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Phil SmithPhil Smith
Album: Year Of The Dog
Label: Self Released
Tracks: 10

Born in Sydney and based in Brisbane, Smith spent 3 ½ years writing and recording his third album. The time spent has paid off. Very much in the troubadour tradition of names such as Townes van Zandt, Dave Van Ronk, Tom Rush and Eric Anderson, it's title referencing the year of his birth, this is basically just an acoustic guitar and his dusty, world-wearied voice, to be sung or listened to in the twilight hours, either gathered under the stars round a campfire or some small bedsit or intimate bar.

Coloured by some hard times, including the deaths of three family members (the slow waltzing, banjo and fiddle-backed "The Train" is an emotionally cracked memory about going to a funeral that gives rise to inevitable thoughts of mortality), it's stark, introspective stuff full of reflections on self, love, loss and life in general.

Throughout, it's veined with restlessness, as on album opener "Calling Home" where he sings "rivers in the darkness we must cross, or remain forever lost. I promise to return dear, but I must go", traces of pedal steel keening behind the circling guitar lines, or the border country tones of "Nightwinds (Itinerant Worker)" where " the streets are all filled up with nothing but the echoes of those who are leaving."

Loss (whether through parting or death is unclear) is at the heart of "The Ballad of Joseph Henry", cello adding its sad lament to the simple picked guitar that underscores lines like "They tell me you are going far away. Tell me that it isn't so, and I'll be back to see you every day. Clouds this morning love is gone, and I'll be gone down ruination's way."

A similar theme underpins the mid-tempo banjo-accompanied "Broken Rivers" ("like waking from a dream to find it's all been swept away, carried off into the fading day"), its mood evocative of folk spirituals while, coloured by fiddle and mandolin, the strummed "Homeward Bound" is another melancholic song of journeying, this time one of salvation, Smith joined by Sue Ray on harmonies.

It's a particular highlight, of which there are several here: the more folksy "Avenue Girl" with its musing piano, the sparse, dry "El Corazon" with its picked nylon string guitar and a lyric about a woman dying of a broken heart, and the five-and-a-half minute, fiddle- shaded "Memories", a trampled hope waltz time number about a friend's overdose and how "your dreams turn to dust so fast, rust like an old car that's out in the field".

The album closes in superlative form with harmonica-bolstered echoes of Springsteen's "Nebraska", Megan Cooper providing harmonies on "Sometimes You Laugh", a crushingly sad story about the need for companionship and numbing the emptiness with the bottle and of a man who'd "work all day and go home at night and he'd sit and drink his beer all alone." The only disappointment is that the European release doesn't include the brief guitar instrumental coda conjuring thoughts of an American Civil War hymnal, but, regardless, otherwise this is a timeless treasure.

Mike Davies