Steven R. Smith Owl

[Digitalis; 2007]

Rating: 3/5

Styles: American folk, psychedelic, collective improv
Others: Loren Chasse, Jewelled Antler, The North Sea

Although maintaining a large discography and busy schedule amongst various relations in the Jewelled Antler collective, Steven R. Smith has never seemed content to release every jam that graces the earth. His albums, whether they’re under the guise of Hala Strana, Thuja, or his own name, always seemed like significant steps rather than passing thoughts, and with the addition of vocals, Owl boasts itself as being yet another small monument.

His style remains loose, with signature multitracked guitar haziness over which his alto voice bellows declarations. Ranging from the authoritative presence of Odetta to the more realistic, shaky warbles of Neil Young, his voice commands attention and provides a welcome contrast to his guitar tapestries. They rarely guide the music, but instead chime in when appropriate, allowing his amorphous sonic bedding to develop at its own leisurely pace. However, unlike his usual effortless-sounding elegance, he seems vaguely hesitant of his own capabilities, and the addition of his voice brings a struggle between form and freedom that never quite resolves itself. Too often his guitar playing is restrained, making room for vocals that are also only making tepid footprints, so as not to trample on the more accomplished instrumentation.

Smith is more focused than ever on writing songs, and as songs go, the ones featured on Owl don’t budge at all. Melodies develop themselves unhinged of time and without any semblance of verse or chorus. Although impressive and strangely familiar-sounding, the album never carries the weight of The Anchorite and other previous releases, despite the vocal innovations. Listening to Owl, it’s easy to wonder just how far Smith can take his voice and how abstract or concrete he can take the idea of a song. Not that Owl is lackluster, but in retrospect it might be best thought of as a transitional album, or as something formative. At least, I hope this is the case, because despite Smith not being at the top of his game, he continues to turn over new leaves, and the one with a larynx is something that I’d like to hear more of.

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