FRESH-SOUNDING OLD-TIMER Putnam Smith.
With a name right out of a Nathaniel Hawthorne novel and hand-pressed CD packaging graced with images of antique farming tools, Putnam Smith does nothing to dispel the notion that he wouldn't mind living in 1809 instead of 2009. And while his sophomore release, Goldrush, explores plenty of contemporary themes, there is a pervasive feeling of displacement that weaves its way through the 12 finely crafted acoustic songs, a feeling that Smith always finds himself in places he doesn't quite want to be.
He's wishcasting from the open, really, with "A Natural Disaster Is What We Need." Like a Traffic tune shaped with rambling banjo and a gripping cello, we hear him "wish there was a tidal wave, to carry all our things away ... [so] ... petty troubles would just fall on through/And I could be left with just you/And you could be left with just me." It's the same escapism that finds a son leaving his parents for Austin in "Postcard for Mum and Dad" and a protagonist stuck in the city and pining for a time when old farms didn't get turned into "luxury estates" in the album's title track.
He's a modern-day back-to-the-lander, with commands to "love compost" and an offer in the liner notes to trade the album for "firewood, home-canned goods, artwork and man-made monies" (of course, you've likely already purchased the album if you're reading the liner notes). His music can sound downright ancient at times, too, going even farther back than the roots stomping of the Avett Brothers and Hackensaw Boys to a more old-timey and dusty sound, with vocals sometimes breathed as if by Old Man Winter; in the opener and elsewhere Sorcha Cribben-Merrill is his backing-vocal Persephone.
But it's when he opens up his voice into the higher register and instills more emotion where he really succeeds. The piano ballad "I Think It's Almost Summertime" paints Smith as a more laconic, more intellectual, and geekier (if that's possible) Ben Folds, modestly stripping down into swimming suits when "it was the perfect night for a skinny dip." When the song ramps up in the second half with a half-rap and a hard-charging Seth Yentes cello you might be disappointed, even if it is good songwriting.
Fear not, though. With "New York, 0-2," he gives us a delicate piano piece that he manages to escape without gussying up. In halting, concert-hall vocals, he's "hoping what you said was true/But New York, I'm oh for two." Again, he can't quite find a place to be.
Maybe he just needs to let his hair down more often. "Wouldn't Need this Whiskey" sees him get aggressive in his vocals and playing, gaining body and verve. It opens with just bowed bass from Adam Frederick (borrowed from Emilia Dahlin, who did Smith's album artwork), super deep, and then a melancholy and spare banjo that picks up speed and starts to roll like bluegrass: "Oh, darling my dear/800 miles from my lips to your ears ... Wouldn't need this whiskey, were you here."
It's old-timey phrasing from an old-timey sort of guy, but he manages to keep his sound fresh like a new age of simplicity — a new age he's desperate to find and call home.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
GOLDRUSH | Released by Putnam Smith on Itchy Sabot Records | with Ramblin' Red + the Yentes Bros. | at One Longfellow Square, in Portland | May 29 | www.putnamsmith.com