Colin Smith – The Wilderness

Colin Smith - The Wilderness

Released: November 10, 2009
Written by: Colin Smith
Produced by: Colin Smith
Co-Produced by: Tim Mitchell
(Additional production by Rob Calder & Jay Barclay)
Engineered by: Tim Mitchell
(Additional Engineering by Jon D’Uva & Joe Vilicic)
Mixed by: Jon Kaplan
Mastered by: Dave McNair
Running time: 40:03
Number of Songs: 10
Label: self-released

Colin Smith online:
Artist Site | MySpace | Facebook

Buy The Record:
Artist | CDBaby | Amazon | iTunes

This album came out of nowhere to me, but Colin Smith has been around for a while. He’s been recording and touring with the band MRNORTH since the late ’90s, consisting of two brothers, a cousin (Colin) and a childhood next door neighbor. I just found this out about 20 minutes ago, listened to some songs, and about 5 minutes ago I bought all their records. Their tunes are loads heavier and more electric than Colin’s record, but it’s still pretty dynamic stuff, and well worth your time for a listen. Especially “Speak No Evil” off of their first record.

MRNORTH, circa early-in-their-career-ish. Colin's at far right.

MRNORTH, circa early-in-their-career-ish. Colin's at far right.

I first saw and heard of Mr. Smith just a few short months ago, playing in an opening slot for Lenka in November. It was an intimate show and Colin was pretty chatty, playing solo acoustic and charming the crowd with his self-deprecating humor. And, of course, his wicked Irish accent. He’s originally from Dublin and has been living in NYC for some time, and apparently is pals with Ari Hest. I’ve been a huge Ari fan for almost 10 years, have seen him play a bunch of times and even helped him write a song once! (Sort of. He had a contest for picking song titles, and he used one I submitted). I was pretty surprised when Ari’s name showed up in the credits of this album (backing vox on 4 tracks), along with Ari’s long-time collaborator/bass player Rob Calder, who played on the entire record and helped with production. I also just happened to take a peek at a video blog on Colin’s website a minute ago, and he shot some video hanging out at a Yankee game with Ari, too. Small world!

Colin Smith 1

I enjoyed his set back in November and it occurred to me I might want to get his CD, but I hedged and decided to warm up to his songs some more before making that committment (and his CD had apparently just been released the day before my show!) A day or two later, I remembered to check him out online. He has his entire record up for listening on his site, and I was only a few tracks in before I realized I’d made a big mistake – I shouldn’t have waited. There’s a really big sound on the album that he couldn’t replicate with just his guitar, and while I could tell fairly quickly the songs were good, I had no idea how great this record would be. I stopped listening and ordered the CD, wanting to wait to fully get acquainted with it in my car – loudly. Like I said, he’s got the whole thing online, so you can listen and follow along with me if you like. Just click on this (opens in new window/tab).

“Love”
The album opens with this sweetly titled track, and it begins with just some light, ukulele-esque, acoustic guitar strumming and Colin’s distinctively sharp vocals. It’s got a lovely melody, with some of the notes ringing in the lower range of Colin’s voice, where it sounds sharpest. Mostly, though, he’s singing fairly softly here. The lyrics seem to point to feeling somewhat resigned to being unable to find love:

“Love… if you’re not here, then anywhere is fine”
and
“Love… if you’re not my everyone, then anyone is fine”

About a minute in, a sparse piano line comes in from the side and plays nicely against the guitar part. At the 1:38 mark, it changes course dramatically. At the end of some lyrical “oh oh ohhh”s, a new guitar line comes in (well, really just one chord) and switches things up, but only for about 12 seconds – and it’s just a set-up for the abrupt stylistic change that immediately follows. Colin’s voice attacks back into the tune and as he hits the word “shallow”, the drums kick in, followed by electric guitar and an increase in the energy from all angles. There’s a real driving beat chugging this part along and it moves nicely. But we’re not done yet! At 3:30, after just barely a minute and a half of rocking out, it reverts back to its original form following another round of “oh oh ohhhh”s. It quiets down, the light guitar strums again, piano slides in, and Colin softly sings about not being able to make a connection, yet still remaining hopeful:

“The grace, it still evades me… and our planets won’t align… but love, though it’s a dirty sky… the stars above still shine”

Another set of “oh oh ohhhh”s and yes, another change at 4:35 – but only a brief suite-capping 20 seconds or so of more drums & electric guitar, moving at a dirge’s pace, and the lyric “where is…”

