Chris Smither: Time Stands Still

ChrisSmither_TimeStandsStillMesmerizing folk-blues from acoustic guitar giant

Born and raised in New Orleans, Smither broke into Boston’s coffeehouse circuit amid the folk revival of the 1960s. Raised on folk and blues classics, he developed a unique finger-picking style and waxed his first albums for the same Poppy label on which Lightnin’ Hopkins, Eric Von Schmidt and Doc Watson also recorded. He’s performed steadily for over forty years, but his recording career was marked by lengthy stretches of substance abuse that sidelined his studio work for much of the 1970s and 1980s. He warmed back up to full-time recording with 1991’s live release, Another Way to Find You, and recommenced studio work with 1993’s superb Happier Blue.

His latest album, his fourteenth overall, is a textbook of his art. Smither sticks to acoustic guitar, with David Goodrich playing atmospheric electric, and Zak Trojano adding sparse percussion. The mix of instruments provides a fuller experience than a solo guitar, yet leaves the spotlight on Smither’s emotive playing. His voice has the raspy edge of Tom Waits but without the guttural bowery bottom end. He growls the half-sung/half-spoken original “I Told You So” like Mark Knopfler, who’s own “Madame Geneva’s” closes the album with the sound of traditional English folk. Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” is reworked from the boozy, shambling backing of the 1965 original and sung in a haggard voice set to contemplative guitar.

Smither’s picking is everywhere, and in his hands, the guitar is an uncommonly flexible instrument. His strings provide an insistently rolling engine beneath “Don’t Call Me Stranger,” create pinpoint flecks of melody atop the metronomic shuffle of “Time Stands Still,” and stage an intricately picked opening to “Miner’s Blues.” Goodrich is no slouch either, adding superb electric and slide playing throughout; his dollar bill guitar on “Surprise, Surprise” is particularly memorable. Smither delivers lyrics with a sly offhandedness that undersells the beauty of his words and dovetails perfectly with his guitar playing. At turns he’s a tempter, an aging philosopher, and a wry social observer.

A bluesman at heart, Smither can also be quite funny, as with the tangled riddles of “I Don’t Know.” He’s self deprecating for “Someone Like Me” and sarcastic on “I Told You So,” but mostly he’s pensive, philosophical, exhausted and blue. Smither’s a master of down-tempo crawls, mid-tempo grit and percolating shuffles, and though his guitar is played mostly for accompaniment its qualities shine as though spotlighted throughout. You could strip the vocals from this album and still have a compelling record; but his wizened, abraded voice is the perfect topping on a sweet cake. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]

MP3 | Surprise, Surprise
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