Jan Smith,
29 Dances
(Landslide, 2006)

Jan Smith's low-keyed approach to Appalachian-flavored country-pop is not, I'm sure, going to overwhelm you, but chances are it will grow on you. The unflashy appeal and precision of her material will not shout out of the speakers; they will wait for you to find them. 29 Dances may not be the greatest album you ever heard, but if you give it the time, you'll like it. To me it has a summery sort of vibe, easygoing in its unadorned, largely acoustic sound, Smith's charming, conversational vocals and her pro's songwriting chops.

Like so much I hear these days, these songs, in the sorts of full (and fully, grimly sterile) arrangements packaged in the Nashville music factory, could be hits, or at least album cuts, for mainstream country stars. Either that, or for the women artists (e.g., Alison Krauss, Alecia Nugent) who are creating a smooth modern bluegrass that nods only passingly to the foundational sounds of Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers.

Smith's songs are mostly variations on love desired, embraced or lost, set sometimes amid pastoral landscapes: valleys, mountains, rivers, birds, flowers, small towns. The respected producer Bill VornDick has assembled a band of solid pickers who fashion a kind of neo-stringband, vaguely bluegrass ambience, with an occasional modest bow to unhurried rock 'n' roll. Overall, 29 Dances seeks to define unambitious as a virtue, and succeeds.

by Jerome Clark
29 July 2006

Buy it from Amazon.com.