Mill River (self-released)
Berkshires-by-way-of-Kansas Sky Smeed’s first two CDs were wonderful, unhurried affairs. Great songwriting, expressive singing, but much was downtempo, often to the point of being zen-like. Nice and quiet.
This new one, Mill River, is something else again. Recorded mostly live in three days at New England folk mecca Signature Sound Studios, Mill River is a rollicking bunch of songs, with Smeed stretching emotionally, compositionally, and hitting every mark full stride. With Mill River, Sky Smeed goes toe-to-toe with the great Texas singer-songwriters like Jack Ingram and Robert Earl Keen. He’s that good, and he’s that distinctive. He’s got the kind of sweet voice that’s recognizable after a first listen, and he writes unforgettable songs.
The hard-boogieing “Tonight I Will” peels the paint, with Smeed yowling about tearing it up on a Friday; “Amarillo Sun” has a majestic and poetic darkness that’s sniffing around Patti Smith’s territory; “Nothing to Fear” is a slice of small-town boy optimism, winding up with a gypsy-like charge and Smeed singing in long notes “We’ve nothing to fear” over and over again. “Love Again” is a staggering epic, starting out as a tepid little woe-is-me lost-love number, building steadily over five minutes to a furious, violent conclusion, with the singer’s character shooting his ex-darlin’s new man. His take on Jimmy Reed’s “Shame, Shame, Shame” leaves the cosmic country stuff behind and shows that Smeed is perfectly capable of taking on the baddest roadhouse. Line ’em up.
Smeed’s also got one of the most sure-footed bands in the region. The rhythm section of Andy Crawford (drums) and Dave Christopolis (bass) is simply extraordinary in every respect; Jack Waldheim plays guitar and mandolin with taste and restraint, coloring the songs while leaving most of the solo work to the terrific pedal-steel player Pete Adams, who gives the tracks a distinctive county twang.
Something tells me Smeed’s not long for this local-musician stuff. Way, way too good for that.