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Music Review: Sky Smeed's 'Drive All Night'

Courtesy of Sky Smeed
Sky Smeed

Drive All Night (Sky Smeed Music)

Drive All Night, the fifth album from Sky Smeed of Chanute, Kansas, is a troubadour’s lament to the helplessness everyone feels.

Knowing that Smeed’s core backing band is Lawrence’s wonderfully irreverent Truckstop Honeymoon may prepare listeners for “Smoke N’ Spice,” a tribute to Kansas City barbeque in the form of a personal ad. But that irreverence makes for a deceptive opening, and even the darker “Blue Highways,” about a touring musician beginning to see two-lane blacktops as bars on a jail cell, isn’t likely to prepare anyone for the rest of the record’s quiet desperation.

The John Prine-flavored “I Don’t Know What to Do” features an almost whispered vocal over simple acoustic guitar with a touch of piano and mandolin. When Smeed sings that he doesn’t know what to do “with myself, without you, all night long, the whole day through,” the cleverness of the form simply underscores the content. But by song’s end, a frightening darkness is coming down on the singer.

Swirling guitar arpeggios, sharp strums of mandolin, insistent bass, brushes and snare weave a delicate tapestry for “Holding On” to place articles of faith — “we were born to run, born to laugh, born to love someone” — that become mantras of hope for the relationship at the heart of the song. With “Drive All Night,” it’s driving guitar riffs, pulsing bass and rim-shot drums snapping a similar arrangement into a more proactive shape. As if promising to bring the singer home, steel strings shine like the dawn.

Such welcome light ushers in the album’s final upbeat oasis, “Talkin’ Medical Marijuana Blues.” Yes, it’s patterned after Dylan’s “Talkin’ World War III Blues” and, before that, of course, Woody Guthrie’s talking blues. This time, instead of Dylan’s character going to see a doctor about his dreams of nuclear annihilation, Smeed’s character has a more contemporary malaise. He can’t “get wood,” and he’s got “fatigue, chronic pain and cottonmouth.” The disease and the remedy are administered playfully, but the Colorado doctor’s closing words — “one love, one heart, one life, peace” — don’t feel like a joke.

After all, Smeed is remarkably vulnerable throughout this album, and his pain becomes something like a howl on the three closers.

On “Long Way Down the Road,” washes of snare blast like cruel and confusing sands of time, while Smeed struggles to find his way forward with clear, steady guitar. Those snares grow more ominous, on "This Land," bolstered by bass and guitar feedback. Smeed once again echoes Guthrie as he puzzles over how to reconcile his crippling job, his foreclosed home and his starving children with what he once heard about this land being made for you and me. “It’s hard to believe,” he cries out as the music explodes with booming bass and rolling drums.

“Tell Me Now” focuses on the end of a relationship, but the lyric — “To hell with getting even/We couldn’t settle the score if we tried” — speaks back to the frustration and rage of “This Land”: “Tell me what it is I need to know,” he asks the lover who’s leaving him, explaining, “I can’t lose you.” It’s a familiar, and probably hopeless, Hail Mary, but coming at the end of the album it’s also a request to keep the conversation going. On a record about that helplessness we all feel, it’s a visionary call.

Kansas City-area music journalist Danny Alexander is the associate editor of Rock & Rap Confidential and author of Real Love, No Drama: The Music of Mary J. Blige, out in 2016 from the University of Texas Press.

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