The PhiLL(er)

The Red River Cover
Micah Blue Smaldone

The Red River
Immune Recordings

This is a beatuiful album of elegant songs in a style that works with both Southern Mountain and English folk idioms (which aren't necessarily that far apart from one another, but still—). The opening song gives an initial false impression that Micah Blue Smaldone is mining similar territory to Will Oldham; false because as the album unfolds its clear that the music and lyrics here don't operate under the terms of the self-conscious layer of persona that the Bonnie "Prince" Billy albums do. It's neither here nor there, but it's a distinction worth making.

If the opening song, "A Guest", does convey, through the hint of reediness in the voice and they hushed backing vocals, a certain southern-gothicness in common with the "I See a Darkness" album, the second, "The Clearing", gives itself over to the English influence and a richer vocal tone. One remarkable thing about this album is the strength of Micah Blue Smaldone's voice, and his ability to use it to a variety of subtle effects. It can be fragile, strong, delicate and rich, depending on the needs of the particular song, or the particular moment of a song, as "Bastard of Time" demonstrates. The arrangements are universally excellent, and the interplay between voice, guitar and muted-trumpet playing on "Pale Light" creates a breathtakingly beautiful piece of music that exemplifies exactly what make this album so wonderful: ostensibly simple melodies and instrumentation interweave to create sparse, delicate music that draws the listener close, and repays the attention that it effortlessly demands. While none of the songs on this album stands out as particularly better than the others—that's hardly the point on such a well-conceived and well-executed album—it is worth drawing attention to the closing song, "A Drink", in which the continual arrival and departure of a hushed electric guitar against the acoustic fingerpicking drives the song until it gives way to the vocal harmonies and string harmonies that carry the album to its conclusion.

This album is also immaculately recorded and mixed. Each instrument, from voice to guitar to trumpet to violin to percussion, sounds clear and sharp and distinct, and nothing overpowers anything else, which helps enormously in creating the delicate sound I've attempted to describe above. The recording engineer should take a bow.