Love? It’s left unsaid. So the nice little opening tune ends up practically symphonic and this has me rather intrigued. Not to mention great lyrical imagery. No other songs on the record will be quite so bi-polar (though one will be pretty close!), but I thought it was a genius way to start. You never really know what to expect. Not to mention that the production is wickedly clean and precise. It’s one thing to make a guitar and a voice sound so clear, but then to bring in all the extra instruments, plus background vocals, and it still sounds very crisp – I am immediately impressed that he produced it himself (with some help). After listening to some MrNorth stuff and finding out that they produced a lot of their own music, I’m not quite as impressed, but for this level of sound quality to be on a self-produced, independent record is still rather remarkable.

“Scratch”
Colin’s voice is front and center again as the 2nd track starts, alongside a snakey little bass line. He seems to be wanting to forget about something with an early lyric:

“I need a new love, a girl with long red nails to scratch you out of my mind…”

The verses in this song are sung with confidence in his lower register but the chorus tends to strain a bit as he hits some higher notes. There’s an edge to his voice that I really like, but perhaps all the drinking and smoking (referenced in the album multiple times) are beginning to take a toll? A blessing and a curse.

[Stop the press! Colin told me he had a cold during the vocal take. He said perhaps he should have been more patient. I still think the excessive smoking is not good for his vox!]

“A bottle is only a bottle when it’s empty…”

Maybe he’s trying to kick the habit? Solid song, not the best on the record.

Colin Smith 2

“Stone Faces”
A funky acoustic progression begins this tune until what sounds like some steel guitar comes in and smooths it out a bit. It’s just listed as “electric guitar” but there’s almost a little country-vibe to it. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. There are a shit-ton of religious references in this song, but I’m not quite sure which way he’s leaning. There are no big choruses or intense, screaming bridges. Here’s the refrain:

“Stone faces, father figures, take this pilgrim across the river… maybe in your silence you can save me… underneath this cross, I quiver, but dudeman, yours is so much bigger… it won’t surprise you now, I’m curious to how you can save me”

Seems to be an ambigous question. Is that a defiant “how” or an awestruck “how”? He did refer to The Man as “dudeman”. Then, the bridge:

“A growing list of oversights… a small boy would be scandalized”

Ouch. That’s direct. Sort of. Still not sure where he’s going at the end of this one, but I like that kind of lyrical complexity. It’s a thinker. There are some lovely backing vocals flowing in and out of this one, too. Nicely done.

“Come Back”
If you take the chorus to this sweeping tune at face value, it seems like a standard love song:

“Come back to me, I die when you are gone… don’t quit on me, don’t leave me be… I’ll try, I’ll try”

But the verses tell a completely different story. I’ve struggled to really understand this one, and before I actually read all the lyrics I thought I came up with a brilliant explanation – I thought it was a subversive song about losing his voice. Right. This one line had me going:

“It’s your silence now that hollows me right to the core… you can name your price just say you’ll sing with me some more”

But finally reading the lyrics, in one sitting, and not being behind the wheel, and especially coming right after “Stone Faces”, it sure seems to be a continuation of that converstation about religion. I think he thinks he’s disappointed his Higher power? Multiple mentions of “vices” pepper the lyric.

[Woops. Colin says it’s about the fear of losing the ability to write songs. Damn, that makes perfect sense… though the religious angle works, too, don’t you think? And I was closer the first time around, about losing his voice!]

“I have rarely called on you or asked you for anything… but when I have, you helped me cope with my bad feeling… so tell me why now when I call you are not answering… you were all I have don’t say now I’ve lost everything”

Something has gone wrong. His prayers are being ignored. Why? He continues:

“We were never introduced, you just always seemed to be around… I had you like sky has blue or violins have gorgeous sound… I know I’ve disappointed much too many of my friends… you, despite myself, I thought I’d have until the end”

He’s worried that his belief is being questioned. He’s begging for forgiveness.

“And it unsettles me to think you haven’t seen how much I believe”

It ends with “I’ll try, I’ll try”. A promise to be better.

There’s a delicate guitar line that anchors this song, plus loads of strings that come in and take this song to grand heights. Ari adds lovely harmony vocals. There is some cross sticking in the drums during the first part, giving way to snare as the song builds and rolls on, and the chorus is huge and orchestral and triumphant and hopeful. A rousing tune musically, deeply philosophical in lyrical tone. A keeper.

