective. This writer, for example, would have enjoyed hearing re-interpretations of “I Feel The Same”, “I Am The Ride” or even Smither’s belting cover of Jesse Winchester’s “Thanks To You”. But it is churlish to raise criticisms of what is a superb release.

But why should you be interested in re-recordings of songs already released by the same musician? Because he interprets them in entirely new and fascinating ways. The best songs, like the great plays of Shakespeare, can be re-interpreted in a variety of different ways. Smither has always brought gravitas and grit to every song he has released, but now he brings the perspective of age together with the contributions of his new backing musicians. His voice may be a little more ragged than on his original recordings and his guitar may be a little lower in the mix on some songs, emphasising the band more than the individual, but the songs themselves remain as powerful as ever.

“Winsome Smile” has evolved from a wry attempt to pass on helpful advice to a navel-gazing broken-hearted boy to become a rollicking rock’n’roll number with more than a hint of frustration at the self-centredness and immaturity of the subject of the song. After all, as the singer himself notes: “She’ll say it’s all her fault, she’ll always be your friend, plus loads of crap too dumb to mention. I’ve been down that road and it’s paved with good intentions.”

Other songs have undergone a process of evolution over many years and reach the next stage of that process on Still On The Levee. “Love You Like A Man”, most famously covered by Bonnie Raitt, changed dramatically from its original version on Smither’s first album, 1970’s I’m A Stranger Too!, to his live-in-the-studio 1989 album Another Way To Find You. Smither plays the version on Still On The Levee a hair slower again, which provides the song with a deeper groove, abetted by understated percussion.

“No Love Today” and “Train Home” both benefit from Allen Toussaint’s beautiful New Orleans-influenced piano-playing, adding surprisingly melancholy-yet-jazzy undertones.

The centre piece of the album however is “Leave The Light On”, the title track from Smither’s 2006 album. Two quite distinct versions end the two discs on this release, both featuring Rusty Belle. The first is almost jaunty and upbeat, as Smither reflects on the passing of time with typical inventiveness: “If I were young again, I’d pay attention to that little-known dimension, the taste of endless time.” The second version, however, is significantly slower, tapping into the sad truth that everyone lucky enough to reach a certain age recognises: that youth is wasted on the young. “It’s like water. It runs right through our fingers. But the flavour of it lingers, like a rich, red wine.” Sung as a duet between Smither and Kate Lorenz, Smither’s inherent optimism shines through, turning the track into a love song to life itself and a clarion call to us all to look forwards as well as back. “I may live to be 100, I was born in ’44. 31 to go, but I ain’t keepin’ score. I’ve been left for dead before, but I still fight on. Don’t wait up, leave the light on. I’ll be home soon.” It is a genuinely brilliant recording, bringing out and burnishing the depth, intelligence and human warmth of the writer.

If you are already a fan of Chris Smither, you will definitely want to add this album to your collection. If you are not yet a fan, Still On The Levee is a great place to start. This is one of the best albums of 2014. Unmissable.

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