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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1617

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April Smith and the Great Picture Show: Songs for a Sinking Ship

by George Graham

(Independent Release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/27/2010)

As contemporary pop music gets more and more artificial, generated by computer to the point that the level of so-called talent is pretty much inconsequential, there seems to a reaction against it among increasing numbers of younger performers. Acoustic music from 20-somethings is not hard to find, much of it drawing on traditional folk influence. And there seem to be more performers looking to pre-rock styles for their inspiration. This week we another notable example, this one quite enjoyable and downright fun. It's April Smith and the Great Picture Show, and their new CD Songs for a Sinking Ship, a title that should tell you something about the whimsical attitude that permeates the recording.

A resident of Brooklyn, April Smith grew up in Toms River, New Jersey, and says that her outgoing performing style came from trying to impress her older, and, as she describes them, "insanely talented" siblings. Her brother was in a band and her sister, painted. Her mother was a big fan of the band Queen, and her father gave her an old 8-track tape player and helped her find old tapes at yard sales, which gave her apparently a rather eclectic collection. While staying with an aunt and uncle on a summer vacation, she was exposed to Tom Waits' music, and he became a big influence on her to this day. Even growing up as a child she was a compulsive performer, playing and singing at family gatherings, impromptu talent shows, and wherever she could get away with it, including apparently in supermarkets.

Though this is her first actual CD, April Smith has been attracting fans. She opened on a national tour with songwriter J.D. Souther, and some of her music found its way onto the soundtracks for TV shows and commercials. She also won one of the talent competitions on Public Radio's Prairie Home Companion. Ms. Smith and her band created the CD in what is happening with increasing frequency now that the record companies have pretty much disintegrated -- a fan-financed recording. She raised some $13,000 to make the CD from her fans who would get an advance copy of the recording and other privileges.

Ms. Smith created a bunch of original songs that definitely look back at least six or seven decades for their inspiration -- specifically cabaret and vaudeville. The witty lyrics are mostly about love affairs with moods ranging from rhapsodic praise to a broken heart to good riddance. Ms. Smith's band the Great Picture Show includes guitarist Marty O'Kane, keyboard man Brandon Lowery bassist Steve Purpurt and drummer Elliot Jacobson. The CD's producer Dan Romer plays a bunch of additional instruments, and there is a string quartet who appears here and there.

The music is all original by Ms. Smith, but as mentioned, it's light years from contemporary commercial pop in sound. The opening track is typical. Movie Loves a Screen has ukuleles and a trumpet solo accompanying the clever, rather old-fashioned love lyrics. <<>>

Also rather whimsical is the song Terrible Things, in which the protagonist claims to have a past of some notoriety. <<>>

A song about a less-than enthusiastic relationship is called Drop-Dead Gorgeous. The lyrics berate that the subject of the song as being an attractive airhead, or worse. <<>>>

A relationship with much more positive outcome is celebrated in the infectiously bouncy song Colors, which also has a kind of vaguely vaudeville-influenced sound. <<>>

Old fashioned jealously is at the root of Dixie Boy in which the protagonist threatens any other suitors to her beau. <<>>

Of course, a collection of love songs would not be complete without one about broken-hearted parting. Beloved is a slow ballad with the string section which shows that Ms. Smith can do justice to a sad song when she wants to. <<>>

One of the Ms. Smith's compositions that wound up being used in a commercial is Wow and Flutter, a kind of sassy love song. <<>>

The CD ends with wonderfully clever kiss-off song called Stop Wondering. The lyrics are pretty merciless with the unfortunate object of the termination, while the music is an old-fashioned waltz with the string quartet prominent. <<>>

April Smith and the Great Picture Show's new debut CD Songs for a Sinking Ship is fun album of clever, whimsical songs that harken back to a mix of vaudeville, cabaret but with an irreverent rock attitude. The sound is in many ways old-fashioned as are the lyrical topics, but the execution is great. Ms. Smith has the perfect voice for this kind of thing, coming across as sweet at times, but you'll never know when she's going to stick in the knife. Her band are very tasteful and definitely "get it" as far as the style of the music is concerned. It's a fairly short CD, at under 34 minutes, but it covers a lot of ground.

Our weekly grade for sound quality is fairly close to an "A." The music is well-recorded, capturing its mood without trying to sound like an old-fashioned sonically-deficient recording. Dynamic range is also fairly impressive, maintaining a range of loud and soft, though sometimes when the music gets loud, it gets a bit too loud and one can hear bits of distortion.

It's sometimes said that everything old is new again. April Smith and the Great Picture Show, and other groups like Katzenjammer and artists like Madeleine Peyroux are looking to the past and while making creative new music.

(c) Copyright 2010 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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