Click to hear: “The Orchard”
In true Micah Blue Smaldone fashion, the title of his new release is understated. As with the music he makes, further inquiry reveals surprising depth. Live in Belgium, a four-song EP, was recorded last October in the town of Louvain-la-Neuve, a planned city built on farmland south of Brussels to accommodate a French-speaking university that opened 35 years ago. The venue where the performance was recorded, La Ferme du Biéreau (The Farm of Biéreau) is an arts center housed in a renovated barn — a fitting metaphor for Smaldone’s stock in trade: modern songs created from dilapidated American folklore.
The set begins with “Untitled.” Smaldone finger-picks a meandering intro on his resonator with subtle flashes of bluesy ornamentation before settling into a morose cycling of notes played under plaintive vocals. Like many of Smaldone’s songs, “Untitled” is about a misfit on the verge of hopelessness; it’s about giving in before giving up: “In this room I’ll let you do the talking / For when you talk, there is no room / And in this bed I’ll let you do the lying / As swallow lies like swords before bed… Pennies are the eyes of the vulture / As the vulture eyes the pennies in your hand / This morning I went out to feed the pigeons / That could not seem to find a place to land.”
Next is “Coal Black Crepe,” from Smaldone’s 2005 full-length release, Hither and Thither. The tune (indeed, all of Hither and Thither) is about death-filled days and the hope for love-filled nights. On this night in Belgium, it seems Smaldone has found what he’s been looking for. The small crowd takes in his playing and heartfelt vocals with rapt attention. The pervasive sadness of the song is lifted by Smaldone’s fine guitar work and an almost cheerful, hummed refrain.
The third song is another new one, “The Orchard.” Its simplicity is haunting, as Smaldone picks an insistent resonator line reminiscent of Dock Boggs’ banjo. “Orchard” is a fable of war and hope: “Once was heard from the orchard a bird / When the world was ravening, it stood aghast at our future and our past / Until these words did ring / Gather here to sup our sorrow / And I will kill ye of your crumbs / Shed your tears all through the morrow / They will dry as morning comes… May we rise without vainglory / And may we rise all without spleen / And may we rise not sick with worry / As bird unflies from the orchard green.” Smaldone’s knack for pairing imagery and sound is executed to near perfection on this track. It’s a timeless reflection on war-makers, the soldiers who fight their wars, and the survivors left to make sense of it all.
The album closes with “Curtains,” sung a cappella. Fittingly, it’s a deathbed lullaby. Smaldone sings beautifully and grievously of searching the empty sky for hope beyond this mortal coil: “When it’s curtains for your heart / I’ll be certain to depart / And somewhere in a rented room/ I’ll lay my head upon the moon / For we are ordered as the sky / Star to star and eye to eye / But now I see you from afar / In the sky as dark as tar.” It’s a powerful end to a powerful collection.
As with all strong EPs, Live in Belgium left me wanting more. Will 2007 see the release of a new, full-length Micah Blue Smaldone album? One can only hope.
— Tom Flynn
Micah Blue Smaldone’s Live in Belgium is in finer record stores now. For more, visit micahbluesmaldone.com.