Sometimes lost in the roots-rock, alt-country sound that has come to typify Austin music is a handful of very, very good pop bands with chart-topping success, such as Spoon and Fastball. Such a band is Drew Smith's Lonely Choir. Smith is a self-described disciple of '70s pop, a sound that — on his new album — is freshly updated and beautifully delivered.
The opening track, "Nilsson Sings Newman", gets its title from an album on which Harry Nilsson sings Randy Newman songs. The song describes listening to a new album with a good friend and letting your troubles go, realizing that "things are only getting better over time anyway". It serves as the perfect opening for a studio album that continues the tradition of two of the most prolific singer-songwriters in American pop music: Randy Newman ("Mama Told Me Not to Come" and many more) and Harry Nilsson ("Everybody's Talkin'" and many more).
The lush songs flow gently from one to another, artfully arranged by Drew Smith's longtime collaborator, Matt Russell. All the songs are original compositions except "New Year's Day," on which Smith and Russell share writing credits. Friendship is a theme throughout many of the songs; "NYC Song" tells a tale of a sunny day spent with a good friend in the city, followed by the toe-tapping "Diamonds" with an offer to buy his baby the truth.
In "Silver Pictures" Smith channels another of his idols, Van Morrison, with rich saxophone backing the tale of a concert road trip and the illusions and disillusions of youth. Each song has a distinct sound and showcases different instruments; "Silver Pictures" is followed by dreamy pedal steel guitar and piano of "New Year's Day," balanced by Smith's rich voice. The tone of the album slowly shifts as we "Travel My Dark Road."
My favorite song on the album is "Follow Me Down." After humming it to myself for a few days, I took a cue from the opening track and listened to it with my best friend, who pronounced this tune as "Silky smooth pop with a hook I can't believe I'm not hearing on the radio." Another highlight of the album is "Are You Lonely," which is a full-on press of instrumentation and vocals which sound anything but lonely. The call and response vocals with "the lonely choir" give the album its name. When the band performs live, the entire audience sings along to this rousing tune.
The entire album is marked by the subtle changes and variety between songs, woven together to provide a continuous flow of wistful optimism. The last song, "Home," closes the album with a short note of blissful happiness, fitting for a compilation dedicated to Smith's wife, Shelley.
The album was recorded in Drew Smith's hometown of Austin, Texas, a town steeped in an Americana vibe. Although many of Austin's finest musicians with that rockin' country sound contribute (including Kim Deschamps on pedal steel, Warren Hood on fiddle, and Dustin Welch on banjo and resonator guitar) this album does not share the twangy rockabilly sound of many Austin recordings. Fans of Chuck Prophet, Coldplay or Oasis might find Drew Smith's album resonates for them.
Production values are consistently high throughout the album. It sounds as though great care was taken at every stage of production, from arranging to recording and creating the final mix and packaging. Barrett Walton at Infinity Recording Studios recorded the songs to tape to create a rich analog sound. The cover art and cleverly-designed fold-out with all the song lyrics feature Dave Schwab's pen and ink drawings.
Drew Smith's Lonely Choir is an engaging album, one that you can sit and listen to (not just play as a background), like the characters in the opening track do with the 1970s album Nilsson Sings Newman. It is an album about being blessed with friendship even while it acknowledges the roads we travel are not always sunny. Whether this album becomes an instant hit or a quiet classic, Drew Smith and his collaborator Matt Russell have created a powerful new entry in pop music.