Now's The TimeStephan Smith 11661-3167-2
One Camp Street
Cambridge, MA 02140 USA
A review written for the Folk and Acoustic Music Exchange
On the opening track of Steve Earle's classic El Corazon, the singer weighs the implications of having a society that seems to be increasingly indifferent towards social issues, replacing social consciousness with complacency. To punctuate his feelings, Earle makes a plea for Woody Guthrie to "come back to us now." And though there haven't been any Woody Guthrie sightings in recent years, it seems that Earle just might have a kindred spirit in a young folk singer named Stephan Smith.
Smith writes songs with a very socially conscious message and if his full-length debut, Now's The Time, is any indication, we could be hearing a lot more from him. Without being overtly political or preachy, Smith explores the classic themes of great folk music--from tragedy and injustice to love and hope, all the while maintaining a sense of humor. To call Smith a throwback to the golden era of folk music would be an over-simplification. Though he is noticeably derivative, he genuinely appears to have a vision of what he wants to accomplish with his music and is not just out to ape the ghosts of the past. No doubt, if Now's The Time had been released 30 years ago, he'd have been pegged as one of the "new Dylans," though that too would be misleading as Smith's music is truly timeless and authentic. A fine finger-picker with a pleasantly expressive voice that brings to mind early Dylan or Arlo Guthrie in its nasal qualities, the tone of his songwriting is generally more in a social protest vein. Something like Dylan's The Times They Are A-Changin' album might be a close approximation. Mixing modern and classic metaphors, Smith doesn't easily fall into the more commercial folk categories of the day. He truly is reviving the early 60's folksinger archetype by making music with an overtly progressive, issue-oriented message, underlined by decidedly old-fashioned stylings. Primarily accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, with the occasional banjo and harmonica, Smith is a more than competent musician.
These songs have true purpose, from the opener Now's The Time to the a capella It's Just Gonna Take Everyone and then to the poignant I Need To Know. Smith's songwriting displays considerable, though simply stated, depth. Refreshingly optimistic, though never trite or insincere, the thesis of this album might well be the anthemic All Together Now, which preaches a brand of peace and brotherhood that has not been expressed as eloquently since the days before Dylan plugged in his Stratocaster. Of course, Smith's songwriting isn't all hugs and rainbows, as he captures the real life tragedies of the West Paducah school shootings of 1997 in West Kentucky and the tale of police brutality in Ballad of Abner Louima, which gained Smith some radio exposure. Smith can write a fine melody, too, as the mournful Oh Death and the hopeful Peace on Earth will attest. Many moods are represented, as well, from the darkly menacing Another Man Down to the light-hearted satire of The Media Mogul. In fact, there really isn't a bad track on the entire album, and more than one of these songs could easily slip into the realm of folk standards.
Stephan Smith is a truly extraordinary artist. In a day when it's far easier to be cynical, he has emerged as one of the most honestly optimistic voices of his generation. This being a debut, it's impossible to say where Smith will go in the future. What is apparent is that Smith is that rare musician with the potential to have impact beyond the music industry in that he actually has designs on making a positive contribution to society. Woody Guthrie might not be coming back any time soon, but Stephan Smith is making sure that Steve Earle's pleas are not going entirely unanswered.
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All songs by Stephan Smith except as noted.
Edited by: Mark J. O'Donnell