Best known as being one of the creative forces behind Nashville’s The Great Affairs, Denny Smith is a prolific songwriter. At any given time, he’s stockpiling ideas for new songs and recording demos. He even seems to instinctively know whether the song idea is destined for his main band, a solo album, or even a side project where oddities ultimately end up.
Various stripped back ideas formed his first solo album ‘An Overnight Low’ in 2016. It was a record that appeared to reach an audience of twelve people. His second solo record, ‘From The Dark’ gathers more introspective material that wouldn’t all fit with the Great Affairs mould of straight up roots rock, but fans of that band will surely find an easily recognisable voice within the album’s ten songs. As its title suggests, ‘From The Dark’ is an album that often seems concerned with a future unknown and of life’s unexpected wobbles. The songs are often presented in a way that its messages come from up close and, in Smith’s own words, are “stripped of artifice”. Although he says the album isn’t about story-telling in the strictest sense, more a case of “getting things off [his] chest as unself-conciously as possible”, From The Dark’ is personal, but rarely feels like a voyage into abject misery. Even at its most heart-wrenching, it appears thoughtful and reflective; you won’t find anything here that’s as laid barely as, say, Mike Viola’s heartbreaking ‘Painkillers’ or Joni Mitchell’s ‘Little Green’.
Fans of The Great Affairs will find an instant love in ‘I Will’, a soft and rootsy number that seamlessly blends gentle acoustic rock with a slight country flair. With a mix of strummed acoustic and sympathetic ringing electric riffs joining Smith’s husky tones, there’s a lot within the track that recalls Billy Falcon in a mellow mood whilst still clinging on to Smith’s natural sound. Between a great chorus and thoughtful arrangement, it sounds like a song to return to time and again. It’s to Smith’s eternal credit that he’s able to craft songs that sound like you’ve known them forever and this is possibly the most perfect example of that talent to date. In a similar mood, ‘The Whole World’s Clown’ applies more rootsy pop-rock to a tune that sounds like a deep cut from Tom Petty’s ‘Wildflowers’. With Smith in great vocal shape and the presence of a few simple power pop-ish harmonies fleshing out the chorus, his light Americana takes on a vaguely hazy and almost Beatle-ish feel in places, resulting in a number that almost feels uplifting and sad all at once – a feeling that encapsulates most of this album.
Lead single ‘Like God’s Asleep’ touches on the idea that thoughts and prayers aren’t enough to see the world through, as well as more than hinting at the terrible shape of the environment in the twenty first century. A slow rhythm evokes the late 80s work by the sadly missed Tom Petty, while the main melody for the chorus taps further into Smith’s Nashville roots. Although carrying a vaguely country flavour, its still very much of the pop rock persuasion, something reinforced by a fantastic lead guitar break full of crying notes, very much in sympathy with the lyric. Starting in a fairly morose fashion and peaking with a metaphor about an engine flooding with gasoline, it’s always under a cloud, yet somehow remains relatable. Switching to the piano, ‘The Bruise’ continues further down a rabbit hole of introspection as Smith delivers a number that appears to recounts a tale of a broken relationship, although the chorus line could easily be a metaphor for hiding any of one’s own weaknesses. “What keeps you turning a cheek / And hiding the bruise?” Smith sings, semi-mournfully, creating vibrant mental imagery in one simple phrase, while musically, the track remains a natural fit with some of the album’s other downbeat sounds. As with ‘Like God’s Asleep’, the strength comes from a steady rhythm; the arrangement moves naturally with the lyric. Digging a little deeper, there’s also a pleasant piano lurking under the surface, but the final word comes from a soaring lead guitar which, obviously, is used to accentuate the solemnity rather than adding a triumphant end. This suggests that at the point we step away, the people within the tale will simply repeat this cycle of falling down, getting up and keeping their bruises hidden (metaphorical or otherwise).
The title track is minimalist even by Denny’s usual singer songwriter standards. Quickly latching on to a riff that sounds a little like Suzanne Vega’s ‘One Time Thing’, there’s something gentle and familiar to pull in the listener, even before the vocal fills most of the space. Its another song with an aching sentiment, but somehow the sadness and pain within feels friendly, showing how there’s a lot to be said for a message delivered from a familiar voice. Softer still, ‘Glass Slipper’ is a tale of mis-sold dreams and unattainable success. “It’s gonna be all right” Smith opines, all the while immersing himself in a finger picked beauty that suits his hushed voice. This could be a tune from decades’ past, as is Denny’s ability to hone a classic sound, while ‘These Blues’ takes a little longer to work its magic, but for lovers of stripped down sounds and finger picked guitar, it’ll eventually become a highlight. Smith sounds so fragile singing against the sparse arrangement – “I hope you never know how deep this sadness goes” is a line so stark and pointed, it’s impossible not to put yourself in the performer’s shoes, or at least be jolted by his honesty. The use of melody on an understated chorus where soft piano chords are augmented by a few country tinged guitars makes all of this sound even more resonant. At this point it becomes clear that Smith arrived at this record in a fragile state of mind but also armed with great material. Material that’s so good in the main that it has to be asked: how is Smith still working on the fringes of cult fandom at this point? He deserves to be far more widely known.
For all of the solemn qualities that ‘From The Dark’ seems keen to convey, there’s one track that – although superb – doesn’t quite fit. With a steady rhythm, big hooky chorus and a whole world of whoahs, ‘When The Darkness Comes’ might be the chirpiest song about cloudy emotions ever. Denny sounds positively excited as he suggests “you’ll find the light when darkness comes to town”, while the stomping bass drum, a collection of whoahs and subsequent muted guitar reinforce a feeling of positivity. Although a musical cuckoo within this collection, this is a song that definitely sounds as if it should have appeared on a future Great Affairs record rather than somewhere within a recording so narrative driven. Still, if it can be used to reel in a few listeners who would expect something more in that vein, then it’s all to the good.
With this record, Denny Smith moves firmly into singer songwriter territory and champions more of an introspective sound. With that comes a set of great songs and ‘From The Dark’s lyrical aspects show a writer who’s really grown over the past couple of years. Like experiencing a late night Great Affairs meeting with a couple of unheralded songwriters from the nineties, ‘From The Dark’ sounds old, yet somehow sort of timeless too. Recommended.