Filling up with Putnam Smith

Kitchen, Love, and Emily Dickinson
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  May 16, 2013


WANT SOME? Putnam Smith cooks up a delicious disc.  

After about the fifth listen of Putnam Smith's fourth album, Kitchen, Love . . ., the Grizzly Adams flashbacks kick in. While there's no reason to believe Smith's been accused of a crime he didn't commit, it's probably safe to say he's down with the idea of escaping into the High Sierras and living almost exclusively among the trees and animals.

Heck, the dude wishes he could trade places with Emily Dickinson. His raspy, just-above-an-exhale voice sits on top of chiming mandolin and a bit of glockenspiel as he pines, "Oh to be, Emily Dickinson/A few good books to keep me company/Bake some pie and fold the laundry/Write down some words that no one will see."

That's commitment right there. The woman was ready to give it all up just to save a fainting robin. Maybe that's a little out there, commitment-wise, for some people.

Not Smith, though. In for a penny, he's in for a pound, especially adept at arranging a variety of acoustic instruments and backing singers into songs that capture the escapist zeitgeist of a time seeming to run parallel to the present day, where folks can focus intently on making a fine succotash and writing epistolary novels and without worrying about getting the kids to Little League practice or making it from Job A to Job B thanks to the kindness of a friend with a car that actually works.

Four albums in, and Smith is still hand-printing the CD sleeves, still making sure to note that he's willing to barter his discs for a good meal or some firewood. Is it a good thing or not that the price of an album wouldn't get you all the way through a night's fire, nowadays? On the one hand, that album's not worth much. On the other, it seems like the deal of a lifetime when you consider how quickly those logs go up in smoke.

The only addition Smith does seem to have made over time is that of some musical friends. Fiddler Erica Brown is probably most prominent here, with a Nashville flair of descending riffs in "Succotash" that teams with Smith's percussive clawhammer banjo style and is well balanced by Seth Yentes's grounding cello work. Then she revisits some of those phrases in the ultra-trad "New Shoes," where Pete Morse at Red Vault Recording has managed to make Smith's banjo in the open sound nothing short of fucking amazing. Make sure you play this through some good speakers in a big room. You could subsist on some of these notes.

Lest you think this is just another stringband record, though, listen for the piano-fronted pieces, like "Looking Up," where Smith is buffeted by trumpet (Alan King), trombone (Jeff Ertman), and even a little French horn (Caitlin Ramsey) in a song that could probably be featured prominently on Sesame Street.

The culmination of all this collaboration, though, is "The Stars Will Line up Someday," which opens sparely with just Smith, guitar, and some cello before opening up into what would be a simply huge chorus if done by a radio rock band, swelling with Sorcha's harmony vocals, and delivering real emotional rise. By the finish, there is building action with Zak Trajoano's drums, a lilt of soprano sax from Brad Yoder, and a solid sense of wonder: "And though your bed is cold/And your wallet's thin/And you still have made a good friend/The city's so alive."

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  Topics: CD Reviews , Erica Brown, Putnam Smith, Seth Yentes
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