By L. PIERCE CARSON
Register Staff Writer
Napa’s genial songwriting troubadour, Johnny Smith, has a new compact disc on the market and it’s as good as anything he’s done to date.
The latest recording is a mix of styles and messages, although knowing Smith, listeners can rightly expect there’ll be a number focusing on relationships. There are a couple of outstanding covers, too, even one agreeable uptempo rocker written with his aunt, celebrated rocker Bonnie Bramlett (who lends her voice to a mix of “Never Even Thought About It”).
Music as a message grabs the attention early on as Smith brings up “Things To Talk About,” reminding us how love drops in when we’re least expecting it. This catchy tune — written with main squeeze Sharon Hedlund — is sure to bring a smile to your face, particularly when we get to hear Hedlund’s sunny backing vocal.
Of course, when Smith puts his caramel-coated vocal spin on the John Lennon/Paul McCartney classic, “Blackbird,” Smith-ophiles know this is what our guitarist/singer does best. He gives us a fresh take on a song we know so well, encouraging as well some mighty nice accompaniment from all hands.
Smith’s formidable quartet includes David Bell on lead guitar, Chris Justin on bass and Ray Merrill on percussion. All are vital for a Bob Dylan cover that shows off the bandleader at his vocal best. Smith said Dylan’s album, “Desire,” made a terrific impact on his musical style. That recording closes with “Sara,” which “mesmerized” Smith at age 14. An ambitious tribute to his wife, Sara, it is possibly Dylan’s only song in which he steps out of his public persona and directly addresses a real person, with striking biographical accuracy. Dylan’s marriage was in a turbulent state when he wrote the song.
Finding and enjoying that special person in one’s life is the subject of “Our Love is Like a Rock.” It has an infectious melody and vocal hook reminiscent of the late great Sam Cooke.
Bassist Chris Justin and Napa attorney Jess Raphael collaborated on “The Slip,” with friend Mark Holzinger adding some sweet guitar solos. It’s a great song for Smith, displaying his velvety tones to great advantage, addressing the little things that make life better, things that we often overlook.
Also noteworthy here is another agreeable tune from the bassist Justin, “Little Bit More,” a ska riff on man’s search for greener pastures. Smith and Hedlund celebrate the ideal relationship on “The Closer You Get (The Better I Feel),” while “First Rate Love” relates how a chance hookup could turn out to be just what a lovelorn couple needs. Smith turns a provocative eye on the toll obsession takes, in a composition that sticks with the listener, “I Want To Know You.”
A personal favorite has Smith teaming up with an Australian lyricist, Patrick Nankervis. “The Saturday Race” is an attractive musical metaphor examining the push and pull of the daily routine, advancing the notice that it’s okay to take time on Saturdays to stop and smell the roses.
Save for a bonus track (“I Woke Up This Morning on the Wrong Side of Life”) that’s not listed on the CD cover (in which Smith addresses everything from politics to mutual respect), the most intense number is a rousing R&B testimonial to the “Woman in Your Life.” It includes some funky blues licks by guitarist Bell and should prove a rousing set closer for Smith for years to come.
By the way, the title of the new CD, “Gentlemen X,” refers to “four exceptional gentlemen,” Smith quips, “nothing at all to do with anything X-rated.”