Every time Chris Smither brings his droll, deadpan vocals and his fast, fluid guitar-picking to Washington, record store clerks, faced with requests, sadly report that his only two albums -- 1971's "I'm a Stranger Too" and 1972's "Don't It Drag On" -- are long out of print.
Now, at long last, Smither has released his third album, the solo acoustic "It Ain't Easy" (Adelphi AD 1031). It is among the best acoustic folk albums of the year. If anything, Smither's easygoing irony is deeper than ever and his guitarwork even more nonchalantly brilliant. If Randy Newman had been an acoustic blues guitar fiend, he might have sounded like Smither.
Smither, best known for writing "Love You Like a Man" and "I Feel the Same" for Bonnie Raitt, brings the same skills to "Footloose," the album-opener. It turns the rambling troubadour myth on its head as an older, wearier singer admits he's "tongue-tied and turned around, footloose with my feet stuck in the ground." Smither's husky voice delivers the weariness without self pity.
The other two originals are simple love songs, whose glowing affection is all the more convincing for the modesty of their claims. The "John Hurt Medley" makes it clear where Smither learned his "less is more" approach to music; he transforms Howlin' Wolf's "Sittin' on Top of the World" into a Mississippi John Hurt song with an immeasurably sad vocal even as he claims happiness.
He takes two Chuck Berry car songs and makes them sound like a Mississippi farm boy's dream; he turns Randy Newman's "Guilty," a song he started playing before anyone had recorded it, into a low-key confession that seeks acknowledgment rather than sympathy. Though Smither lives in Boston, this album was recorded at Washington's Soundwave Studios and released on Silver Spring's Adelphi Records; so it's a welcome return for a local favorite.
Richard Thompson's "Small Town Romance" (Hannibal HNBL 1316) documents the British folk-rock cult star at three live solo acoustic shows in Greenwich Village in 1982. Though it lacks the power and majesty of his studio work, it's a welcome, intimate look at one of pop music's most imposing talents. With 14 songs and nearly 50 minutes of music, it's a generous helping of old and new songs from Thompson, plus Hank Williams' "Honky Tonk Blues."
Thompson's nasal baritone works best when offset by a higher, clearer voice (Sandy Denny's in Fairport Convention or Linda Thompson's when they were still married). His lyrical guitar works best when offset by a sustaining instrument (Dave Swarbrick's fiddle in Fairport Convention; John Kirkpatrick's accordion on Thompson's solo albums). The absence of such help hampers this unaccompanied album, especially on the up-tempo numbers.
On the slower tunes, though, this album really shines. On "For Shame of Doing Wrong," he moans with a sense of loss, "I wish I were a fool for you again" and extends that irony with a bittersweet guitar solo. On Fairport's "Genesis Hall," he sings powerfully and sorrowfully of the homeless and helpless.
John O'Connor's "Songs for Our Time" (Flying Fish, FF331) replaces the broad editorializing of too many political songs with sturdy portraits of working people. O'Connor trusts his subjects and respects his listeners enough to let each story stand without a moral tacked on. For his first album, this Seattle singer-guitarist has written about people with such unassuming authenticity that his songs could have been handed down from the characters themselves through generations of singers.
"Mister, Slow It Down," bolstered by Tim Hall's bluegrass banjo, is the best hitchhiking song since Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee." O'Connor's "Missy and Me" is the best song about old age since John Prine's "Hello in There." "A Cold November," an a cappella ballad about a poor man harassed by a Chicago cop, echoes Woody Guthrie's hobo songs.
"The Yankee," which attacks gunboat diplomacy in Nicaragua, is cast as a choral sea chantey about a pirate ship. "Fifty-five," the monologue of a man who's too young for Social Security and too old to find work, is an understated blues song. O'Connor is a warm if not exceptional singer, but his songs would ring true in almost anyone's voice.