Originally posted September 10, 2009:
As I wrote in February 2007 (for Saturday Single No. 2!):
“[T]o be honest, Darden Smith these days is not strictly country. That’s where he started some twenty years ago, but he’s evolved to where his music occupies a place somewhere near the intersection of country, folk, pop and rock.
“That’s an interesting place to live, musically, but it’s an awful place for the marketing and promotion folks to figure out. So they don’t try. That’s the only reason I can figure out to explain the public’s failure to elevate Smith to the level he deserves.”
That was all true then, when I was writing about “Levee Song” from Smith’s Little Victories CD, a 1993 release, and it remains true as I try to figure out what to say about Deep Fantastic Blue, a CD Smith released in 1996.
Well, it’s got plainspoken songs, with a few nifty metaphors – “Somebody’s pride and joy turned out to be the broken branch on the family tree” for one – and some fairly muscular musical backing (not muscular in a rock sense, with lots of loud, but in a country-folk sense; I think you’ll hear what I mean when you listen).
Here’s what All-Music Guide had to say about Deep Fantastic Blue (and about Smith’s career, ca. 1996):
“When CBS (now Sony) signed Darden Smith in 1987, they may have hoped they were getting another country-pop singer-songwriter like Rodney Crowell. By the time a couple of albums had suffered undeserved anonymity, however, they may have been hoping for a critics' favorite with a modest commercial breakthrough like John Hiatt. But major labels do not wait forever for even the most promising artist to start exceeding his advances, and with this, his fifth album, Smith is now recording for his manager's indie label. It turns out this is all for the better, artistically, anyway. Darden's well-written songs are sufficiently straightforward enough to answer to any one of several production ideas. A good country producer could take them in a Garth-like direction, and a good rock producer could find another Tom Petty. Instead, Stewart Lerman has assembled a stellar backup unit of relative unknowns — anchored by bassist Graham Maby from the old Joe Jackson Band, and guitarist Richard Kennedy and drummer Stanley John Mitchell from the late, lamented Drongos — for a restrained folk-rock treatment that emphasizes the songs. Smith's lyrics cover familiar ground, touching on restlessness, hopelessness, hope, despair, freedom, aging, and, oh, yeah, lust. But he often has unusual ways of putting things, and he sings with conviction. There may not be a place for him on a major anymore, but he continues to grow as a songwriter and performer, and perhaps an audience will find him yet.”
Okay, so who are the musical referents in that review? Rodney Crowell, John Hiatt, Garth Brooks, Joe Jackson and the Drongos, (who were – and I had to look this up – a pop-rock band that released two albums during the mid-1980s). That’s a wide swath of influences and reflections. No wonder it seems hard to figure out what kind of performer Darden Smith is.
It’s easy for a listener, actually, once you get hold of one of his CDs. Put the sucker in the player and let it run, Track 1 through 10. Wash, rinse, repeat. Listen to it the way people used to listen to music, as an entire piece of work. And during a quiet time on the next Wednesday evening or something like that, you’ll have a melody running through your head, and you’ll realize it’s“First Day of the Sun,” or it’s “Drowning Man,” or maybe it’s “Hunger.” Whatever it is, it’s one of Smith’s songs from Deep Fantastic Blue that’s worked its way inside you, the way the best music does.
(That’s always a risk, of course. If a listener’s life is in turmoil or worse, the music may attach itself to that time of his or her life and how it felt to be there. I came across Darden Smith during a difficult portion of my life, and some of the songs on the first CDs of his I bought pull me back to my apartment on Bossen Terrace in Minneapolis and to a time that, well, wasn’t very pleasant. Somehow, though, Darden’s music only lightly recalls that time; even though his CDs were never far from the stereo then, they are, thankfully, not reminders of grief. On the other hand, Natalie Merchant’s Ophelia, which I loved and put into the player about as frequently, is these days still nearly unlistenable for the sonic reminders it brings.)
In any event, Deep Fantastic Blue is a worthwhile listen. I checked at Amazon this morning, and it’s available – one copy through standard means, others through other dealers. There’s also an import version available. (Those listings seem to change from day-to-day.) And most of Smith’s other work is available there as well, with all of it save Little Victories still in print.
If you like what you hear, explore the rest of Smith’s catalog. I’ve posted most of what he recorded up to 1996. (I don’t recall if I’ve ever posted Little Victories, but next week might be a good time for that.) He’s continued to write and record, though it’s been three years since his last release, Field of Crows.
First Day of the Sun
Silver & Gold
Deep Fantastic Blue by Darden Smith 
I got an email the other day from the operator of the fine blog The Vinyl District, asking me if I’d tell last week’s tale of Echoes In The Wind for a feature he calls “TVD Pop Over.” I did so gladly, ripping five favorite tunes from vinyl to accompany my words; the post went online today. My thanks to Jon. And some advice for regular readers here: If you don’t already do so, you should make TVD one of your regular stops in blogworld.