SMITH & McCLENNAN – Small Town Stories (White Fall Records)

Small Town StoriesSmith & McClennan’s Small Town Stories is a beautiful folk record of oxymoronic depth. It’s authentic folk music which oozes (heaven forbid!) with commercial appeal. It also blinks cleverly between the Scottish west country and Americana Appalachian roots.

Just like Richard Thompson’s ‘Great Valerio’, this album “dances through the air” on a razor-sharp tightrope of deep emotion. There’s such folky grace to this album. ‘Firefly’ is an acoustic rifle shot that embraces the rough world of “stone cold fingers clinging to a cardboard home” which ends with some sort of redemption. It’s just an idea, but humanity is always predicated on redemption. Not only that, but fireflies do, indeed, spark with weird electric hope in any dark night sky.

‘Sailin’s A Weary Life’ is a traditional tune with banjo prodding. Odd: when I was younger, I thought there was a huge chasm between a pint in a Scottish pub and my own Wisconsin bar. Now, with this song, I’m not that sure. And with age, I’ve come to drink folk music that’s brewed with universal hops.

The album is filled with lovely acoustic music. Jamie McClennan (who wrote all but two of the songs) sings the beginning lead on ‘Hummingbird’. Emily Smith adds a joint vocal, and each voice embraces the other in the tender tune that’s driven by a dramatic drum. ‘The Sweetest Girl’ dips and sways with a backing violin, and it echoes the charm of an early Nanci Griffith album like Poet In My Window. ‘Leaving’, too, is a dual voiced tight-walked wonder of a song with pathos to burn for “a hand I wouldn’t hold and a friend that won’t grow old”. Then, ‘Bricks And Mortar’ answers that pain with the softest pulse of a melody that just begs “for one last dance and an old house that keeps us safe in every storm’. It’s a beautiful tune that conjures recalled comfort.

And, once again, the song is equally potent, whether I raise an Old Chub Scottish Ale or a Wisconsin brewed New Glarus Cabin Fever Bock.

Now, in all fairness, this record doesn’t play the Scottish poker hand of the traditional (oft times including a Robert Burns’ tune) songbook. “For a’ that”, look to Fiona Hunter (of Malinky fame), Julie Fowlis, and Mairi MacInnes with their gorgeous records. But this album certainly spins in the same orbit as Karine Polwart’s Faultlines.

That said, ‘Long Way Down’ rocks a bit. Perhaps, it sounds like a Fleetwood Mac song, circa Rumours. That also said, Willow Macky’s ‘Better Than War’ is a quiet throwback to 60’s optimism. It’s a cliché that prefers ‘wisdom’ to “war’, but perhaps, really decent clichés may be all we have to keep the campfire burning.

The last two songs, ‘Wait For Me’ and ‘One More Day’, once again, toss a coin betwixt a Scotch beer and an American brew. And it’s a beautiful coin toss that sings with the soul of an always acoustic heart. You know, fellow Scot Jackie Leven once sang about “walking backwards in the snow”. These songs, too, touch and retreat from the weather of the world. They cup all the storms and sing to the safety of any final melodic harbour.

Wonderful folk albums are sort of a dime (and/or a 10p coin) a dozen these days. But Small Town Stories is worth the time. It’s ages old, and it’s ages young. And then it treads a tightrope with the balance of melody, harmony, and passion that will always keep the audience’s attention, because this music, indeed, “dances through the air.

Bill Golembeski

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‘Long Way Down’ – official video: