John Smith makes the most of a difficult period from a professional and personal perspective and on The Fray, delivers a painstaking musical account of the times.
Release date: 26th March 2021
Label: Commoner Records
Format: CD / digital / vinyl
I’ve probably made the same (…barely astute) comment previously about John Smith. The fact that it’s an unremarkable name that produces remarkable music. Add the unprecedented and unrelenting events of 2020 to the mix and the particularly hefty impact from both a professional and personal point of view and making music seems trivial by comparison.
To coin a few cliches that begin with ‘every cloud…’ and ‘what doesn’t kill you…’ The Fray is the outstanding record he made as a result of being at home with a newfound pain coming from so many directions. It’s an album about facing and battling the trials and fears as you grow up and older. Having said that, Smith conveys the feeling that, “a lot of these songs are about accepting that life is hard, but just holding on and trying to enjoy it anyway.” An admirable stiff upper lip and Carpe Diem philosophy. It’s also a philosophy that’s evident in the opening moments of the album on the causal, chilled-out cool and talk of moving on that comes in Friends.
With Sam Lakeman once again on production duties, there are musical collaborations featuring the likes of Lisa Hannigan, Sarah Jarosz, Courtney Hartman, The Milk Carton Kids and Bill Frisell. The Fray shows how Smith and his collaborators bring the best from each other. Star Crossed Lovers with Lisa Hannigan latches onto her delicate delivery with a gentle fragility while he connects with Sarah Jarosz’s confident and flowing expression Eye To Eye.
Of course, the solo Smith comes through to remind us what a class act he’s become as a singer-songwriter. Just As You Are is one highlight showcasing the intimacy of one man and his guitar, highlighting that this is what he does best. A bit like Richard Thompson and Blair Dunlop; one man and his guitar cutting to the chase. I’d like to quote a lyric but would end up reproducing the whole song..
To The Shore threatens to break out into a grand Arcade Fire style climax yet retains its loose Celtic feel with a gentle march. It could even be a twin guitar Big Country belter. The bubbling and swaying Hold On and Sanctuary which follows, magic up a reminder of John Martyn’s Grace & Danger but with less heartbreak and more light – “whatever happens, we’ll be fine.” And with Martyn firmly in mind, Deserving gives a nod to the May You Never guitar chops alongside a more pessimistic view as he asks “crashing and burning / raging and hurting, am I deserving of your love?” The latter becomes an increasingly frenetic and pained mantra.
The pair that closes the album, a solo She’s Doing Fine that’s both melancholy and deeply personal and One Day At A Time, show the piano contribution of Jason Rebello’s piano is at its finest. There might be the suggestion of a sense of resignation on the title track where he sings of walking into the fray – “I don’t know where I’m heading but it seems I know the way” and the fact that “we all end up there anyway.” On the other hand, the glass might be half full, hinting more at an acceptance that the experience is all part of life’s rich pageant.
Much has been made of the Americana influence that provides a strong thread throughout this album and blends intricately with the British Folk roots that seem to follow John Smith around. Labels, tags, Folk, or Americana aside, what emerges on The Fray is a set of heartfelt songs. It’s the place where John Smith can join Nick Drake, John Martyn sharing the sentiment expressed in his own words: “Just when you feel like everything’s been broken, I will be here.”
Album launch (an online stream naturally) on 28th March – tickets available here
Here’s a live from Real World version of the first single Friends: