Click to hear: “Pale Light“
Micah Blue Smaldone’s new album is eloquent, brief, haunting, dark, hopeful, surprising, and very, very good. The Red River is a departure from the lonesome troubadour blues of Smaldone’s previous full-lengths, Some Sweet Day (2004) and Hither and Thither (2005). This album showcases the continuing development of one of Maine’s finest songwriters.
Smaldone has been busy during the three years since Hither and Thither’s release. In 2007 he put out the wonderful four-song EP Live in Belgium, and he has joined forces with Cerberus Shoal alums Chriss Sutherland, Colleen Kinsella, Caleb Mulkerin and Tom Kovacevic to form the band Fire on Fire.
The Red River is a testament to the power of collaboration; several Portland musicians show up, either alone or in pairs, to lend a hand. Like old friends paying a surprise visit, their contributions are unexpected but welcome: Kinsella, Sutherland, Kovacevic and fellow Cerberus alum Erin Davidson (a.k.a. Dilly Dilly) help with backing vocals. Other guests include Mulkerin (banjo), Jerusha Robinson (cello), Tristan Smaldone (violin), Tim Harbeson (cornet), Christopher Teret (electric guitar) and Mike Dank (drums). Smaldone’s signature resonator guitar and bluesy warble still anchor the sound, but the additional instrumentation complements his music, adding variety and texture without overwhelming the proceedings.
Musically speaking, the most surprising track is “Pale Light,” a beautiful and hopeful love song that would fit nicely on The Band’s Music from Big Pink. With Dank’s drums and Harbeson’s cornet, it sounds both timeless and fresh. Smaldone is a deft wordsmith, and the powerful lyrics of “Pale Light” are sung, per usual, with inventive and delicate phrasing: “With heaving eyes and standing hairs / on the old bridge of Mostar / blue river flowing I cannot say where / The women trail their garments at dusk as would an army / and children they follow to the edge of the spine…”
The songs on The Red River recall “The Orchard” (which debuted on Live in Belgium and is the title track of Fire on Fire’s forthcoming album). Populated with archetypal characters, these are war-torn, postmodern fables that mirror the bloodstained world we inhabit. Thematically, this is territory Smaldone has mined in the past, particularly on Hither and Thither. But where that album chronicled one man’s frightful journeys in the cruel world, The Red River’s narrative voice is no longer alone; the concerns are familial and communal here. While the world remains frightening and dark in Smaldone’s songs, themes of perseverance and hope emerge.
There are just seven songs on The Red River, but that is a strength, not a weakness. The album is complete. With no wasted or indulgent tracks, it’s a treat to listen to this collection. Every song has been written, recorded, and assembled with care.
— Tom Flynn
The Red River is now available at record stores of distinction. For more on Smaldone, visit micahbluesmaldone.com.