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Chris Smither Chris Smither
Album: Call Me Lucky
Label: Signature Sounds
Tracks: 16

Call Me Lucky is, I'm sure, fast going to be regarded as another milestone in the career of this quintessentially Americana bluesman and songsmith, not least since it's his first set containing new originals in six years. He'll be touring next January, but that gives you time to get to know this excellent new material… Even though it'll come as no surprise to find that these new songs comment in Chris's trademark wry and knowing fashion on the human condition and as such are well up to his usual thoughtful standard, things aren't as simple as all that. Let me explain…

For a reason that's not immediately apparent, the album's divided into two separate discs, titled as an A side and a B side (tho' they defy convention because there's no lapse of quality between the two sides). The first disc contains ten tracks (including two covers) and the second gives us six (including one cover), but (at first confusingly) five of the second disc's tracks turn out to be alternate versions of songs from the first disc. So there's me thinking at first that the tally of new songs has been cunningly assembled to make a lucky thirteen, when in fact it only totals eight: so much for the math then! However, the differences between the individual versions are actually pretty striking, since they offer revealing reimagined perspectives on what may initially seem quite straightforward lyrics. On Disc 1, Down To The Sound is rueful and ruminative, whereas on Disc 2 Chris's vocal is deeper-register and throaty and measured against a skittery shuffling backdrop. On Disc 1, Everything On Top is a deft acoustic reflection that on Disc 2 is transformed into a snarling crashing electric beast. Nobody Home is transformed from a carefree-wheeling piano-blues-rocker into an ominously bleak slow-roller with Dylan/Cohen overtones. Similarly, the rollicking good-time vibe of Change Your Mind becomes an altogether more pensive proposition. Only By The Numbers is recognisably the same song in terms of overall feel and arrangement, although its air of gentle resignation is arguably even more pronounced in its stark vox-and-piano variant on Disc 2.

This alternate-version gambit makes me mildly curious as to whether Chris had also recorded alternate interpretations of the remaining three songs, for it's entirely possible to imagine this. The rough'n'dirty grind of The Blame's On Me is typically laconic Smither self-examination, while Too Bad, So Sad takes an equally typically insouciant and self-deprecating view of life and love, and closing track Lower The Humble returns us to a stance of Chapmanesque melancholy. As for the three covers, the Beatles' She Said She Said surprises in its laid-back freshness of execution and expression, while Chuck Berry's Maybellene takes on a decidedly strange aura whose eeriness is accentuated by a whistling break that curiously recalls the X-Files theme. The final cover, Sittin' On Top Of The World, is a masterly reworking of what in so many lesser hands has become a tired old blues standard - here it's somehow freshly experienced; I'm surprised that Chris hadn't recorded this one before, so brilliantly it suits his persona. Chris truly makes these three songs his own - no mean achievement in my book.

Although this set is totally infused with Chris's unmistakable smoky voice, guitar expertise and special musical personality, a further major contributory factor to its unique sound and feel is the atmospheric production by David Goodrich, who also plays various guitars and electric kalimba and some percussion; other musicians forming the core band are Billy Conway, Keith Gary, Mike Meadows and Matt Lorenz - the latter (who performs under the sobriquet of The Suitcase Junket) will be opening for Chris on next year's tour.

No hint of disappointment on this new set, then - and hours of lasting listening pleasure from this single hour's worth of music.

David Kidman