“Douglas Adams got it wrong, ’42’ is not the meaning of life (the universe and everything), no, the meaning of life is music…” – Martin Hutchinson
You’ve read my reviews before, most of the time I search for an inspirational quote about music. How music affects me on a personal level or how music can just make your life worth living and this world we live in a much better place to be.
Well, this time, I came up with the quote all on my own. I honestly feel that my life would be so much poorer without the impact that the music I listen to has on it. Don’t get me wrong, I really cannot connect with chart music but there are those out there that take their daily fill of it and it makes their world better.
I just feel that music that is written from the heart and because of the artists love of music (and not necessarily for commercial gain) has even more power to affect your life and sooth your soul. It transports you temporarily to a world of your own imagination, where you can go to recharge your batteries and let the tiredness of the daily grind wash away.
Well it happened again, this time it was an email from Frank Smith, of Canadian artists Sills & Smith, asking me if I would like to have a listen to their music with a view to reviewing their last release ‘Echoes In Time’, which came out at the end of 2015.
I duly did and you may have gathered, by the simple fact that I am writing this review now, that I really liked it enough to want to explore more.
Sills & Smith, led by Ottawa singer-songwriters Jeremy Sills and Frank Smith, has independently released five studio albums of music that boldly blend and bend elements of folk, alternative rock, progressive rock, with hints of blues and jazz. The new album ‘Echoes In Time’ features 13 powerful, melodic original songs; the boldest Sills & Smith musical adventure to date.
‘Echoes in Time’ features a stellar cast of players, with the core group: Frank Smith (words/music, vocals); Jeremy Sills (music, vocals, acoustic guitars, piano, trumpet); Phillip Victor Bova (recording engineer/producer, electric and acoustic bass) and T. Bruce Wittet (drums/percussion). Brilliant supporting musicians include: Kevin Breit – electric guitars and mandolin, Blair Michael Hogan – electric guitars, Roddy Ellias – electric guitar, Jim McDowell – organs, Don Wallace – electric guitars, Tara Holloway – vocals and Linsey Wellman – saxophone.
Grace Smith designed the beautiful, four panel digipak CD edition of the album.
The opening track We Are Receiving is a delicate and winsome beauty. The tender guitar and plaintive trumpet give the song a beautiful fragility, a gossamer thin veil that is pierced by the low down vocal of the verse. The harmonised chorus is a study in refinement and the use of the polished mandolin is genius. It’s almost like an upmarket folk song and really leaves me feeling relaxed and in a state of wonderful reflection, utterly delightful. Altogether more serious and contemplative, Slicing Up The Clouds is sombre and melancholy in feel with mournful vocals and an almost funereal rhythm from the drums and the bass. There’s a darkly delicious undertone to the track, one that drags you into the dreamscape unable to resist. There is an overriding opaqueness to this song, a tenebrous feeling of walking down an unlit path, not knowing what is to come. The guitars have a real abrasiveness to them, insinuating themselves into your psyche and, as the song comes to its menacing close, I can’t help but feel slightly chilled and scared. The Chalice/The Blade is a really laid back song with some tranquil and serene vocals that are matched by the carefree and breezy guitar that runs throughout this enchanting track. This is music that is happy to just tread water, no particular place to go and no rush to get there, Calming and relaxing, you are invited to unwind and let yourself go. Sunny days and warm nights are what come to mind, a nostalgic look to the past when life seemed so easy. The guitar playing is brilliant, almost free-form and jazzy, leaving little notes of sophistication hanging in the air and the repeated chorus accentuates the aura of serene sophistication.
The first thing that grabs you on One Step Behind is the incredibly emotive saxophone, the playing is just superb. There is a barely kept feeling that all is well to the outside world but, underneath, all could come crashing down. The wistful guitar and melancholy vocal have an ageless feel to them, a story long in the telling perhaps, and they keep your attention rapt on this pensive and thoughtful track. As it comes to a close I am left with the loudness of silence. That slightly disconsolate musing is carried over to They Don’t Come Knocking, another incredibly deep track that begs your understanding. The slow pace and deliberate vocal just add incredible amounts of meaning and the achingly elegant guitar speaks of decades of questioning and inquisition. There is no happiness here, just an eternal grace and fortitude. The Cimmerian shade is lifted slightly by the upbeat tempo of Reverberations with its 50’s sounding twanging guitars. The lyrics have a real feeling of Americana to them and I really find myself getting drawn into the stark joy that emanates from this song. There’s almost a feel of a more serious R.E.M (if that is even possible!) to this track, a grown up humour that underpins everything, keeping it in check.
Hillbilly blues with a hint of jazz? Well, that’s about the best way I can describe the oddball delights of I Was Really Something, a song that has a real tongue in cheek irreverent humour running smack down the middle of it. The organ playing really gives it an almost vaudevillian tempo and vibe, it’s like Twin Peaks meets The Rocky Horror Show with a Gothic twist and I really like it, the vocals are great and the guitar just seems to have a mind of its own. The humour seems to take a back seat but that 50’s aura doesn’t leave. Echoes takes the impudence and wit of the B52s and covers it in lashing of black humour, especially that really catchy organ sound. The vocals are serious and monotone, giving gravitas but I can’t help smiling. The ability of Sills & Smith to effortlessly switch between sounds and genres is mightily impressive. Now onto the superb, dark hues of the bluesy The News. Again that slightly unreal ‘Twin Peaks’ feel persists, as if things aren’t quite what you think they are, the edgy, humourless vocal giving nothing away. What really stands out on this track is the outlandishly guitar playing, like blues on steroids and it gives the song a sort of modern western/mariachi soundtrack to it, added to the haunting organ note, it really is something. This is a track that I like to play with the lights right down low and at full volume, it is quite disconcerting but wondrously so and would grace any Tarantino film as it takes you into a world of modern fantasy. Listen right to the end and you will even hear the guitar go all Carlos Santana on you, utterly mesmerising.
Time to go all R&B on us now, After The Smoke Clears is a really nice track with some great guitar playing and a captivating vocal. Clever, insightful lyrics delivered with heartfelt feeling give it some real class and the music has a real 80’s George Benson undertone with the wah-wah pedal working overtime. A lament to things lost but delivered with panache and flair. A folk song at heart, Is The Mirror Reflecting You ? has a really solemn vocal and pared back instrumentals that give it an austere dignity. Time seems to stand still as this refined track carries on its serene journey. The humble vocals and subtle music have an intangible depth to them and this song leaves your heart open and raw with feeling. The Sacred Valley has a noble grace to it, the pure and uncomplicated music and restrained vocal give an overall pastoral tone to the song. There is something to be said for uncomplicated music that wears its heart on its sleeve, what you see is what you get and this elegant track is exactly that. The simple sentiment that is at the heart of everything is one we can all relate to and this lovely piece of music will put everyone in touch with their innermost self. This intense and fascinating musical journey is brought to a close by Pick Me Up With A Song, a country/folk track that has hints of Dylan to it in the vocal and guitar. Simple, dignified and with a message that we can all take to heart, this song just seemed to have a calming effect on me and left me composed, relaxed and in a place I was exceedingly happy to be.
Wherever you look, you will always find music that captivates and intrigues. We now live in a world where superb music is the norm rather than the exception but some music will always stand out from the crowd, even if it is a rather impressive crowd. The musical capabilities of Sills & Smith are such that ‘Echoes In Time’ isn’t just a really good album, it is a great one and one that I must heartily recommend to any lover of great music and excellent songwriting.
Released 10th November 2016