Chris Smither,
Time Stands Still
(Signature Sounds, 2009)

Sometimes when I hear an artist -- say, Chris Smither -- I find myself thinking of the various directions the young Bob Dylan could have taken his music. That's another way of saying how a music based in rural folk and blues could be carried past the 1960s revival into an urban world far removed from the backwoods historical and cultural experiences that created traditional -- actual -- folk music.

Smither, who is perhaps one shade of him, has been around nearly as long as Dylan. Based on his inspired reading of "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" (from Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited), we can easily judge him as skilled an interpreter of the master as anybody living. Smither renders the simple couplet "Been up all night / Leanin' on the windowsill" as haunting, near-mystical insight, deep in meaning however thrillingly elusive. One effect is to remind listeners who know as much to recall that the song's original title -- far more succinctly apt -- was "Phantom Engineer."

Immediately following is an engaging performance of an older song, "Miner's Blues," credited to 1920s West Virginia songster Frank Hutchison. Like so much folk "composition" it's essentially a cobbling-together of floating verses.

Smither's preferred musical language, with variations, is a rolling, atmospheric, typically mid-tempo folk-blues melody, mostly acoustic but sometimes flavored with electric guitar, with largely original compositions. The writing is elegant, usually melancholy-sounding even if the words aren't necessarily, its themes ranging from the state of a relationship to the state of the nation, though in the latter instance Smither's touch is too smart to reduce to sloganeering and tub-thumping. Of the self-penned cuts here, "The Old Man Down" is likely to stick longest in memory, which is not to slight any of the others. If not conventionally pretty, his voice is quite lovely, a marbles-in-the-mouth light baritone slightly reminiscent of Leon Redbone's.

As a seasoned pro, Smither cuts records of such consistent quality that they're virtually reviewer-proof. On Time Stands Still, his first for the estimable Signature Sounds label, there are no surprises, only happy reminders of how an exceptional performer, composer and interpreter weaves his special magic.

by Jerome Clark
30 January 2010

Few artists have done a better job than Chris Smither when it comes to giving us a wonderful mixture of folk and blues. If his name doesn't sound familiar, chances are you've heard one of his songs covered by artists ranging from Bonnie Raitt to Diana Krall. His songs of love, loss and insightful looks at life have a light, pleasant, seasoned feel to them. His voice has a distinctive husky drawl. His trademark foot-tapping and finger-style guitar continue to nicely complement his great songwriting, which often includes some very thoughtful lyrics.

Time Stands Still continues to deliver the same rootsy formula that his fans have come to expect, thanks to the simple rootsy production and guitar from David Goodrich, who also produced his last several CDs. It also includes Zak Trojano on percussion. This CD, like many of Smithers', includes mostly original tunes, along with several nice covers.

His cover of Bob Dylan's "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" is slowed down a little, resulting in a superb and beautifully captivating version. His cover of Mark Knopfler's great, traditional British folk-sounding "Madame Geneva's" doesn't stray much from the original version. In "Surprise, Surprise," Chris takes a fun, sarcastic look at the banking system meltdown, a fun up-tempo bluesy song with some great guitar from both Chris and David. "Don't Call Me Stranger" has lyrics that suggest an intriguing outlaw, combined with a typical Smither blues melody. The title track is a good example of insightful lyrics reflecting on a relationship. "I Don't Know" is a fun song that Chris wrote for his daughter. "Old Man Down" is a beautiful blues song that Chris wrote as a tribute to his father who recently passed away.

If you are already a fan of Chris Smither, Time Stands Still will be more of what you already love. If you haven't heard him yet, you are missing out on a very talented singer-songwriter. His live shows are also quite enjoyable.

by Dave Townsend
6 March 2010


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