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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1207

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Darden Smith: Extra Extra -- by George Graham

(Valley Entertainment 15118 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/26/2000)

There is something of unwritten rule in the rock and pop music business: once you record an original song, that's it. The only way to get away with re-recording a song is on a live album. Once in a while, a veteran artist with a long career, especially in folk and blues, will revisit a song on a studio album after perhaps decades. Except for the idea of avoidance of repetition, there is really no overwhelming reason why an artist should not do new studio versions of previously released songs, especially if the songs have undergone a transformation in being performed over the years, or if the original album on which the song first appeared goes out of print.

This week we have an interesting CD, by a respected Texas singer-songwriter, consisting almost entirely of songs he previously released on records within the past decade. He is Darden Smith, and his new release is called Extra Extra: Darden Smith Sings Twelve Songs by Heart.

Darden Smith is one of the bevy of singer-songwriters based in Austin, Texas, though he had been there before it became so fashionable for folkies. His musical company over the years includes Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, and Townes Van Zandt. Smith describes himself as a folksinger at heart, though his songs have had pop and even country elements. His previous output includes six albums, ranging from a now out-of-print debut effort done in 1986 in Nashville in 1986, where his record company had sent him to his relative unhappiness, and included a few major-label releases and an interesting collaboration with a British singer-songwriter named Boo Hewardine. In addition to his recording and performing career, Smith has had some unconventional extracurricular activities, including work as resident composer for the Johnson/Long Dance company in Texas, and also creating a work that was performed with the dance company and the Austin Philharmonic.

For Extra Extra, Smith gathered together songs that he felt had received the best reaction from his audience. All but one had been previously released, most of them are from his 1990 Trouble No More and 1993 Little Victories albums. And all but one are new studio recordings, with one live track.

While his previous albums, especially those on the major labels, have bordered on mainstream pop -- he said that one of his songs, which he re-did on this CD, has ended up literally as elevator music -- Smith re-does the songs in a setting that is primarily acoustic, sounding more intimate than some of the original recordings. He works with a regular band, including bassist Roscoe Beck, known for his work with guitarist Eric Johnson, playing the acoustic bass throughout, adding a warm instrumental touch that steers the music along a line between folk and jazz. Also appearing are guitarist Steuart Smith, and drummer Sammy Merendino. The CD was produced by Stewart Lerman, who has worked with Darden Smith previously. Despite the intimate sound, the album was recorded in an unusual manner, with different musicians recording their parts in different studios, some in New York, and some in Texas. Smith said that after working with a symphony orchestra, he learned that one cannot keep full control of the music, and that the gathered players can help to make their own contributions. So Smith took that sort of laissez faire attitude toward Extra Extra, sometimes not even being present at the sessions, and just trusting the musicians and producer Lerman to make their contributions, though there were apparently a lot of express packages of in-progress tapes sent back and forth.

The result, though, is one of Smith's best recordings. The musicianship is very tasteful and Smith puts the years of experience he has had with these songs into his performances. While the musical mood tends toward the upbeat, the lyrical theme for many of the songs gathered on the album is longing and loneliness. Still, it's not a particularly sad record, especially with Smith's appealingly laid-back musical persona.

The album begins with one of its most recent songs, Hunger, originally released on the Deep Fantastic Blue album from 1995. The arrangement this time has a great easy-going rhythmic groove added to some spacey guitar by Knox Chandler. The song, with its longing for love, sets up the lyrical theme that runs through much of Extra Extra. <<>>

The song that in its earlier incarnation had a degree of commercial success, including ending up in background music systems, is Frankie & Sue, a appealing story of love in a faraway land. The new version, with acoustic bass, takes on a jazzy quality. <<>>

Fall Apart at the Seams is a great song from Smith's 1990 album Trouble No More which combines an appealing and intimate folk style accompaniment, with rather downcast lyrics. <<>>

The one song new to this album is Never Let a Day Go By, though Smith wrote it in 1990 and has apparently been performing it live every since. It's another fine piece of writing blending into the album's lyrical motif of wistful desire. <<>>

Despite its mostly acoustic instrumentation, the rockiest track on the CD is Levee Song that Smith wrote in 1993 with Chip Taylor, who composed some hits from the 1960s, including Wild Thing. This song, also about a lost love, originally appeared on Smith's Little Victories album. <<>>

The mood does get more positive for a couple of the tracks. Love Me Like a Soldier is a kind of white-collar love song, yearning for passion in the suburbs. <<>>

And close to rhapsodic lyrically is First Day of the Sun, about as passionate a love song as one will hear from a Texas singer-songwriter. <<>>

The one track recorded live before an audience is Talk to Me, a plea for more closeness in a marriage which has perhaps grown a bit cold. <<>>

The album ends with its only real disappointment, Loving Arms, accompanied on a piano, and sounding unfortunately just like hundreds of other singer-songwriters when they sit down at the piano. Even the lyrics are rife with clichés, which is rare for Smith. <<>>

Texas singer-songwriter Darden Smith -- who incidentally hardly sounds or writes like the typical Lone Star singer-songwriter -- has on his new album Extra Extra done something most artists do not do, a whole album of re-makes of his previously recorded songs, originally released not all that long ago. But it gives Smith a chance to revisit some of his best material, and serve up new arrangements that are generally more intimate and acoustic, and in almost almost all cases significantly better than the original versions, many of which are now out of print or hard to find. It's also a reminder of this fine writer and appealing vocalist, in one of the most tastefully produced albums he has done to date in a 14-year recording career.

In terms of sound quality, the CD is also first-rate, with the acoustic bass being especially pleasing, and overall dynamic range being better than many contemporary recordings. Co-producer Stuart Lerman was also mix engineer and did a good job of making the far-flung recording sessions for the various musicians into a unified audio experience.

Whether Darden Smith's fans would be interested in a new CD of old songs remains to be seen. The title Extra Extra seems to take that into consideration. But for those who may not be familiar with the work of this first-rate songwriter and appealing performer, the new CD is an excellent way to get to know him.

(c) Copyright 2000 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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