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Chris Smither - Up on the Lowdown/Drive You Home Again

  by Jon Rogers

published: 22 / 2 / 2015

Chris Smither - Up on the Lowdown/Drive You Home Again
Label: Floating World Records
Format: CD X2


Excellent double CD reissue of 1990s albums from cult American blues singer-songwriter, Chris Smither

Some cult artists are just that. A cult attraction filling a niche and there is nothing wrong with that whatsoever. But when does that 'cult following' fall into the less positive notion of 'criminally neglected'. That sense that given the right sort of exposure and promotion they could be a 'star'. American blues and folk guitarist and songwriter William Christopher Smither, despite producing some quite wonderful albums over the years, remains only really appreciated by those in the know. Smither has, in blues parlance, paid his dues, taking his inspiration from the likes of Lightnin' Hopkins, Bob Dylan, Eric von Schmidt and Mississippi John Hurt, amongst others. Whilst he was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. he managed to play with the likes of the Reverend Gary Davies and Skip James as well as Hurt. He's also done his fair share of hard living, developing a taste for sour mash and spent, by his own admission, twelve years as an alcoholic, forsaking his music and getting by using his carpentry skills. While he recorded the album 'Honeysuckle Dog' in 1973, he would not release an album between 1971 and 1984. He did though manage to pull through, and has since produced a steady stream of albums that display his fine and accomplished songwriting skills that coupled with his rather distinctive, weather-worn voice made him something of a little gem to be prized. Up first in this two disc set is 1995’s 'Up on the Lowdown' which sees Smither in, relatively, downcast mood with the opener 'Link of Chain'. One highlight is his interpretation of Dylan's 'What Was It You Wanted' from his 1989 album 'Oh Mercy'. Smither's gallow's pole vocal delivery addis a different complexity to the original. Overall, it's a sparse, stripped down album, often featuring little more than Smither's vocals and guitar plus a rudimentary backing. This is most noticeable on the traditional 'Jailhouse Blues', which closes the album where Smither is only accompanied by keyboardist Riley Osbourne, Some three years later in December 1998 Smither returned to where 'Up on the Lowdown' had been recorded - The Hit Shack in Austin, Texas to record what would become 'Drive You Home Again', the album reflecting a rather more positive - once again relatively speaking - Smither. He is in quite a buoyant mood as he tackles 'Steel Guitar' by one of his heroes Danny O'Keefe - he originally tackled the song back in 1973 that eventually saw the light of day on his 'Honeysuckle Dog' album in 2005 - and manages to make Tim Hardin's 'Don't Make Promises' rather positive sounding. While still an accomplished achievement where 'Drive You Home Again' falls down is in its somewhat overproduction. Where Smither excels most is in his simplicity. Keeping songs basic, nothing elaborate. A voice, some fine guitar playing and some understated accompaniment. At times, as with 'Duncan & Brady', with its bar-room piano and over-enthusiastic backing vocals it just sounds, well, out of place. Even with the aforementioned Hardin cover, a song about lies and deception, it's rather a big-sounding production and a chorus of female backing vocalists lose something of Hardin's heartbroken original. There is, though, still much to recommend the album - including the title track and Eric von Schmidt's delicious 'Rattlesnake Preacher' as well as the closing 'So Long'. In a just world the likes of Smither would be in receipt of far more plaudits than he already is, but perhaps in a musical landscape that all too readily relies on digital trickery and manipulation and the likes of autotune someone who has based their songwriting skills on traditional craftsmanship Smither could very well be out of step and out of time. But it would be worthwhile searching out some of his albums.

Track Listing:-
1 Link of Chain
2 Deed I Do
3 What Was It You Wanted
4 Up on the Lowdown
5 Bittersweet
6 Talk Memphis
7 Can't Shake Those Blues
8 I Am the Ride
9 Time to Go Home
10 Jailhouse Blues
11 Drive You Home Again
12 Steel Guitar
13 No Love Today
14 Hey, Hey, Hey
15 Don't Make Promises
16 Get a Better One
17 Hold on II
18 Duncan & Brady
19 Rattlesnake Preacher
20 Tell Me Why You Love Me
21 So Long

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