I see a darkness

A battle-scarred wonder from Micah Blue Smaldone
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  September 17, 2008
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AGELESS BEAUTY: Micah Blue Smaldone.

The Red River by Micah Blue Smaldone | released on Immune Recordings | September 24 @ 9 pm | at SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St, Portland | $8 | 207.828.5600
Micah Blue Smaldone’s captivating live performances over the past two years suggested his recorded work was about to enter a realm even more detached from the blues and folk archetypes he’s studied in recent years. The Red River (Immune) confirms it. He continues to share a kinship with instrumental guitarists (many of whom he’ll play with at the second Time of Rivers Festival in Portland next month), and dark, experimental avant-folk songwriters like England’s David Thomas Broughton or late ’90s Will Oldham, but Smaldone’s gifts as a storyteller have blossomed into something singular.

Though largely steeped in the aftermath of bloodshed, the tensest song on Smaldone’s new album is about the prospect of a dinner party going awry. “A Guest” is a prototypical slow boil, beginning with Smaldone’s magisterial baritone voice and twelve-string guitar. Drums, cello, electric guitar, and backing vocals enter by the verse with metronomic precision.

Smaldone lays out the meal to come in cinematic detail, each phrase beginning with an ominous “Not until”: after a main course of meat, “our guest is full/wet with gore/his handsome beard/pushes forth a littered plate/with swollen filthy hands.” The singer grows more expectant, perhaps villainous — he sounds as though he’s about to implode — and you anticipate a murderous ending. Alas, it’s just shattered glass and a hasty exit, but Smaldone’s incisive vocabulary and cadence ensure a lingering unease.

“The Clearing,” with just guitar and banjo, suggests a Civil War-era mindset, of family and brethren defending and rebuilding their land at drastic costs (“Braining their enemies/On the trunks of fallen trees”). The relatively languorous “Pale Light” is more anachronistic, referring to “the old bridge of Mostar” in Bosnia and Herzegovina while reveling in an old soul shuffle, with an indelible refrain that would do Sam Cooke proud: “Like a mad old sentry/I’m still at your side/For I believe in your pale burning light.”

Stark and sorrowful, the album’s six-and-a-half minute title track is a masterful centerpiece. Smaldone portrays a man traveling through “a field of sunken arrows” to a woman distraught, bathing in a river of blood created by a recent battle. Her “eyes once flashing now stared in slate,” she refuses his company “until my beauty has run its course/and crystal clear run these waters.” The imagery’s both delicate and devastating.

“A Derelict” animates a boat that’s crashed upon the shore of Maine with equally keen observation, and Smaldone’s guitar jerks in fits and starts. He’s able to establish a lush toe-tapping rhythm and interrupt it with a gentle cascade of fingerpicked notes, enhancing rather than disrupting the tale.

Only the album’s most intimate song, “A Bastard of Time,” verges past commanding and into slightly oppressive territory. His shifts in time signature are graceful, but Smaldone elects to match each note of his lyrics with strings plucked in the same key. The deliberateness slows the song to a crawl, and its plaintive, sparse lyrics lack the immediacy of his more narrative stories.

It’s but a blip in a considerable collection. While his work gets more imposing and immaculate, Smaldone’s voice reaches from farther and farther back in time, from the activist ’90s punk of the Pinkerton Thugs to early-century blues to these undug graveyards of backyard wars. And as his use of language has grown more arcane, Smaldone has become a more sensitive and humane songwriter. The Red River’s wrenching stoicism feels as historical as it does timeless.

Christopher Gray can be reached at cgray@phx.com.

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