My favorite song on Chris Smithers new CD, Drive You Home Again, is the spirited, up-tempo "Tell Me Why You Love Me." The Monday-morning quarterback in me says that it should have been the lead song, pulling the listener into the album with a clever, lighthearted lyric tastefully accompanied by Joel Guzmans masterfully playful accordion and by other skilled musicians who shine in part due to Smithers reserved singing.
Instead, the title song takes the lead, not so much grabbing you as asking if maybe youd like to hear the rest of the album. Whereas "Tell Me Why You Love Me" engages the listener the way folk music most effectively does, by saying something plainly and musically without competing for the Deepak Dylan Pseudo-Profundity Award, other songs on Drive You Home Again chase after depth without appearing to recognize that it comes from concrete images, not from elusive references to the writers feelings.
The album presents 11 songs, seven of which are Smither originals. In addition to doing his part to preserve the traditional "Duncan & Brady," Smither does a fine job on Danny O'Keefe's "Steel Guitar" and on Eric von Schmidt's "Rattlesnake Preacher." "Preacher" is more interesting than "Guitar," musically and lyrically. The performances bear the mark of the seasoned professional Smither is, having released his first record in 1970. We can count on him for guitar picking that is steady and solid and for singing that is straightforward.
Straightforward bordering on unanimated. Because Smithers singing is so relaxed, in the more up-tempo "Duncan and Brady" and "Tell Me Why You Love Me," we hear the backup musicians straining to provide the singers share of the songs impact as well as their own. Its not fair! Smither could hint at the songs humor, irony, and pathos by emphasizing certain syllables, de-emphasizing others, and generally working singers magic.
Maybe the lack of affect has to do with the lyrics vagueness. Here are the three cleverest sequences from the Smither-penned songs: "And if I drive you to distraction,/I will drive you home again" ("Drive You Home Again"); "In the end no one will sell you what you need,/You cant buy it off the shelf,/You got to grow it from the seed" ("No Love Today"); and "She worked at the car wash,/But she could not come clean" ("Get a Better One"). The problem is that the other lines do not establish specific, concrete contexts in which the clever lines might acquire definite meaning.
Singer-songwriters generally have been let off the hook for years when it comes to the writers main challenge: using words precisely. Drive You Home Again is a well-produced and well-recorded CD that wont drive you to euphoria or distraction, but could benefit from a bit more precision.
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