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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1730

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Putnam Smith: Kitchen, Love...
by George Graham

(Itchy Sabot Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/19/2013)

Over the past few years, perhaps as a reaction to the heavily processed, totally artificial commercial "audio product" that is dominating the pop music scene, there has arisen a kind of "American primitive roots" movement with original music that evokes acoustic styles of the period even before the rise of bluegrass. Though it sounds very old, it often has some eclectic ingredients in instrumentation or sound. Gillian Welch was probably the first to bring that kind of style to popularity with her original songs that sound as if they were written by the Carter Family or Doc Boggs. A group which has taken that kind of style to interesting new directions is Crooked Still, with their banjo, fiddle and cello.

This week, we have a singer-songwriter record that also draws on that sound, with all-acoustic instrumentation and an atmosphere that evokes the early 20th Century in the rural south. But there's also a bunch of interesting twists, like cello and a horn section that play like a classical brass choir. And because this is a singer-songwriter record, there is a focus on the vocals and lyrics, which do not disappoint. It's by Putnam Smith, and it's his fourth release called Kitchen, Love...

Putnam Smith is from Portland, Maine, and in a way, his lifestyle of living in a rustic cabin, splitting his own wood for heating, and growing some of this own food, is a nice cultural tie-in with his CD. Back in 2009, his second release, called Goldrush began to attract attention on the national folk music scene. In 2011, he released We Could be Beekeepers which also did well on the independent folk music charts. Now he is out with Kitchen, Love... which runs a little more eclectic, with Smith playing several kinds of stringed instruments, including guitar, banjo, mandolin, and also piano. The addition of cello to the mix, along with the fiddle, is reminiscent to the sonic textures of Crooked Still. But Smith also had the idea of adding horns, while keeping the influences sufficiently rustic. The result is an appealing and often stylistically intriguing album. As a vocalist, Smith has a likeable almost whispery singing voice, and his songs are well-suited to the eclectic musical settings. The CD's title Kitchen, Love... reflects the fact that, according to Smith, most of the songs are about love or food, or both, including a love song to a cast-iron skillet.

He is joined by a variable cast of characters, with different players on different tracks. They include Erica Brown on fiddle, Seth Yentes or April Reed-Cox on cello, Jason Rafalak on bass and Zak Trojano on the minimal drums.

Within the acoustic context of the instrumentation, the songs are surprisingly wide-ranging in their influences and stylistic direction, ranging from sounding like historic old-timey music to a couple of tunes that could be played by a rock band.

Opening is a track that reflects the dual nature of the lyrical subject matter. Succotash is about finding love and making the beans-and-corn vegetable recipe. Smith is heard on a rustic-sounding fretless banjo. <<>>

More like conventional singer-songwriter material is a song called The Artist Up on the Hill which tells the story of a kind of nomadic romantic affair. The drums give it a more rock direction. <<>>

One of the tracks with the brass instruments is Looking Up, a song of some lyrical optimism, performed with Smith at the piano. It's also quite appealing both musically and lyrically. <<>>

The epitome of the albums' dual subjects of food and love is Cast Iron Pan a clever, stylistically eclectic tune about the what song's title says, and how the cooking implement becomes the center of attention. <<>>

With Putnam Smith on the mandolin is another appealingly creative song called Emily Dickinson. It imagines what it would be like to be the poet for a day. <<>>

Country Girl is an upbeat song in praise of a significant other with a rural upbringing. It's another highlight of the album. <<>>

Smith is again on piano for the composition Refuge another well-named song. This track has more in common with a kind of theatrical reverie than old-time folk music with the almost-classical sounding horn arrangements. <<>>

The closest to traditional folk to be found on this multi-faceted album is a song called New Shoes. The track incorporates some traditional lyrics from the song Hop High, while the banjo and string arrangement is evocative of both traditional folk and classical chamber music. <<>>

Kitchen, Love... the new CD from Maine singer-songwriter Putnam Smith is another excellent example of artists looking to old traditional acoustic folk music for inspiration -- not to recreate the old sounds authentically, but to use them to make interesting new music. Smith is an excellent composer-vocalist, who creates often clever lyrics and has a very appealing vocal style. His songs are such that they would also work well in a more conventional musical setting, but the arrangements on this album make them all the more intriguing, with the tasteful playing by the added musicians.

Our grade for sound quality is an "A." The acoustic instruments are well-recorded. In keeping with the direction of the album, there are almost no audible studio effects, and the dynamic range -- how the recording reproduces the loud and soft of the music is much better than average for these days of hyper-compressed CDs.

Thanks to people like Gillian Welch and Crooked Still, a new twist on traditional-sounding music is being heard. Putnam Smith has made a fine new record that carries on the eclectic mix of new and old.

(c) Copyright 2013 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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