Steven R Smith, Owl

Intriguing album of guitar-led weirdness from Smith, who is associated with the American Jewelled Antler collective. These folks, like everyone else these days it seems, exist in a netherworld of drones, lo-fi folk songs and field recordings, shared with their public through a steady stream of limited run CD-Rs and other non-standard formats, often in hand-made packaging. Owl, however, is a “proper” CD, nicely presented in a card gatefold sleeve. It’s one of many releases by Smith, but the first on which he sings.

There’s presumably no familial connection between Smith and the very similarly named Sterling R. Smith, a.k.a. Jandek, although there are moments here that recall the blasted, defiant isolationism of the man from Houston. Closer parallels, however, would be with the hermetic mysticism of Scottish psych-folk troubadour Richard Youngs or Ben Chasny’s Six Organs of Admittance. Over nine mostly short tracks, Smith plays electric guitar with bucketloads of effects and distortion. His voice too is wreathed in echo and delay, rendering the lyrics often inaudible but contributing all the same to a remarkable sense of space and shimmer.

Throughout the album Smith allows his distant, glacial voice to sit quietly and comfortably among the insistent, droning pulse of his guitar. Actively refusing to foreground the voice in traditional singer-songwriter fashion, Smith uses it instead as another sound source, adding to the sense of dispersed energy inherent in the music. All the same, there’s no lack of communicative impulse here; a song like “O, Blessed Night Your Sunrise Has Burnt Down” fairly sparkles with kinetic urgency. At times the mood is sparser, such as on “Whistling” (a song which, needless to say, contains no whistling). But Smith’s deployment of guitar effects is consistently inventive, leaving a strong impression of blissed-out creativity.

(originally published in The Sound Projector 17, 2008)

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