First Appeared in The Music Box, September 2006, Volume 13, #9
Written by Randi Whitehead and George Weiss
Coming in the wake of a pair of indie attempts, Jonah Smith’s latest effort is his first to receive national distribution. The self-titled set contains 12 tracks, the last of which is a "non-listed" surprise. Throughout the endeavor, Smith is joined by Carrie Rodriguez, Bill Frisell, and Garth Hudson as he crosses genres from Americana to blues to pop while adding a biting, gritty edge that was missing from his early work.
Starting with a church-like ballad titled Little Black Angels, Smith segues into When We Say Goodnight, which, laced with pedal steel flourishes, features a drum backbeat as well as nice saxophone interludes. On Stay Awhile, Rodriguez’s vocals lurk in the background, though Frisell’s guitar unfortunately is lost in the mix. Changing to a more upbeat, pop-oriented sound, My Morning Scene is reminiscent of Pure Prairie League’s ’70s output. Elsewhere, Cast a Long Shadow is a slow, Rhodes-driven blues tune that evokes a darker mood, even as Hudson’s accordion accompaniment reflects his work with The Band. On Killing Time, a song that is akin to early Traffic, Smith appropriately emulates the vocal style of Steve Winwood.
After a brief instrumental interlude, which puzzlingly received its own track listing, Smith again changes gears by diving headfirst into the soulful, Ben Harper-esque rhythmic groove of Everything Is New. The ballad Give It All Away provides him with an opportunity to showcase his meaningful lyrics, though it’s easy to miss them amidst the song’s passionless droning. Thankfully, the diversion is brief, and he quickly returns to Americana-oriented fare on Both Sides and Dressed in White. Smith’s vocals shine through these tracks on which he demonstrates both soulfulness and heart. The hidden bonus tune I Feel More Like I Did Back Then (Than I Do Right Now) exemplifies his loose, freewheeling style.
Throughout Smith’s eponymous endeavor, his guests never overwhelm his vision. Instead, their input is relatively seamless and subdued. Smith is, after all, a strong songwriter and musician with a unique and capable voice, and he’s charismatic enough to succeed on his own merits. Sounding like a kinder, gentler version of Ben Harper, yet containing a touch of Chris Robinson’s edge, Smith’s vocal style trades angst for captivating soulfulness. Although his self-titled effort initially is enjoyable, it also becomes more resonant with each subsequent visit.
Jonah Smith is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2006 The Music Box