Chris Smither: Hundred Dollar Valentine (Signature Sounds)
Surprisingly, this is the first album in Smither's nearly five-decade career to consist entirely of his own songs. It includes new versions of two older ones, both of them dark. The oldest, "I Feel the Same," is a concisely heart-wrenching breakup song that's been covered by Bonnie Raitt, Candi Staton, Esther Phillips, and more, but sounds best in Smither's bleak reading. "Every Mother's Son," about vigilante terrorists, is even more chilling: "You know you made your son Joseph a dangerous man, / He's gone to town and bought himself a gun [….] Vengeance is mine, he said, come join the fun, / He looked more like a Judas on the run."
Theoretically it's the last song on the album, but -- as though he didn't want to go out on such a downer -- there's a hidden bonus track, a hotel-room rendition of, actually, a third oldie, "Rosalie," to give us an upbeat finish.
Lest I make this sound like a largely gloomy album, I'll hasten to point out that his wry wit is often on display, for instance in "What They Say," which includes this bit: "They say the devil was an angel, back in the beginnin', / So was I, but nobody's pinnin' / Any hopes on me. I ain't sayin' that they oughta." Also witty, even if more socio-political, is "Make Room for Me"; I'm tempted to quote the whole thing, but I'll settle for 60% of the third verse: "On the front page, the story of the age, / To keep us all free they're gonna put us in a cage, / With a fence on the border to maintain order and the minimum wage."
It's all couched in the folk style he's used to such great effect throughout his career, based on his blues-influenced acoustic guitar fingerpicking and drawled vocals, which gives the lyrics extra homespun flavor. There are some charmingly shambling band arrangements, with members of the Boston scene (including members of Morphine, Groovasaurus, and the Lemonheads) chipping in, but thanks be, they don't make it one of those overproduced folkie albums; everything's down-home in tone, even when violin and cello join in.
Smither has never made a less-than-stellar album, and this is as good an introduction to his work as any of them. But don't stop at just one, and make sure to pick up a few with some of his renditions of classic country blues songs. Or check him out on his current tour. He'll be in New York City at the Highline Ballroom, with the band, on July 12. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer. His song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach can be heard here.