|Dimensions||21 × 15 × 1.0 cm|
Review by Jefferson Lee
Even the title of Fred Smith’ latest double CD, “great”, without the capital letter, is both an understatement of what’s inside the cover and a huge slice of irony.
It pictures two itinerant highway walkers, on the right hand side, approaching a bill board reading “Next time take the train”.
This is Fred deploying a visual semiotic to set the pace of our listening enjoyment.
Inside, the cover opens to a pic of Fred, with guitar, amp and lead, stepping out, conveying motion, action and the simple message, “great”, at foot level.
No ambiguity here.
The lyrics and the variations in music style on this double CD reflect the huge array of musical friends Fred has lined up to accompany him on different tracks.
The usual suspects like Liz Frencham and Carl Pannuzzo are there.
But so are an array of very talented people like, Dave O’Neill, Dave ‘Ted” Nugent (on drums), Cameron Burns (on electric guitar and bass), Graham Reynolds (on trumpet), John Bedggood (on violin), Fiete Geier (on electric guitar, bass & production), Peter Fidler, Geir Gunnarson (on slide electric) and many more.
Disc One is the slower of the two, with Fred adopting his lighter voice and softer guitar.
But the delivery of the songs and stories are a knockout.
He has re-worked ‘Texas’ from his previous album, this time as a lullaby and not a rock number.
I prefer the current version – “great” indeed.
‘Little Jimmy Boy’ takes us back to Steinbeck country and the Grapes of Wrath, another beauty.
American history features on ‘Wind and Wind’ along with what you would call love stories, ‘Ellie May’, Raggedy Anne’ and ‘Emily Rose’.
Like a real folkie, Fred tells the stories of the working man and woman that seem to be inspired directly by the USA folk tradition; additions to the cannon, so to speak.
As all are original lyrics and music, they will no doubt be appreciated there in the States, as well as here in Oz.
For that reason, John Shand’s dig at Fred for having his mind in both places on the album is an unfair criticism, perhaps.
Violin and Peter Fidler’s dobro, lap steel and banjo, set the tone for a lot of the tracks on this side.
They fit well with the slow delivery and usual love songs emanating from Fred’s touching heart and unrestrained, yet poignant, lyrics.
Liz and Carl are persistently adding to the momentum on nearly every track.
They blend so well with Fred’s understated melodramas that you are sucked in completely, almost to tears, at times.
On Disc Two, ‘What Could Go Wrong?’ is a rock and roll poke at Trump’s American Presidential election victory and virtually a single from this album.
‘Nice to Meet You’ is Fred getting down and funky in New York.
‘Addicted to Addiction’ is another nonsensical R’nR number in the style of rooster in the henhouse, exploring addictions, from sugar to whisky, to computers to religion.
Great boogie piano with strained vocals, a la Jethro from Beverly Hillbillies.
‘My Girlfriend’ is another party song that a group of friends would take turns mimicking the lyrics with air guitars in a lounge room after too much red wine or hooch.
‘Satisfied’ is Fred’s version of ‘I put a spell on you’, rocky blues.
I suspect Liz Frenchham is there on backing vocals.
‘Backwood Bum’ is more showing off, by Fred, of his voice and guitar versatility, where he alternates between high pitched response and urgent and matter of fact complaining, being the male voice; lots of groovy brass thrown in for punctuation.
‘Sister Sandanista’ is a rollicking tale of a Vietnam Vet twenty years on, fallen from grace.
More humour and life lessons.
Ditto ‘Watch the Road’, but this time from behind the wheel, with more funk, brass and show-off back-up instruments, and Fred’s vocalising yet another lesson in life.
‘Sugar Boy’ is about jam factory slaves, another story song with lots of musical interludes and guitar riffs.
It grows on you and haunts you like most of Fred’s echo bellow tracks do.
‘New York City’ is a frivolous comparison of women, sounds good, but lyrically shallow.
‘Go Fast Eddy’ is storytime about a long distance truck driver.
It keeps us in the same milieu as the rest of this album, bumping, rocking and rolling along, with lot’s of musical chaos along the way, as Fred belts out the lyrics of his florid imagination.
This side ends with ‘Frederique Q Love’, where Fred gets all philosophical and let’s us all calm down gently, wipe the dancing sweat off and imbibe a universal message of love thy neighbour; cute, true to form, a happy, say diplomatic even, ending to a session of rip-roar hound-dogging.
One of Fred Smith’s most important abilities as a singer-songwriter is that he can surprise the listener.
While some of his songs might seem to follow familiar patterns, Smith has an audacity and a quirkiness which set him in a class of his own.
It is difficult to imagine any other performer singing his songs quite as well as he does.
On the other hand, it is a sign of the regard in which Smith is held, that many performers want to collaborate with him.
He has made two albums with the indefatigable, Liz Frencham, and the ‘Urban Sea Shanties’ album with the Spooky Men’s Chorale, established Smith as one of Australia’s top songwriters.
As he has been in ‘diplomatic’ service, Smith has travelled extensively, and has used this experience to build a vast repertoire of songs.
As he notes about ‘Great’ however, when he visited the USA, initially, it was as a backpacker doing menial jobs.
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