Dick Smith, Smoke Damage (Clayhead, 2002)

An Illinois-based trio, Dick Smith makes a slightly twisted but literate brand of bluegrass-influenced country music. Old-timey music with a post-modern sensibility, sharply observant lyrics sung with a midwestern twang and instrumental virtuosity add up to a mighty appealing package.

Musically, Dick Smith revolves around the groove laid down by Dave Nelson on dobro and various other resonator-type guitars. Smith is joined by Bob Kuhn on mandolin and guitar, and Dave Ramont on banjo mostly. All three sing, at times teaming up for three-part harmonies that range from soaring to spine-tingling.

They're joined on this, their second CD, by a sextet of other Illinois musicians dubbed the Band o' Dicks, playing drums, accordions, bass and what-not.

The overall sound draws on Grisman and Garcia's "dawg music," with a little of the psychedelic weirdness and irreverence of the Holy Modal Rounders and the down-home corn of Goose Creek Symphony thrown in for good measure. For example, there's "Paul Kissed the Girl," a bluesy rocker about a guy who caught Johnny Cash's cold by kissing a girl who'd blown a note on the Man in Black's harmonica. "Shitbox" is a waltz-time folksong about a car in less-than-optimum condition, featuring manic drumming that evokes the vehicle's misfiring engine.

It's not all jocularity, though. The first song, "Kettle o' Fire," draws a pointilist picture of painful love with minimal couplets: "born young/young gun/gun shy/shy sponge/soppin' water/soppin' dirt/wipe my hands/on my shirt..." "Trouble Bound" reads like an ancient morality tale, driven by finger-picked guitar: "I told you not to let that boy go wanderin'/told you not to let him wander round/If he gets his head set on wanderin'/You know that he'll never put it down," and some of that nifty harmony on the chorus, "Trouble bound, trouble bound, trouble walks beside me."

"Pissin' Rain" sounds like it might be a joke, but it's a sad, shuffling lament of a guy having a really bad day. And it's not hardly a country album without a song about a "Whiskey Bottle," and this one walks that line between pathos and black humor: "Well I took 12 steps, and they was all towards that bottle..."

It's hard to pick a favorite track, but "Box o' Bones" gets one of my votes. This lovely and thoughtful ballad deals with life and death and raising a glass to the departed, "because the dead they live again in the memories of their friends, they're not just some box of bones in a hole in the ground." The album closer, "Gravity," is another candidate, a deceptively simple and beautifully realized song that's a treatise on gravity, both physical and metaphorical: "...as you grow old, they say that you start to shrink/It's the gravity I think, pulling you down to die."

The packaging is clever and entertaining, and even includes the words and chords to all the songs. Sing along, now! Smoke Damage is truly subversive alt-country, but most of all, it's real music by real people, with lots of soul and plenty of guts.


[Gary Whitehouse]

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