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Micah Blue Smaldone - The Red River

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Artist: Micah Blue Smaldone

Album: The Red River

Label: Immune

Review date: Oct. 23, 2008

Like his sometime tour mate, Joel Thibodeaux of Death Vessel, Micah Blue Smaldone has been moving towards music that is rooted, rather than confined, in 19th century folk. His first album, 2003’s Some Sweet Day, was defiantly old-time-ish, rooted in populist folk and protest music and played on a resonator guitar. Two years later, he offered Hither and Thither, a bit more modern in its references and scope. And now with The Red River, his best yet, richer, more fluid arrangements tip his songs from straight folk blues into gospel, soul and even hints of R&B.

Smaldone is supported by a larger cast on The Red River with fellow Mainers Chriss Sutherland, Erin Davidson and Colleen Kinsella (all formerly of Cerebrus Shoal) singing on opening song “The Guest” and closer “A Drink.” There is a small string section – Jerusha Robinson plays cello on three songs and Tristan Smaldone adds violin to one – and one muted cornet, played by Tim Harbeson, lending ghostly heft to “Pale Light.”

All this additional instrumentation allows for greater variety than on past Smaldone efforts. Alongside the lilting Appalachian folk of “Bastard of Time” and finger-picked flurries and straight-up strums of “A Derelict,” you find some interesting diversions. “Pale Light,” one of the album’s highlights, opens with a slouchy blues vamp right out of the Stax playbook and ends with slow, soulful swells of brass. “The Guest,” embellishes minor-key blues melodies with luxuriant gospel harmonies.

Even though the arrangements are more elaborate, the songs themselves have a primitive clarity. Lyrics are dark and rich with imagery, but mostly built out of one and two syllable words. Lines can be violent, even lurid, yet even the most bloody verses have the plainspoken grace and essentialism of American folk art. The title track, for instance, contains the verse, “It was this morning I led my horse / through a field of sunken arrows / and from a thicket I watched you there / letting down your great rolls of golden hair.” It’s only a handful of lines, as unadorned as King James English, yet it evokes powerful undercurrents of violence, sex and longing. Opener “The Guest” is similarly weighted. There, lines describe a meal with a stranger in simple, literal terms (“Not until our guest arrives and sets his boots beside the fire”), yet also subliminally conveys the menace of this unknown person.

Smaldone plays guitar and sings with a simplicity that underlines, rather than contradicts, the drama. He doesn’t exactly sound like Michael Hurley – maybe in 40 years he’ll acquire the same rasp – but there is something natural, unhurried and ruminative in him that may remind you of the older artist. You feel that with The Red River, he is finally getting comfortable with his folk-inspired palette of influences, stretching them out to fit, and making them his own.

By Jennifer Kelly

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