David Royko Psy.D

david@davidroyko.com

Bluegrass Unlimited
February 1998
CD Review

By David Royko


HIGHLIGHT REVIEW

CRUCIAL SMITH
CRUCIAL SMITH


Micah Records 8197
(compact disc)

Go With Me/Game of Chase/Father Time/Against The Grain/Beg You To Stay/Don't Believe You'd Cry/How Deep Is The Old Creek?/Lonely Ol' Night/Up Around The Bend/The Silver Ghost

    Do you dearly miss the 1980s Bush/Cowan/Fleck/Flynn version of New Grass Revival. Yes? Then buy this disc.

    I could fold my hand and end this review now, but since us super-rich record reviewers get paid by the word, I'll stretch this out a bit more so I can pick up that new Lexus I've been eyeing while providing some more information to BU's readership.

    There have been plenty of bands that have emulated various elements of the 1980s NGR. There has also been the occasional band that has modeled itself entirely on the unique NGR sound, but Crucial Smith is the first group that I have heard that actually succeeds in pulling off that feat without sounding like a pale photocopy.

    It certainly helps to choose the right producer, and CS went right to the source, enlisting none other than former NGR guitarist/vocalist/composer Pat Flynn. That Flynn would sign on is quite a compliment, and they did not let him down. If this disc is a fair indicator, CS have it all: chops both instrumental and vocal; creativity; and songwriting.

    Since they do not list who sings what where, I can not say which singer it is that sounds like John Cowan when going for those high and slightly frenzied notes, but he does. The rest of the time, the vocals are simply excellent, with intonation that is dead-on, confident projection and power, and plenty of expressive weight. They use harmonies effectively, and arrange for their voices with the same degree of creativity that they use with their instruments.

    No point is singling out one picker or another, since each could play their way in, around and out of a jam like a chained Houdini. The soloing is always concise, almost terse, and packs more ideas into a break than one can usually absorb in one listen. As an ensemble, whatever flaws they may have are nowhere to be found on this album, their precision and razor-sharp attacks working as beautifully when heard in a simple tune as during any one of the many brief passages when the arranging gets complicated.

    The songs are not over-long, clocking in at a three-minute average, which is another way that this band stands apart from much of its NGR-inspired competition. Three tracks were written by CS mandolinist/vocalist Kyle Wood, and five others were penned by CS guitarist/vocalist Tim May, with one of these co-written with producer Flynn. These originals are uniformly impressive, suggesting--at least to me--that this is a band with a stockpile of tunes from which they were able to draw eight for this disc. However, one of the strong points of NGR was their relationship with several good outside songwriters, like Bob Lucas and Tim O'Brien, and it was often songs by these outsiders that resulted in many of the catchiest NGR moments, like "Reach," "Spring Peepers" and "Hold To A Dream." None of the CS originals stick in the mind like the best of the NGR "covers" (with the possible exception of "Go With Me"), but this is a minor point, since the original songs are in fact of high quality. The two other members of this quartet are Chris Joslin (dobro [resonator guitar], banjo) and David Holladay (electric bass, vocals).

    In closing, it is worth mentioning that CS does have a sound of its own. I mean, nobody who knows NGR would turn on the radio, hear CS, and say "Oh my, here's a NGR song I've never heard before." What they might say is "Oh my, here is a band that reminds me of NGR," which is in fact a much better commendation.

(Micah Records, no address listed, phone 615-321-5526) DR