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Steven R. Smith - Kohl

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Artist: Steven R. Smith

Album: Kohl

Label: Emperor Jones

Review date: Nov. 29, 2005

Members of the Jewelled Antler Collective share a fondness for personalizing gestures. This LP, which is a reissue of a 2002 Jewelled Antler CD-R, remains true to that aesthetic. Steven R. Smith, who also plays in the improv quartet Thuja and makes ersatz Eastern European folk collages under the name Hala Strana, made a woodcut for each track and another for the album. He included all save the last in a chapbook that also includes a little bag of seeds and another of powdered coal (check the title, kids). The latter inclusion should not be considered a comment on this record’s merits as a gift; it’d be a mighty swell thing for St. Nicholas to leave under your tree, and not just for the nifty packaging.

Kohl is a benchmark entry in Smith’s burgeoning discography, distinguished by both its performance methods and the emotive qualities of its music. Most of his solo efforts are made over a long period of time and feature overdubbed layers of guitars, keyboards, and other things with strings; these nine instrumental tracks were recorded mostly live, one a night, over a couple weeks, with very little pre-composing, on acoustic and electric guitar. The lack of premeditation, one imagines, allows Smith’s an unfiltered glimpse of the soul and sentiments that have animated such stirring efforts as Fieldings and Lineaments. If so, Smith is possessed by equal measures of melancholy and grim defiance.

The opener “Kilim and Dirt” rings out with stark clarity, its choppy chords as remorseless as a forced retreat from the plague lands under black skies. The title track is composed mostly of echoing harmonics that flash like lightning against a background drone. The effect recalls Loren Connors more reflective late-'90s efforts, especially when a tape of an old fiddle tune creeps in near the end, nearly hidden in the same way that vocalist Suzanne Langille’s called out from way behind Connors’ guitar. On the flip side several acoustic tunes, including a funereal cover of the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s exit march “Odwalla,” extend the tragic, dying campfire vibe. The sense of singularity and significance of mood that Kohl evokes (in concert with its hand-crafted packaging) are things to treasure.

By Bill Meyer

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