4 Star Review
Singer/songwriter/spellbinder Leslie Smith's uncompromising songs aren't performed as much as they are summoned from her soul.
"Mountain Stage," radio's finest live national showcase, recognized her on the same artistic plane as Iris DeMent, Emmylou Hams, Lucinda Williams, and Nanci Griffith 2-1/2 years ago. Smith not only belongs in that company, but "These Things Wrapped" jolts the genre like an intimate bolt from the blue yonder,i.e., Pittsburgh.
Smith opens with the haunting disquiet of "Northem Cross." A brooding vocal against a desolate background reinforces struggle, desire and loss, as Smith bares her bluegrass roots on this daring declaration of independence.
Smith's challenging artistry fuses focused lyrics with spare arrangements to add dimension, strength, and grace to the hobo spirit ("Ghost on the High Rail"); a romantic rest-home encounter of sorts ("Midnight Pirouette"); and the wrenching centerpiece built around her mottler and daughter ("China Cups").
Listeners of Scottish descent should commit "Scotland" to memory. Smith salutes her heritage with sucn contagious pride that the song works as personal statement and accidental anthem.
Producer Darleen Wilson (Bill Morissey, Patty Larkin) captures the intensity of every jagged flame, which bums deeper due to Smith's unconventional preference for having her guitar and vocal recorded simultaneously. The handful of artists to complement this unlikely firebrand's unsettling triumph includes Duke Levine, Mary Chapin Carpenter's new lead guitarist; drummer Ben Wittman; Betty Elders and Michael Fracasso.
Leslie Smith is something of a songwriter's songwriter. She's earned the respect, praise and support of other musicians around the country, along with critical acclaim and local interest. And now, with the release of her first CD, Smith is on the brink of wider national exposure.
"These Things Wrapped" was released this week on CD (soon to come on tape) by Waterbug Records, an independent label based in Evanston, IL
Smith's music defies labels. Although she performs most of it solo, accompanied on acoustic guitar, it doesn’t fit the folk or country or unplugged designations. There are echoes of the Celtic music she grew up listening to, a tinge of bluegrass, a faint country twang and a keen lyrical sensibility.
"In the beginning, people were hoping it could be tunneled into mainstream Nashville," Smith says." I have a couple of tapes trying to be that, and they don't work. I always hated them. I'm really happy that ['These Things Wrapped' producer] Darleen Wilson didn't venture into trying to make it something it wasn't."
Smith grew up m Forest Hills and now lives in Mt. Lebanon with her husband and daughter. She left in the early '80s to live in New York, working at day jobs and singing with a bluegrass band. Bluegrass wasn't all that big draw in New York. Eventually she hocked a ring and bought a one-way ticket home. She stopped playing and writing songs, opting instead for working, going to School and being a homemaker.
Five years ago, the dry spell ended and she started writing again."That's when it kind of sparked," Smith recalls. She performed with a bluegrass band before deciding to go solo. That's when her star began to rise. A Self-released cassette -- "Outside the Lines" -- came put in 1991. She was featured on the public radio program "Mountain Stage" in '92 and at the Smoky City Four Festival here in 1993.
Smith's guitar and vocals on "These Things Wrapped" were done live in the studio, with no dubbing or production magic, because she wanted to retain a Sense of immediacy, and she insisted on playing her own guitar throughout. Lead guitar parts are by Boston based guitarist Duke Levine, who played with The Story and works with Mary Chapin Carpenter. Pittsburgh musicians Mark Perna, Don Shean and Stephen Cunningham backed her up on some tracks. Smith is happy with the supportive environment producer Wilson brought to the sessions. "It was really astounding. I wanted to quit all the time -- so that this got made Is really a miracle. She was like on this train, and I was jumping off."
The songs mine an emotional landscape full of both darkness and revelation, and the lyrics sometimes resonate with pain and loss. In "Midnight Pirouette", two elderly people in a rest home find a brief moment of romance: "Her silver slippers, his goofy grin/He gave her wheelchair a spin/What a lovely waltz, you'd be surprised, time don't forget/The subtle turning of a midnight pirouette."
In "Boat in a Bottle," a damaged souvenir becomes a symbol of the larger imperfections that eat away at relationships. The song was written for an AIDS benefit and could be about a father's rejection of a daughter or son with AIDS, although it never explicitly says so: "I'm not always so sick, in fact most days I'm fine/And I'm not always scared stiff, just part of the time /Late last night I called my dad, just to hear him on the line/But he didn't have nothing to say to me/Mom says he still needs time -- more time."
Smith says that song is "about judgment and families, and how everybody wants to be accepted."
Often it's the people around her who inspire the songs, which she says is a way of keeping them with her when she's on the road or staying close to those who are gone. "A lot of the songs are kind of yearning, some kind of searching that never ends."
"Songwriting is a kind of a magic. I hesitate to talk about it too much, because I think it's something that can go away at any minute."
The purity and intensity of Smith's stage performances complement her often-subtle storytelling. Sometimes that can work against her, she says. Awhile back, she was playing in a noisy bar club where it was a struggle to make herself heard above the conversation. So 'she told the crowd to be quiet.
"Everything I do is so personal. It's impossible for me to separate myself from it or to sing anything that matters through that. I look a lot of flak for that. I thought I shouldn't have done that. But people don't come to their jobs and start screaming and yelling. I guess it makes you tougher."
The reception was much better at this year's South by Southwest music festival in Austin. "You could hear a pin drop," she recalls
Like many artists, Smith is better known outside of her hometown than in it. But she prefers life here to that in the music epicenters of Austin and Nashville. Because of her family, she keeps her tour stints brief.
When was the last time you turned on the radio and heard a song that actually said something (aside from "ooh baby. I love you.' or "ooh baby. you done me wrong," if you listen to country radio?) Well, if you listen to public radio. you may get the chance to hear some music of substance in the form of Leslie Smith's debut release, These Things Wrapped.
The songs are profound, the lyrics alternately scathing and compassionate, and the music is exquisite. Smith's soaring vocals forcefully convey the powerful images expressed in the songs. From the potent social commentary of China Cups and Wednesday's 's Child to the touching Prayers Of Genevieve and Midnight Pirouette to the finely crafted allegory of Boat In A Bottle, the music is nothing less than terrific from beginning to end. This disc would be my selection for the Best New Female Vocalist category in the Acoustic Musician Magazine Music Awards (AcMMMies). assuming such a thing ever comes Into existence. (Hey Steve. whadya say?)
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