I have to confess Id scarcely heard of April Smith and the Great Picture Show before, but then again, neither has she heard of me. From now on I hope to be hearing a whole lot more of her. It is positively therapeutic to hear such marvelously uncomplicated yet intriguing music like that performed by Ms Smith and her merry men. This is especially so after sitting through the first hour of the Brit Awards. You think the Grammys are bad? Well, you should try this annual extravaganza of off-key singing, gross choreography, over-inflated and booze-abused egos, and corporate flatulence that we have to suffer in the UK.
Back to altogether more deserving causes, and indeed April Smith looks so wholesome that she could have married Tom Mix if shed been around at the time. They write that April Smith and the Great Picture Show “play sassy pop music informed by the ’30s and ’40s, juke joints and cabaret, the Andrews Sisters and Tom Waits”. From the evidence of listening to her latest release, Songs For A Sinking Ship, its that and a good deal more. There is great variety to Smiths writing, range, and repertoire, and the record contains a cracking selection of songs with hardly a duff one in earshot. Some songs put New Jersey-born Smith in close company with the most original singer-songwriters around, notably Ingrid Michaelson, and oddly also the upcoming UK artiste Gabby Young, with her band Other Animals.
Its highly unlikely that Smith and Young have even heard each other, but theyd make a great double bill with their respective bands. They share other things in common, not least that they have both self-released their new albums. Smiths recording was financed by her fans through the fundraising site Kickstarter.com, while Young ran a smaller-scale subscription scheme for fans. Smiths Songs For a Sinking Ship was produced by Dan Romer (a further Ingrid Michaelson connection) and features some eclectic instrumentation, including piano, double bass, myriad percussion, and ukulele as well as guitars, accordion and horns, splendidly performed by her four-piece band.
The album opener, Movie Loves A Screen has shades of Michaelson in its construction and deft, direct lyricism. The song is enlivened by an imaginative arrangement combining ukelele and horns, which bring skiffle and ragtime together in a glorious hop, decorated by Smiths honeyed vocal. I just want to mean something to you sings Smith, and she sure does. Terrible Things, which follows, is a tongue in cheek confessional. The song is pure cabaret and uncannily like much of Gabby Youngs work in both structure and the theatrical, accented delivery Smith adopts.
Its almost forward to the 50s with Drop Dead Gorgeous, a big production number with some great musical set pieces and a wry lyrical sting, which Ill leave you to discover yourself. The song shows off Smiths vocal range splendidly as she swings from blues to jazz to big band balladry with even shades of the great Freddie Mercury in her intonation and changes. A fabulous song! Ragtime piano and a mournful horn herald Can’t Say No, a song with strength of purpose and enough sauce to balance the little girl lost, acted out through some of the vocal passages. What’ll I Do is a contrasting tale of unrequited love, which reveals a softer side to Smith, and leans more towards the work of artistes like Norah Jones and especially the UKs Kate Walsh. Smiths vocal throughout is as beautiful and controlled as the song, which is an absolute highlight.
Colors is a particularly accessible song to which you could imagine Smiths live audience singing every word from memory, a la Michaelson. It has a very catchy chorus but washed over me a little after the delights of the previous song. The sense that variety comes thick and fast is maintained as we reach Dixie Boy, a soulful throwback that smolders and then explodes into a series of show stopping crescendos. The One That Got Away (not to be confused with Gabby Youngs Ones That Got Away, readers) is a sassy mix of Queen in cabaret, with even a brief sub-Brian May guitar solo.
Beloved is a stable mate of What’ll I Do, a lovelorn ballad this time with Lennon-esque touches (boy does this gal keep good company). Smiths vocal control is immense as she delivers some eerily heartfelt musings, culminating in But if I cannot have the real thing/Ill gladly settle for your ghost. Beautiful and moving. Wow and Flutter signals a complete mood change, as Smith dons a metaphorical corset for some out and out burlesque. Its pure theatre with lines like Dont hate a girl because she knows/All the ways to get beneath your clothes.
The nostalgic Stop Wondering provides a short and to the point closer, as the singer impudently tells a would-be lover where to get off. Its not the greatest song on the album, but it works because while the music harks back, the sentiments are thoroughly modern. April Smith is an artiste with strength of character and purpose, a fabulous voice and persona, and a whole lot of writing talent who deserves to sell loads of albums. Buy a hard copy for the glorious cover art, too.