“Organ In Your Chest”
He follows up that big song with this particularly spacey tune, devoid of drums or any particular sense of movement. I am a tad perplexed by this one, I admit. There are some weird background noises and unintelligible whispers and wailing vocals swimming in and out of this multi-layered peculiarity. The lead vocal is a bit breathy, the melody interesting but not entirely memorable. There’s no real chorus or structure to the verses, which I kind of like just out of admiration of disregard for standard structure.

But the lyrics are something to behold. It seems a struggle with finding love is big in Colin’s lyrical mind. This one tends to hint at that point where you may have found someone special, but you can’t tell yet if you’re in love with love or the idea of love. Mentions of “instinct”, “omens”, “stars aligned”… but also “hesitation”, and a bit of confusion.

The last verse may indicate that a forced separation is causing this indifference. Maybe he didn’t think the bond was that powerful until it was broken (not by choice).

“And even as you leave you are not certain… if everything you need’s not left behind… with your eyes still veiled by misty curtains… reluctantly you link arms with the blind… the blemishes that once were so apparent… disolve amidst the friction of your flight… with those eyes retired for lesser purpose… the organ in your chest provides the light”

Listen to your heart. Or something.

Deeply poetic, the words in this song greatly make up for whatever singularities occupy its musicality. It certainly serves as a nice buffer between the previous and following songs.

Colin Smith 3

“Who Told You You Were Right?”
What else could come next, but a full-on country shuffle?! Of course! Pedal steel, for sure, this time around. A nice left turn. Finely played with even an acoustic guitar solo.

“If it makes you happy, enjoy being right”

Lyrically, it sounds like he’s calling out someone’s penchant for being a bit smug. Or perhaps being too perfect for perfect’s sake, and not necessarily because they want to be.

“For once I’d like to see the guard come down, and take a look to see that good comes out… when you do something that you like, and not just ’cause you think it’s right”

You don’t have to be a priss for good things to happen. Chill out a bit. But if you need to be right to be happy, go the fuck right ahead. Whatever.

Jesus gets a mention in the chorus (by name this time). Definitely a country song. Great low-sung, peircing vocals. Bonus points for putting the word “you” in the title twice, back to back. You you!

“Drunks Prefer Lies”
Is this devloving into a kind of stereotypical Irish Catholic dichotomy? God and alcohol? Hmmm. He’s struggling with vice again in this one.

A moment of clarity breaks this song open, but he doesn’t seem to appreciate it at all, as he falls into the chorus, literally:

“Sooner or later, I’ll fall… into a glass where I’m carefree at last and I’ll sit there until the moment runs past… I’ll be drunk tonight, it may not be right, ’cause when the going gets tough, drunks prefer lies”

The verses really tell of a struggle to define himself, or at least contain himself.

“I can never figure out, just who brings the trouble about… right as I’m pinning him down, the coward is just slipping out”

There’s definitely a dichotomy happening, it’s just only within Colin himself. I’m guessing he becomes a different person when he’s been drinking. Or he’s more uptight than he wants to be when he’s not drinking. Either way, it’s pissing him off.

“Why can’t I be what I wanted to be? I want only one me, only one me”

This track has a kind of sinister 4/6 (I think) groove, very similar to a specific Neil Finn song (not a bad thing!). Lots of ride cymbal in the chorus, plenty of violins slipping in and out. Great low end. Cool song.

“The Wilderness”
Another left turn; this time – a song about the evironment. Wait, check that. It’s a metaphor. We’re the animals. He’s thinking about world peace. It ain’t happenin’.

“This is the wilderness, where birds steal from others’ nests… with no thought for its viciousness, no comfort at all… this is the wilderness, and I could have you killed I guess… make me like all the rest, a slave to it all”

People suck. But don’t let that get you down!

“But don’t let that break your heart or poison your innocence… when nature won’t take your part and doesn’t make any sense…”

It seems to be a fairly straightforward take against the evils of mankind. Or something. It does produce my favorite lyric of the whole record:

“Will the forest gather together and rise up in anger? That’s insane, they’re just trees!”

