From a house in Los Angeles, one-time Jewelled Antler collectivist Steven R. Smith imagines a darkly populated world and then dreams it into reality through an unending and under-the-radar stream of limited releases. You may know him as the man behind Hala Strana, where he up-ended Eastern European traditional music and somehow managed to make it bleaker and more resigned than before, or as the man behind the charcoal-black drones of Ulaan Khol. With Cities, he works in earthen shades – rich clay reds, ashen greys, the deep brown of whittled wood, the uncertain shades and dirt and dust of knotted kindling.
Smith’s music somehow avoids the leaden emotional content of many of his ‘peers.’ Call it a signature if you will, but his instrumental miniatures work with more nuanced, at times far more vague stuff than most who specialize in similar portraits of night-time. I remember reading once that Smith was a fan of both Blixa Bargeld, and the Swell Maps’ lengthy instrumental odysseys, and you can hear the bravery of both on Cities, albeit with Bargeld’s Germanic angst translated into something less demonstrative, more insinuating. Smith’s armory is beautifully spare: he plays his guitar as though he’s pulling notes from the evening air and then sending them back out with ripples of delay, drinks a saltwater tang from the waterside and then harmonises it with the hum of a harmonium, or gently depresses the keys of a piano as it gradually sinks into the seabed.
Something in Cities also reminds of the strung-out, elliptical song-scapes of Souled American’s later records, and like their Notes Campfire or Frozen, Smith’s Cities is strangely populated, shaken loose of grids, sprawling but not epic, somehow contained even as it sometimes disappears in a tangle of scrub. If I’m laying on the natural metaphors a bit heavily, it’s because this music demands those analogies, through the careful ebb and flow of its pacing, the way it feels not so much written as slowly grown, left to bloom of its own devices.