Lianne Smith’s Two Sides of a River – A Classic
Lianne Smith is an individualist. She does things her way – even if it means taking ten years or more to put out an album. Long considered to be one of New York’s most important songwriters, she personifies the definition of cult artist. She’ll play the occasional Bowery Ballroom gig and owns a rabid fan base who’ve followed her since her days as the Brooklyn dark Americana rock girl “most likely to get signed” in the late 90s. But that coincided with the sea change where the big record labels started to drop off the map – and the fact that Smith never courted fame in the first place. Since then, she’s teased her fan base with home recordings on the web; one suspects that there are many prized live shows of hers kicking around as well. That it would take her this long to make her debut album, Two Sides of a River, turns out to be worth it: it’s the best rock record of 2012 so far by a country mile.
Check her Bandcamp site - where the whole thing is streaming – and among the tags is “folk noir,” an apt way to describe her more low-key stuff. And while most artists find themselves at a loss for words to describe what they do, Smith pretty much nails what she’s about: “I write songs about standing in the middle of the road and wondering which way to go, about how others cheat us and how we cheat ourselves, about free-wheeling, bicycle riding, look-ma-no-hands exhilarations, and how it feels to say goodbye to summer.” The album is a mix of the expected – allusive, enigmatic, captivating folk-rock and some psychedelia – along with several lush, towering art-rock anthems, a style that turns out to suit her better than anyone would have thought. Good songwriters never have to look far for good musicians to play their songs, and Smith is no exception: the band here includes Paul Simon sideman Larry Saltzman and Tony Scherr on guitars and bass, Flutterbox’s Neill C. Furio also on bass, Anton Fier (who also produced) on drums, Doug Wieselman on saxophones, and Joe McGinty on keys on a couple of tracks, with lush, sometimes stormy string arrangements by Irwin Fisch.
Smith also happens to be one of this era’s great singers, somebody who deserves to be mentioned alongside people like Laura Cantrell and Neko Case (and Mary Lee Kortes, with whom she’s collaborated). Surprisingly, she doesn’t show off her upper register here, instead lingering on the lyrics with a nuanced phrasing that’s sometimes wry, sometimes sultry and often viscerally chilling. The first track here is The Magpie Hunter, a bitter, subdued, symbolically-loaded dark folk lament with an anthemic “one for the this, two for the that” chorus. That one sets the stage for the other quiet tracks, like the concluding cut, Snow, a pensive waltz told from the point of view of a girl lost in a storm (Smith hails from Minnesota originally – she knows her subject matter well). And as much detail as there is in Smith’s songs, what isn’t said carries just as much weight, epitomized in The Ballad of Sad Endings. That one has prosaic origins, simply a capsulization of the plotlines from a couple of books Smith was reading in the early zeros, which she turned into a Great Plains gothic epic. When she pulls up the phrase “madness descends,” the effect is as poignant as it is lurid – the strings adding a grand guignol horror as the song reaches a peak.
The real stunner here is Hit and Run. In the past, Smith has done it as retro 80s (think Wire or Joy Division): here it’s a massive art-rock anthem, a gruesome eyewitness account (and account of eyewitnesses) of a deadly crash. Over the layers of guitar and the soaring bassline, Smith coldbloodedly addresses the driver who left a victim twisted by the side of the road and might have made that move too soon.
But not everything here is quite that dark. The mysterious dreampop rock anthem Marianne Was Tired reminds of the Church, with a big, soaring guitar solo from Scherr and just a hint of an ominous ending, while The Thief, a backbeat country song that wouldn’t be out of place in the Cantrell playbook, winds up its aphoristic cautionary tale with an irresistible singalong “I found out, yeah, I found out too late” chorus. The seductive, psychedelic Sugar and the blithely charming Bicycle have been concert favorites for years. There’s also the joyously expectant powerpop anthem Saturday (8 Million Reasons), lit up by C.J. Camerieri’s ecstatic trumpet, and the tensely artsy, ambiguous pop song Old Times Sake. One of the most stylistically diverse rock albums of recent years, it’s also one of the best – and tops the list this year so far.