Micah Blues and Red Rivers
Micah Blue Smaldone is a former punk scenester from New England who has moved on to sparse, rootsy folk. ‘The Red River‘, his fourth solo record, is dominated by meditative, neo-traditional acoustica with an eye for theatre. While intimate in scale it much less personal than, say, Bon Iver, but more focused on the kind of dust-choked cinematics of recent albums by the similarly named Micah P Hinson or Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan, albeit with a less bawdy vocal style. Fans of Will Oldham and Iron & Wine’s sparser material may find much to enjoy in the rusted, bleak atmospherics here. The Thrill Jockey press release tells me Smaldone sounds ‘like a dead man’, which may seem like hyperbole but there is something spectral about the old-time quality of the music. Like a less wildly impressionistic Grizzly Bear, there is a deliberately spooked mood to ‘The Red River’ – the sense that Smaldone is trying to conjure the ghosts of a past, not just resurrect the music itself. The production quality is as if it was processed through an analogue radio: the skeletal picked guitar, vagabond banjo and viola all sound somehow starched.
‘Pale Light’, the album highlight for me, with its muted horns and mood of dereliction, made me imagine a tramp listening to a Christmas brass band, trying to keep himself warm with a tot of whiskey: very much on the outside looking in. The beautiful, mournful trumpet solo suggests a less glossy version of Calexico’s Dia De Los Muertos atmospherics. Elsewhere ‘The Red River’ is more conventional, pitting Smaldone’s vulnerable Arthur Russell-esque vocals against picked acoustic folk and weeping cello. It’s the kind of unhurried folk tinged with vaudeville and ragtime that would have never been picked up for international distribution 10 or 15 years ago but is enjoying something of a renaissance. In an era where we are not starved for these kinds of moods and textures, The Red River is hardly unmissable, but it is a sad, sometimes beautiful little album all the same.