Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Album Review: Smart Kid

Smart Kid
Clumsy Lovers
Nettwerk (2005)

Sometimes, after you fall in love with a work of art and you want to share your impressions with the world at large, you need to hole up in a room with your thesaurus for a week so that you can arm yourself with all the superlatives necessary to express adequately the transcendent nature of said project. I did not have time for that kind of research, but I'm going to have a go at reviewing this album, nonetheless.

Smart Kid is an album that you listen to for about the first ten times just because the music is so great. The eleventh time, the lyrics start to sink in, and you realize that the writing is as sharp and quirky and energetic as the music, but with a deeper bite to it than you first understood. The next five thousand spins it takes in your CD player (or iPod) will only lead to greater appreciation for the complete artistry that had come wrapped in unassuming cellophane. This may sound hyperbolic, but it's not.

The leading track, "Bobby Banjo," is an anachronistic and surreal adventure in the spirit of They Might Be Giants, but with better music. It's nonsense, but it's thoughtful, eerie, hilarious nonsense. Next, "Save For You" pairs cheerful music with rather melancholy lyrics that surprise you and keep you from getting too comfortable. "Coming Home," which is my daughter's favorite song, finds some smokin' fiddling alongside a pretty dark story. (Incidentally, this song was co-written by Carolyn Arends, Joy Jonat, and Chris Jonat (that's Carolyn's mother and brother) when Carolyn was around 10; I like to think that the line about the "second-hand revolver" belongs entirely to Carolyn's mom.)

"London Bridge" mixes a reggae beat with Clumsy Lovers' trademark enthusiastic fiddle and banjo to great effect. "Stand Up" has a great intro with funky whistling, and the song compels car dancing. For you Arends fans out there, you can hear her vocals contributing to the chorus. "Smart Kid" is funny and groovy and little sad, with one of the best refrains I've heard in a long time: Sometime trouble finds you/Sometimes you spark it/You may come out on the right side/But that don't make you the smart kid. Also this bridge: Don't try to tell me you never once drove with too much to drink/Or tried to outrun a train, driving too fast in the rain/You just got lucky when you forgot to think. Anyone who has been young and stupid can relate.

"People I've Been Meaning to Thank" is pure swinging country fun -- Andrea burns up the violin strings again, setting the pace on that one. "Better Days" is another one of their songs that you can listen to several times before the lyrics sink in. It's a pretty accurate portrayal of those dark days in relationships where you have to make the conscious decision to hold on: Don't give way; be strong, you say/It's just the price you pay/For the better days. "Okay Alright" is the only song on which the sole lady of the ensemble takes lead vocals, and Andrea Lewis's vocals are worth waiting for. I've always loved her wry, ironic voice -- especially on "Let the Sun Shine In" from Barnburner -- and this song was tailor-made for her powers of expression. Ever been fed up? This song is for you. It has my favorite mild swear word in it, too, which is even better.

"Cock of the North" is an instrumental variation on a traditional tune, and, again, Andrea's fiddle makes the song. "Don't Worry" is another chance for Arends fans to hear her warm vocals rise up in the background. I just want to take a second and say that the lead singer in Clumsy Lovers, Trevor Rogers, has one of the great male voices of this popular music era. Do you get sick of the whining sound that, unfortunately, has become the standard in masculine vocals? Goodness knows, I do. If you don't like that, you'll like Trevor Rogers voice.

"Clumsy Love Intro" and "This is Clumsy Love," both written, as most of these songs were, by Chris Jonat, are unqualified fun. "Rockefeller" is a paean to the simple pleasures that abound in family, faith and song -- and if that sounds mealy-mouthed at all to you, then just know that that description doesn't do full justice to the lyric.

"Not Long for This World" is the crown jewel of this sparkling album, in my opinion. Here is as concise and clear a nugget of useful theology and philosophy as any I've ever heard: You are not long for this world/So do not long for this world/Have a good look around/Take joy where it's found/But you are not long for this world. When was the last time you heard such a bold truth so beautifully spoken in song? It's a thoughtful and provocative ending to an all-around excellent album. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for something utterly new and addictive.

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