Sounding like he’s singing from the backside of a hand-cranked phonograph, songwriter Walker Smith opens his new record, “Great Divide,” with a minute-and-half long intro that could easily take place in a dime store record booth somewhere out in the Great Plains.
The subtle crooning of Smith rides shotgun to a beautiful ukulele as the singer paints a picture of what might happen if you “turn your back on the folks you know … the faces start to fade.”
Basically, ending up alone, “carving out your memories in alabaster stone.”
A strong image set by Smith, who, over the past five years, has become a true standout in the NH music scene. His voice is butter, just about as smooth as it gets. He works his tail off to be heard. His lyrics, they’re big boy lyrics, fully realized, bursting with intelligence.
To date, Smith, who lives in Concord, has mostly been a one-man acoustic act. But on “Great Divide” he stepped out of his comfort zone (Or into it. Who really can tell.) and expands the sound and structure of his music with a little more production, more effects, more risks.
Smith says the record is about, “The conflict between leaving everything behind or figuring the world out enough to be part of it.”
After the intro, the title track comes at us in the shape of a traveling song and it will get you moving, begging not for space, but for a closeness gone missing. “The miles that used to separate us are only gonna help us catch our stride,” sings Smith.
Somewhere an anxious lover wonders if it’s all worth it, working to relive the past yet again. Smith assures her, “When you find it hard to breath, drive east from the Great Divide.”
The evolution continues on “Waiting for Letters to Come.” Accompanied by the great Jen Whit, the duo harmonize about a woman named Henrietta who longs to stand outside the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Pittsburgh, PA, staring up at the old Cathedral, “tall on old Polish heels … the sun makes it look like she’s burning.” It’s a gorgeous song, directly enhanced by the electric slide play of Lincoln Kenney.
On “The Bastards of 14th Street” Smith heaps praise upon the drunkards filling out the barrooms around the Steel City, a place where Smith lived for five years. We can all learn a thing or two from those with less, he sings. Those haggard faces, “bumming spare change and rides to Jersey” are all worth knowing.
Walk a mile in their shoes. Then see how yours fit after.
“Boxes” is a fun romp that will get your knees twisting. Chugging along at the same tempo throughout with the tip-tap of a piano and organ tickling the edges. The character has been carrying a “heavy load” and just wants to pack her “life up in boxes, catch the blue skies and ride the big decline.”
All the best features of Smith’s voice are shown here. Up, down, even and about as clean as clean gets.
Song 10, “Great Escape” is a sweet little rocker, with echos of Springsteen bleeding through it. More contemplation occurs, with “waves washing over the cape” leaving words “dying on the ground.” In my opinion, Smith’s best song to date. The sound of a band backing him with steady drums, the build up, the conviction, the strong lyrics, Smith letting go, singing hard, putting out the passion.
Front man type stuff.
“Great Divide” is about escape, longing for the past, thwarting tradition and building memories before they’re gone.
In the words of Eddie Vedder, “It’s evolution, baby!”
Rob Azevedo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rob Azevedo from Manchester is the host of Granite State of Mind on 95.3 FM WMNH Fridays at 6 p.m. and Thursday at 7 p.m. on WKXL 103.9 FM. He also hosts a monthly series at New England College in Concord which featured live performances by artists from around New Hampshire.