Finger-picked acoustic guitar styles have been rippling all over the globe for more than a hundred years, of course. Pebbles and stones dropped into the waters during the 1960s by British folk visionaries like Renbourn and Jansch and American primitivists like Fahey and Basho made circles that remained in motion, spreading out and influencing succeeding generations of finger-style guitar mavericks to create their own intimate and arpeggiated approaches to eclectic, multi-ethnic folk-based experimentation.
Sean Smith is a fine latter-day player with a subtle and well-imagined approach to both regular steel string and lap-style weissenborn. Eternal, recorded in 2007, finds him adding other musicians to his approach, with mountain dulcimer, percussion, violin, banjo on the scene at times — extra color and texture for his bell-toned, steady-patterned, and spacious playing. “Palak Paneer,” for example, resonates with Pentangle-meets- acoustic Zeppelin fairy-folk-rock: handclap rhythms and Smith’s Weissenborn slide lines interweave with Adam Snider’s second guitar and Fletcher Tucker’s shimmering dulcimer.
“Holly,” a harmonically gorgeous guitar masterpiece written by Steve Mann, is presented by Smith in a brave and powerful way, juxtaposing a crystalline, heart-rending guitar with dark-tinged violin by Angela Hsu and an exploding seam of Smith’s own beginner’s mind drumming and extremely distorted electric guitar .
Equally brave, albeit much quieter, are the long, intimate solo pieces at the end of the album. “Prompter of Conscience” finds Smith articulating deeply-felt east Indian lines on Weissenborn, evoking veena and sarod at times, over the drone of a (broken?) reed organ. The record’s long final piece, “Greetings, Death, Love (excerpts),” is a mysterious and elegant guitar collage — fragments, musical epigrams, themes and variations — wherein Smith’s sure touch, elegant tone and musical instincts let guitar and music simply breathe. The overall effect is enigmatic and poetic, and it keeps calling this listener back.