Throughout his 25-year career as a rock guitarist, Smokey Hormel has simultaneously explored the worlds just beyond rock and roll, delving into the genres that have shaped his style and informed his playing Western Swing, Blues, Bosso Nova, Samba and now, with Smokey's Secret Family, African popular dance music from the late 1950s and early 1960s. Assembled by Hormel and united by a fondness for a broad spectrum of musical styles, Smokey's Secret Family is a group of musicians who first met and began playing music together at the small, influential New York City club Tonic in the early 2000s. All accomplished in a variety of genres, they are, in addition to Hormel, reed player and multi-instrumentalist Doug Weiselman (Laurie Anderson, Antony and the Johnsons), trombone and tuba player Clark Gayton (Stevie Wonder, Prince, Santana) and Brazilian percussionists Gilmar Gomes (Angelique Kidjo, Meshell N'degeocello) and Mauro Refosco (David Byrne, Bebel Gilberto). The album, which shares the same name as the group of musicians who made it, is a collection of songs by African groups from the 1960s. It's not the Highlife or Soukous sounds that became popular in the 70s, rather it is that magical moment just before the heavy influence of American Soul, Funk and Rock and Roll; the pre-James Brown era of urban African dance music. There are no big drum kits, no loud amplifiers, just wild guitars bursting through small amps afloat on a sea of hand drums and shakers, often with a very distorted bass or maybe even a tuba pulsating underneath it all. It s more Latin than western. It's not Funk. It's Cha Cha, Mambo and Rhumbas, and it all has that very contagious and danceable groove. Smokey Hormel produced Smokey's Secret Family and plays guitars, bass, high 12 string, percussion, harmonica, fiddle, pocket theremin and bass angklung.
It's not like Smokey Hormel was in any danger of being pigeon-holed. I mean, this superb guitarist has shown in the past that he s comfortable working in just about any style hence he's got a discography that includes Johnny Cash, Beck, k.d. lang, Tom Waits, John Doe, Emmylou Harris, Justin Timberlake and the Dixie Chicks, to name a few. Even so, I wouldn't have expected the first album I heard bearing his name (okay, I never heard 2002s Smokey and Miho) to be an album of utterly delightful instrumental interpretations of African pop music from the early 60s. Now, I have listened to quite a bit of African music through the years and feel as though I m pretty well-versed in everything from Highlife to Soukous to Juju to Zambian and South African styles. But this is none of those; in fact, it's music from an earlier period I evidently was not familiar with: one when African bands were being heavily influenced by Latin and Caribbean music the influence of American soul and rock comes more in the 70s. Instead of the fast, slinky guitar-driven music I was expecting, this is more based around Latin and calypso beats rumbas, mambos... I m pretty sure there s even a cha-cha in there. Hormel s guitar playing throughout is skillful but never showy, very tasteful and always in service of the arrangements, which run the gamut from breezy small-band numbers with horns, clarinet, bass and percussion, to spare acoustic tunes that have a sort of Ry Cooder-ish feel (that's a compliment; I don't mean to imply that's it's imitative in any way). There's plenty of textural variety, with the imaginative employment of all sorts of instruments harmonica, saxophone, Theremin, mallet instruments; all kinds of hand drums, shakers, etc. many of them played by Hormel. Smokey also wrote two of the tunes. All in all it s a rich, colorful and ultimately joyful tapestry. My only complaint is I wish it was twice as long. --mixonline.com
Smokey Hormel is Americana. His work can be found on just about every influential record in the world of folk/country inspired rock of the past two decades. From Beck to Johnny Cash even up to Leonard Cohen, Hormel's sound is in high demand, and not just for other musicians, but for movies and TV shows as well. He's made his way into our pop culture and it's hard to avoid. As expected when Hormel makes a record, the folk/country/freak world stops and listens. On his latest cut, Smokey's Secret Family, he ventures into the world of 60s Congolese dance music. While his band holds down the traditional end, Hormel s fretwork is anything but. Several listens later, it's still stuck in my head. Now, while most of his time is spent on bigger projects that leave his name on the credits page, he's made it out on his own a couple of times before. However, as things seem to go with him, one has nothing to do with the next, making his creatively seeming endless. Secret Family does two things. First it shows off how he can effortlessly blend his alternative style leanings with traditional music, and come out the other side. Second, and more importantly, it continues to prove that boundaries simply do not exist with Hormel. He can play on a Tom Waits record, and in the same breath help out PB&J, then go out and play western swing with his band Smokey's Round Up at the end of the day. As for his guitar work on the record, he keeps things low key. By doing so, he's able to accentuate the music instead of turning it into background noise for his ego. In fact, there is no ego, just talent and vision. His guitar spins off the clarinet on opener Cheri Akim Ngi perfectly, going back and forth, matching then playing off one another. So Solidao brings in the Latin influence that was a big part of Congolese, during that era, for a romantic ballad. It s the echoing slide that adds the perfect finish to the folk song. One of the best off the record is the split personality Acua. Starting out with simple bass and picking, the track quickly funks up with deep horns and rattling percussions. The pattern continues, each time picking up the pace. For the big finish, a heavy jazz undertone surfaces with the distorted guitars and frenzied horns before blasting out. Other tracks offer up moments that you can't help but hear from his previous projects. You can almost instantly recognize the essence of Beck's Guero, Midnight Vultures, and Sea Change all over the record. It's also impossible to miss why someone like Tom Waits would seek him out. That one can be narrowed down to the heart-breaking album closer Likambo Ya Ngna . Each song on Secret Family holds its own. The tracks vary in style keeping things insanely interesting, but more importantly, fun. It's easy to see how a record of this style could have been mundane, but with a musician as diverse as Hormel behind the wheel, the music is only a canvas. It causes you to set aside the musician's resume and just listen to what is purely his. For him, on this record, it s West Africa in the 60s by way of Latin America, and he's Marty McFly busting out his own Johnny B. Goode . Every time you listen, you discover more, and it grows on you. Secret Family is the record you never thought you'd love, but now that you do, you can't put it down. --Consequenceofsound.net