Debi Smith,
More Than Once
(Shanachie, 1998)

Right out of the box, I have to say it: Debi Smith has a beautiful voice. There. I did it.

Whoa. Wait a minute. I can't believe I started the review that way. Just because the first track, an a cappella version of the traditional "Shenandoah," wowed me is no reason to skip the introduction and act more like Smith's PR person than a hard-edged reviewer. It's just that a performer had better have a gorgeous voice to show off when she opens with such a bared-bones version of this soaring, hymn-like piece, and Smith indeed does. (Okay, the cynical side of me wants to dislike those choir-like, deep backing vocals that enter midway, but the more I listen to them, the more I find myself settling down and wanting to travel to Virginia.)

Smith's good at creating pictures with her voice, and while her own lyrics may not have that bittersweet craving of "Shenandoah," some of them can evoke memories and yearnings of their own. "Mother's Hands" is for the over-30s out there -- we're definitely not looking at the Spice Girls's demographics here. It's about the time we fully understand that we each have something of our parents in us. While younger people have those experiences, it really seems aimed at a slightly older audience -- those of us who finally have some sort of appreciation as to who we are, where we're from, what we may be passing on to the next generation, and are touched by such knowledge.

"Snowbound" is another portrait painted with lyrics and voice, along with an echoing fiddle. "As kids we swore we could smell snow in the air," it starts, continuing to describe how adults watch children playing in the snow and try to remember their own youth. "But underneath the snow, spring is hidden away / Like the childhood that comes back to us today." She takes you back in time nicely while maintaining the adult's perspective.

Skirting both folk and country genres, singer-songwriter Smith drifts between moods, styles and vocal expressions. Unfortunately, it sometimes seems as if she's searching for a niche. There's the sort of philosophical "Old River" with its metaphors for life and Smith's soprano heading towards its top notes. "Life Outside this Town," with its country/rock feel, is inspired by her grandfather's small-town Nebraska farm during the '30s and '40s. "And when they ask me why I stayed, I'll just tell 'em that it's my home," she concludes after the narrator berates the town for its faults and realizes that maybe it isn't that bad. As would be expected of a member of the Bitchin' Babes, the quartet founded by Christine Lavin that features female singer-songwriters sharing material and having a fun time doing so, there's comedy. Singing to a only a bodhran in the background (although accompanied by sister Megan Smith on vocals), Smith sings a lively ode to slumber on "Sleep." The title track, with an attractive bridge, almost sounds as if it's auditioning for Broadway.

Although More than Once is only Smith's second solo release, she has been performing for a while -- with a Celtic-style group, the Hags; with sister Megan in The Smiths; and with the Bitchin' Babes, one of whom, Sally Fingerett, sings background vocals on a couple of numbers. A song with a fairly simple melody and a contribution to a recent Babes' recording, "Italy and France," appears here as the closing track. Although Smith worked with metaphors on other pieces, this entire song is a poignant metaphor. While her friends went to France, she accidentally wound up in Italy. Not to worry -- she had a great time. OK, ending there, the song might seem trite, but then she goes on to compare her accidental trip to raising a special-needs child. She'd not planned on doing that, but she's happy because she loves her child, her "Italy." Moving and thought-provoking, it's definitely the track to wind up the album.

Since I skipped the introduction, perhaps I should attempt some sort of conclusion. Well, what does it all mean? There really aren't any hit singles here. (Of course, someone who opens her CD with "Shenandoah" and sings, in a stunning voice, some generally thoughtful songs aimed at a "slighty older" audience probably doesn't need to seek such approval anyway.) Maybe "He Doesn't Work on Love" might pick up some light country airplay. Does it matter? As long as there's a way for the material to be heard, no, it doesn't. If Smith is looking for her niche, she's found it in the songs that allow her to show off her considerable vocal talents and thoughtful pictures painted with words.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]

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