Hell yeah. I’m not even all that sure what that means, but I dig it. And I lied. It’s actually my second fave. Check this one out:

“Kids grow up so damn fast today, while most men are children”

Fuck. Right on. But he doesn’t hold his critical tongue just yet. He’s calling out the females who aren’t pulling their weight, too:

“And ever more rare becomes the case of grace in a woman”

Yeah, don’t be a beyotch. But don’t let it break your heart! There is a small sense of hope in this one. Shit’s messed up – it’s the fucking wilderness out there – but hey, it’s probably not ever going to really make any sense. That doesn’t mean it has to suck. Do your part and it won’t.

Musically, nothing really stands out for me in this one. It’s not bad, just not overwhelmingly interesting. I like the melody. Nice piano leads, plus some organ flourishes and mandolin. The guitar is almost secondary. What’s a bouzouki? It’s apparently played in this song.

“Angry Song”
I’m generally not a big fan of describing the song in the title of said song. And this particular tune starts off very simply. A little guitar, some strange lyrics:

“I bite my nails. And smoke way too much. So if I get lung cancer, then you’ll be to blame… for it all.”

Hmm?

A dastardly sounding piano full of minor keys bangs its way into the song right about now. Then the intensity ratchets up a notch…

“I opened up… and you let me in… and if that don’t mean nothing, you should be ashamed… of yourself… YEAAAAAAAAAH!”

OK, now it’s angry. He’s pissed at somebody! As he’s screaming “yeah!”, the drums come in and build up into this crashing crescendo of descending chords that sounds like Satan himself is rocking out. It’s devlishly fantastic. The piano is wicked. Some high-octane electric guitar screams in. It’s maniacal genius. He repeats the last 4 lyrical lines, even angrier than before… another “YEAAAAAAAAAAH!” and then it’s over! Where’d it go?! We’re back to lilting guitar and echo-y vocals. The angry part was less than a minute long! It should be called “The One-Third Angry Song”. But it’s one-third kick-ass! I guess the non-angry parts makes the angry part that much the better. I didn’t like this song at all until I first heard the rockin’ middle kick in, and now I quite like it and its manic-depression. It’s very therapeutic (and fun as shit!) to sing along with the angry “yeah!”s – some of the best sung-screams I’ve ever heard.

The whole thing has 8 lyric bars for the duration of the entire song. It’s the shortest tune of the bunch, barely 3 minutes in length. It ends with “do you mean everything you say?” For your sake, you better start telling the fucking truth. Colin ain’t happy.

“Spread Too Thin”
Another sort of spacey track, reminiscent of the previous “Organ In Your Chest”. What is that, harmonium? Very breathy vocals. Lots of humming background vocals. Some airy noises in the backdrop. Nary a drum (there is a bit of “percussion”). And some bizarre lyrics:

“Yes, I have spread myself too thin… spent too much time daydreaming… don’t tell my mom I’m not eating… at least I’m not shooting heroin”

Amen to that. Not sure where the lyrics are going… but it ends with some sort of guilt-laden relief:

“And as we watch countries cave in… I thank God I’m thin but not that thin”

He had to end it with my least favorite song, by far. And even still, it’s not bad at all. Just not my thing.

———

And having spent so much time writing this (spread out over days and days and days, ugh), I’ve had lots of time to listen to my new MRNORTH CD collection… and I really like their stuff a whole lot. Some of it is pretty goddamn heavy. They put out a live record made with an orchestra back in ’07 that just screams of ridiculous extra effort. It sounds like it must have been hell to pull off, but is so worth it. They prove they’ve got chops galore; it’s a fantastic sounding, tight live album. And according to their website, they’ve got gigs coming up here and there, and are working on a new record? Sweet. They better come through Philly. Frankly, I’m still shocked I’d never heard of them. Or Colin.

I’m hoping Colin eventually makes another solo record; it’s different enough from the band’s albums to create a nice little niche for himself. He’s one hell of a songwriter. It all sounds very intimate and personal, though I’m inferring that it’s all directly about him and not written outside of himself. I could be wrong, but he’s done it so well it’s very hard to tell. And while he says not to worry, it isn’t going anywhere – I’m really hoping his voice holds out long enough by the time he gets around to #2.

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2 Responses to “Colin Smith – The Wilderness

  1. […] much like Colin Smith, you can hear Crash Kings’ entire record online (complete with lyrics) at their website. […]

  2. oB. says:

    Greetings.

    Incidentally, Colin himself tweeted about the blog post back when I finished it. He said:

    “Intense blog about my little record!” and provided a link.

    Nice! Full disclosure: I sent him a message on MySpace about it. I don’t care, he read it! And gave notes!

    cheers,
    oB.

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