These are ultimately songs about, and of, hope.
Sid Smith 2008
It's been something of a purple patch when it comes to singer songwriters coming up with the goods. In a year that ushered in the transcendent meditation on loss and hope that was For Emma, Forever Ago by Justin Vernon aka Bon Iver, we now have Micah Blue Smaldone – not a pseudonym but the real life moniker belonging to American ex-punk rocker turned philosophical troubadour.
Like Bon Iver's album, this too contains a sparse production, and tremulous introspective vocals. However, Justin Vernon's record was a response to self-imposed back-to-nature isolation. Smalldone's work springs from his travels and encounters around Eastern Europe.
At first glance you would be forgiven for thinking that this is an agreeably sedate album, essentially acoustic in nature, adorned with an occasionally jazzy inflection or a jangling folk-rock style that is sometimes reminiscent of the quaint fragility of P.G. Six's 2007 record, Slightly Sorry.
But beneath the veneer of dusty Americana there's a song-cycle carrying a heart-of-darkness travelogue filled with terse observations about the malevolent force within us all that slips off the leash with a depressing regularity.
Smaldone's words craft vivid images without any unnecessary histrionics or invective; paradoxically they’re delivered with a deceptively restive grace that belies the undercurrent of lurking violence. The opening track, A Guest, pulses with an ominous dread as he painstakingly describes a nightmare meal with an unwanted guest, covered with the gore of something freshly slaughtered.
Similarly, the title song (imbued with a finger-picked motif suggestive of Planxty's elegiac West Coast Of Clare) resonates with an evocative symbolism. Detailing the corruption, excesses and guilt that scar both civilians and soldiers in times of conflict; the river is not red with something benign as the rays of a rising sun but with blood. Upon seeing a woman bathing in the maw, he asks why she chooses to swim in such a foul place, ''I cannot bathe in waters clear, until such is my conscience''.
Avoiding any crass preaching, Smaldone sings quietly of terrible things. Yet his absence of cynicism suggests these are ultimately songs about, and of, hope.