Having shared the live spotlight with the likes of John Martyn, Cara Dillon and Jools Holland, been a BBC Radio 2 ‘Artist of the Week’, and one of the stand out acts at the recent ‘In the City’ music conference in Manchester, the spotlight falling on Liverpool based singer songwriter John Smith has never shone brighter.
Drawing inspiration from the detuned guitar playing style of Nick Drake, the song writing abilities of Neil Young and Tom Waits, his debut album The Fox and the Monk is at times music in its most basic, yet always most effective form.
It’s not often that one of an album’s defining moments occurs within the first couple of minutes, but this is exactly the case on opening track ‘Matchbox Man’. It’s at this point in what has been a fairly melancholy affair to date that he slams the strings on his guitar (bam bam bam bam) draws husky breath for a couple of seconds before exhaling ‘you give up, oh so easily’. In a post James Blunt age, the singer/songwriter genre has become ever more mainstream and perhaps diluted, it’s a refreshing call to arms, and a bit of an ‘are you listening, and I mean, really listening’ moment.
The emotive and striking narrative of that track continues throughout an album littered with sumptuous references to nature, love and lust, but that still carries through its veins a notion of claustrophobic excitement and wonder. On an album featuring the lyrics ‘Mother of all lambs lay a flower on your head’ I can imagine Smith very happily existing in the type of wonderland depicted in the Radiohead ‘There, there’ video where Thom Yorke is seen exploring a mysterious forest, watching on as the rabbits sit down together for afternoon tea and mice ride bikes – you get the idea.
On that note, it’s a testament to Smith’s song writing ability that several of the tracks on the album, notably ‘Corridors’, ‘Bones’, ‘Johnny was a Shoemaker’ and ‘Winter’, stand tall as poetry in their own right, working both when read in isolation and heard within the context of the album. And what a voice – similar to that of ‘Gomez’s‘ Ben Ottewell, it’s a raw, rasping and wonderfully aching vocal performance throughout.
Special mention must also go to Smith’s unique ‘lap playing’ technique in which, whilst seated, the guitar is placed flat on the lap and played horizontally. It’s a truly unique spectacle seeing this performed and certainly creates an interesting effect, none more so than on the aforementioned live favourite ‘Winter’ where the finger tapping, guitar slapping, rumbling finger style come to the fore.
Other highlights include ‘So,so’, ‘Corridors’ and the powerful ‘The Hours’. Personal favourite though comes halfway through the album in the form of ‘Something Terrible’. An incredibly affecting track, and remarkable both for the frank way he has noted the emotions experienced having met your perfect match (“it fucks me in the head”) and for the way he manages to include the word ‘dissipate’ (“my sentences just dissipate these things I should’ve never said”) and get away with it.
Whilst the album is very much one mans vision, he is supported ably by fellow musicians Harry Harrison (Double Bass), David Junior (Percussion) and Hannah Peel (Violin, Vocals, Whistles and Keys). Peel’s haunting voice is especially effective, featuring on a handful of tracks including the aforementioned ‘So,so’ and ‘To Have So Many’, with Djamila Skoglund-Voss providing the vocals on album closer ‘Library’, in which her delicate voice perfectly compliments Smith’s.
In summary, a truly astonishing and affecting album. Looking at the guy’s schedule he has to be one of the hardest working musicians around at the moment and I’d thoroughly recommend that you catch him live. In the meantime ‘The Fox and The Monk’ is an extraordinary debut album that will sit comfortably in any music collection in need of a sharp dose of stripped emotion with a knowing glint in its eye.
The Fox and the Monk (2006)
Record Label: Independent