Micah Blue Smaldone’s Hither and Thither is a darkly sorrowful and beautiful record. A collection of twelve originals and a cover of Jelly Roll Morton’s “New Orleans Bump,” Hither and Thither is a cycle of songs about a soul looking for the shelter of love and a bit of joy in a world conspiring against simple beauty. This individual journey unfolds with remarkable complexity and profundity; especially considering the spare arrangements of Smaldone’s solo vocals with acoustic and resonator guitars.
This album is the follow-up to Smaldone’s fantastic debut, Some Sweet Day. Like that release, Hither and Thither showcases Smaldone’s ability to pen utterly contemporary songs that sound like the best of the Smithsonian Folkways back catalog. But his grasp of traditional song structures and sound is matched by his gift for writing timelessly deep lyrics. Consider, from “Grim”: “It’s grim in the morning, grim in the afternoon, pretty mama/ But when the evening comes is when our flowers bloom;” and, in the song’s conclusion, “Curl our petals and we’ll bow through the livelong day, pretty mama, / but when the evening comes, we’ll be on our way.”
Despite the timeless qualities of Smaldone’s music, it’s the timeliness of Hither and Thither‘s songs that shines through with repeated listening. If ever a collection of songs captured the palpable sense of unease felt in these days of terror levels and loved ones fighting a needless war, it is Hither and Thither.
That’s not to say Smaldone has written a batch of protest songs or that he has released an overtly political album. It’s much deeper than that, and much more personal. Smaldone’s greatest strength is in creating timeliness within the timelessness of his sound.
Hither and Thither is Smaldone at his best. Although the overall tone of the album is dark and sorrowful, the songs themselves continually speak of hope for love and contentment. As if trying to lift his – and our — spirits, there are moments of pristine beauty in the music. His playing is consistently top-notch.
And when Smaldone interprets Morton’s “New Orleans Bump” on resonator guitar, the classic piano-and-horn blues becomes something altogether different. It’s a sublime instrumental interlude before the cold truth sets in with the sleet and snow of the album’s closing tune, “A Little at a Time,” in which he sings “In this town at this time of year/ Weary faces go unnoticed here/ Trying to ease my mind dying a little at a time.”
From the opening notes of the first track, the instrumental “Swamp of the Swan,” to the closing plucked notes of “A Little at a Time,” Smaldone carries the listener on a raft of sadness and despair down a river of fear, in a search for the love and peace one can only find when the dark of night hides the horror of the bright days we try to survive. If we’re lucky, Smaldone seems to suggest, we might find moments of restful beauty and some Jelly Roll along the way.
— Tom Flynn