April 1999

Chris Smither - Drive You Home Again
HighTone HCD8098
Released: 1999

by David J. Cantor

Musical Performance ***
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment **1/2

[Reviewed on CD]My favorite song on Chris Smither’s 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 Guzman’s masterfully playful accordion and by other skilled musicians who shine in part due to Smither’s reserved singing.

Instead, the title song takes the lead, not so much grabbing you as asking if maybe you’d 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 writer’s 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 Smither’s 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 singer’s share of the songs’ impact as well as their own. It’s not fair! Smither could hint at the songs’ humor, irony, and pathos by emphasizing certain syllables, de-emphasizing others, and generally working singer’s 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 can’t 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 writer’s main challenge: using words precisely. Drive You Home Again is a well-produced and well-recorded CD that won’t drive you to euphoria or distraction, but could benefit from a bit more precision.