Chris's brand new album, Leave the Light On (his second with producer David "Goody" Goodrich) features seven new songs as well as a few choice covers, and arrangements of traditional songs. The album also features the young neo-gospel group Ollabelle, who bring a complementary loveliness to Smither's 'Seems So Real' and additional resonance to the traditional 'John Hardy'. The renowned roots musician Tim O'Brien plays mandolin and fiddle all over the record, and also harmonizes with Smither, Sean Staples and Anita Suhanin on the lilting title track. Atypically, Chris tackles topical themes on 'Origin of Species' (which he says is "making fun of dummies") and the edgily political 'Diplomacy', which harkens back to his roots in the '60s folk scene. Also different this go round is Smither's bold and surprising decision to arrange Dylan's 'Visions of Johanna' in 6/8 time (he credits his friend Steve Tilston for the suggestion) which results in a track of otherworldly beauty.
This album's title cut finds the veteran folk-blues troubadour, now in his early 60s, pondering the possibility of living to be 100, thus setting the thematic tone for an uncommonly reflective, meditative set. The ragtime Zen of "Open Up," the philosophical "Seems So Real," and the rock-bottom despair in his cover of Peter Case's "Cold Trail Blues" all suggest that the virtuosic fingerpicker and evocatively smoky vocalist has reached a point in his life where he's pondering the biggest issues of mortality, a perspective that informs the complex relationship in "Father's Day." Not all of the material is that introspective, as the uptempo, electric rock of "Diplomacy" is as sardonic as Randy Newman, while "Origin of the Species" encapsulates Adam and Eve, Charles Darwin, and intelligent design. Smither also pays homage to two seminal influences, transforming Bob Dylan's "Visions of Johanna" into an acoustic, accordion-laced waltz and reviving Lightnin' Hopkins's version of the traditional "Blues in the Bottle." Ollabelle provide harmonies on two cuts, with mandolinist Tim O' Brien also offering instrumental and vocal support. --Don McLeese