Folk and folk-inflected stuff is in a weird place right now. Now, I don’t mean folk like Elizabeth Laprelle, who play like they’re behind Bascom Lamar Lunsford in the Smithsonian Recording queue. I mean other folk — hyphen-folk, “folk inspired.” You know what I mean. Anyway, most of it is horrible and a lot of it is cute. And cute and horrible haven’t done anything good for the world since the third Ghoulies movie. It’s getting to where seeing “roots” in a tag cloud makes me break out in hives.
Enter Smooth Hound Smith, comprised of Zack Smith and Caitlin Doyle, who met at an impromptu gig in Nashville last summer and then decided to undertake the musical equivalent of schlepping water up and down a Shaolin monastery, either because they did not have enough to do or because they felt a sense of pure, irresistible purpose. They’re played over 200 shows in the last year, and booked their own seven-week national tour. Smooth Hound Smith, their first LP, dropped in June. They claim it’s “a modern interpretation of early blues, soul, and rock ‘n’ roll,” and, y’know what? I’m not going to hold it against them. I see where they’re coming from and, more importantly, it’s a great record. I haven’t heard something this goddamn low since I left Texas.
Not “low” like Elliot Smith or even low like Townes… this is “low” in the sense that Captain Beefheart used it in “Crazy Little Thing,” i.e. “she brings things low, lower than they should be…” This is the feeling of whiskey ratcheting your night into some dark, earth-smelling, subterranean zone, where mosquitos breed and white skulls rot in lime gravel. This is the feeling of memorably uncoordinated sex with somebody you basically hate. Low is fun you really shouldn’t be having. If you’re still not getting it, check out “Get Low,” which is Smooth Hound’s first track. It’s right there in the title.
“Get Low” is a fantastic start, and great single material, moving on the cold folds of an anaconda bass line, it drives, it settles, it shuts the fuck up and leaves us pulling for return. Before buying the full record I spent a couple of days with just this track, weaving my head on the subway and putting out a pheromone stench so strong that the people at work started shutting my door for me. But “Get Low,” is just the highlights. It hits, sure, it’s low — but low is a complicated feeling.
Take “Young and Golden,” for instance. Spare guitars, lonely vocals, a haze of late-afternoon images, tired feelings, impressions of sleep on smoke-doused couches. Zack is the central voice, but when Caitlin comes in — Christ. There’s a sadness to the feeling, here, that’s not the usual pop-sadness. It’s not cheap. It’s not adolescent. It’s just present, undeniable, low — it’s the realizing, in a flash of beauty, that beauty only lasts a flash’s space. There’s romance to it — the memory of romance.
You either get low, or low gets you. If you’re the aggressor in this arrangement, Smooth Hound Smith is a can’t miss LP. Even the tracks I didn’t like at first (“Blue Dress”) have some weird instrumental wrinkles that make them worth a second listen – and a third.
If low gets you, well — shit, nothing I can do about it. Some bullshit may be killing me but this bullshit right here, this low bullshit, is saving my life. As long as one don’t outmatch the other I’ll still be getting up tomorrow and keeping the good people at Marlboro and the New York Times employed.