Maybe Thomas Wolfe was wrong, maybe you really can go home again. On her sophomore album Long IslandShores, Americana singer/songwriter Mindy Smith explores this premise, and discovers some previously unmapped territory of the heart along the way.
Raised on Long Island, N.Y., Smith moved ?rst to Knoxville, Tenn., where she immersed herself in the Appalachian musical tradition, then to Nashville, where she pursued her songwriting muse. But back on Long Island, she left behind some painful childhood memories, some unresolved con?icts and a beloved mother buried in the cold, windswept ground. And since ghosts travel light, they accompanied her every step of the way, right on up through her wildly successful 2004 debut One Moment More and its hit single “Come to Jesus,” which resulted in extensive radio and video airplay and several CMA and Americana Award nominations. Now, two years after her triumph, she turns to face the shadows.
The dozen songs on Long IslandShoresare ghost stories about confronting the spectral memories and regrets that haunt even our best days. With her clarion-clear voice and memorable pop melodies, Smith’s lovely music may disguise her deadly serious intent, but her words still sting. Whether singing of neglectful lovers (the mournful ballad “You Just Forgot”) or the small choices that result in turning away from the vitality of life (the Patty Grif?n-like opener “Out Loud”), the sense of loss—of imminent, impending catastrophe—hovers over these songs like a shroud. Flying in the face of super?cial pop ditties and formulaic country hits, Smith has the audacity to pursue the nuanced nooks and crannies of the big themes—God, death, love, the loss of love, memory and regret, hope in the midst of sorrow, carrying on and ?nding peace and joy when you have a hole in your heart.
It’s an impressive trick, but it doesn’t always work as well as it should. Co-producer Steve Buckingham’s Nashville-slick production blunts the power of Smith’s songs, and the tastefully unobtrusive accompaniment—awash in atmospheric pedal steel and gently plucked acoustic guitar and banjo—is frequently too safe and polite for its own good. Buddy Miller provides some needed grit on the duet “What If the World Stops Turning,” and “I’m Not the Only One Asking” almost manages to rock, but for the most part these songs ?t the radio-ready crossover template that has made stars of Alison Krauss and Nickel Creek. One wishes that Smith had been given a little more room to break free of the production constraints and to show off a little of the raw vocal power I suspect is there. Soulful music, at least in the sonic sense, this is not.
That criticism aside, these are gorgeously soulful songs in terms of their subject matter. Raised by a minister and a church music director, Smith’s songs have always displayed an undercurrent of Christian faith. They do so here as well, but don’t come looking for platitudes or easy answers. “I’m Not the Only One Asking” is the world-weary cry of one who has seen too much suffering, and who wonders where God is when tragedy—both personal and global—threatens to drown all sense of hope. “Out of Control,” a lovely, heartfelt folk ballad, explores the con?icted tug of war between surrendering the destructive habits and behaviors that damage us, and holding on to them because we don’t really want to let go. Mindy Smith may not be a 12-step counselor, but she certainly understands the dynamics of addiction and the
bloodless battles that take place in human hearts.
The geographic line that stretches from Nashville to Long Island becomes the distance between the present and the unresolved past on the album’s two best songs. “Tennessee” is a celebration of a decade of ful?llment: the newfound peace that results from owning a new city and a new life as home. “Long IslandShores” is something else entirely—the diary of a trip back to her childhood home for a family reunion. Backed by a melancholy ?ddle and a Celtic-tinged melody, Smith sings of the ambivalence of boarding a plane and leaving the familiar to face the ghosts of the past, of seeing old childhood haunts, of placing yellow roses on her mother’s gravestone. It’s not an easy choice, but she gets on the plane. It is one of many a?ecting moments on an album full of these small but signi?cant epiphanies.
Mindy Smith has yet to make the masterpiece that’s in her, and the bad news is that Long IslandShoresis somewhat musically sterile and monochromatic. I ?nd myself wishing that the production and accompaniment matched the ardor, intelligence and depth of the lyrics. But the good news is that these are songs that burn with passion and honesty, forged from the raw materials of facing one’s demons, making peace with the past, and exploring the uncharted geography of loss and hope. If that’s the path to superstardom—and her ?rst two albums give every indication that it is—then Mindy Smith will have surely taken a welcome, less-traveled road.