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Artist: Steven R. Smith

Album: Owl

Label: Digitalis

Review date: Jan. 31, 2008


Steven R. Smith - "Across the Flats" (Owl)


Anyone who has been to a show since, say, 2003 knows that delay pedals are the most mixed of blessings. The fact that there's an indie cottage industry built around guitar sounds as far removed from guitars as possible is pretty unremarkable. Loop, delay, homemade or circuit bent, pedals are a part of most indie bands' standard arsenal of techniques for hedging against its twin anxieties: big, dumb references and broad, populist emotion. Even if a band's intentions are nominally experimental, pedals most often give birth to a gruesomely ahistorical playing. Everyone's heard it: reductive, hesitant, boldened only by the comforting distance your effects rig puts between your gestures and the sound that comes out. This side of Nickelback, Guitar Hero III's as close as we'd like to come to the self-consciously clichéd Big Rock Moves.

Steven R. Smith's milieu is one where effects pedals are likely only a little more common than making a harp from a felled tree. Owl is by no means his debut, but it is the first recording he's released with his own singing. That's important, and we'll get there in a minute, but his lucid guitar playing is probably the first thing the listener will develop an attachment to. Partially, at least, this is because his playing allows for the ungainly and unironic.

The tracks are propelled by the kind of guitar playing that wends its way through “O, Blessed Night Your Sunrise Has Burnt Down”: jumpy fingerpicking that goes from manic to ghostly, something like John Fahey on a Tonight's The Night bender. While Smith's website describes the album as “spare,” all of the tracks are fleshed out by a similar drone, sounding composed not just of discarded notes, but abandoned power stations, polluted creeks, and warped limbs. The distortion captures the changing light in an idealized nature documentary slo-mo/time lapse, enough to give something like the aural equivalent of snowblindness.

At times, Smith's guitar works like a foil to his (mostly unintelligible) singing. In that first track, “Across The Flats,” Smith's gas-station guitar swelters as his voice, in white raga mode, mystically hovers in the ether. Voice and guitar coalesce on tracks like the billowy “Bindery”: his singing seems more tentative here, as if he's moving through his own room during a power outage, unable to remember if he left his amp somewhere he'd trip over it. Mostly though, Smith sounds like a drifter singing slow melodies to himself to pass the time and give himself a sense of progress when landmarks aren't easily found or intelligible.

Owl isn't an attempt to metaphorize the natural world any more than it's an attempt to unload the burden of history through an effects line. One wouldn't have to look too hard to read all sorts of stable correspondences into it, but the album's mostly set in marginal areas. The melodies surface like partially effaced hobo graffiti while Smith's guitar traces the weed-choked foundation of a former factory. But as much as the set might resemble Andrei Tarkovsky's formidable Stalker, the plot is pure Beckett.

By Brandon Bussolini

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