UK Singer-songwriter John Smith, with one of the most common names around, is not your run-of-the-mill singer-songwriter-guitarist. Those types cannot attract a cast like Smith does here for his highly emotive The Fray. Smith co-produced with long-time friend and producer Sam Lakeman at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studio, assembling pianist Jason Rebello (Sting, John Mayer), bassist Ben Nicholls (Seth Lakeman, Nadine Shah), drummer Jay Sikora (Paolo Nutini) and Jessica Staveley-Taylor of The Staves. Lakeman and Smith brewed an honest sound not unfamiliar to existing fans; a focus on the songs as well as Smith’s smooth tenor vocals and finessed guitar stylings. Due to global pandemic restrictions, Smith’s guests on the album recorded remotely and sent their contributions digitally over international borders—Sarah Jarosz, Courtney Hartman, The Milk Carton Kids, and Bill Frisell from the Americas and Smith’s frequent touring partner Lisa Hannigan via a virtual studio session in Dublin.
This is Smith’s sixth album, one inspired, or better said, written as cathartic release form some of the events in his personal life. Almost every song is about perseverance, resilience, and acceptance. Instead of stoicism, there are threads of optimism throughout. There are several examples, one being “Eye to Eye,” written with Americana mainstay Sarah Siskind that features Grammy-nominated multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Sarah Jarosz, “Eye to Eye” is a shining example of Smith’s ability to deliver a tough conversation wrapped in uplifting verse and melody. Another is “Hold On,” with its indelible line, “If we don’t hold on, we’re lost.”
Just glean some of the other titles – “Sanctuary,” “Just As Your Are,” “She’s Doing Fine,” and “One Day at Time” and one can grasp the themes of this project. Respectively “Sanctuary” is the process of looking back so that one can look forward – learning from one’s mistakes. “To the Shore” and the title track take a similar perspective. “Just As Your Are” is an old-fashioned love song, basically acceptance while “She’s Doing Fine” and “One Day at a Time” are about recovery from a loss, or tragic event – songs of healing. “The Best of Me” is a standout song where Bill Frisell joins on guitar as Smith tries to put the worries behind him and be grateful for the simple things that surround him.
Yet these are not all self-directed, introspective songs. Smith has the pandemic on his mind as we all invariably have in the past year. He opens with “Friends,” capturing the feeling most of us have of trying to stay in touch without any real personal contact. “Star Crossed Lovers” speaks even more directly to our current stay-at-home state where being together so often can lead to its share of tensions too.
This thoughtful, well-crafted, calming album is as you’d expect, given the participants, a beautiful piece of music. There’s little doubt that you’ve felt some of the same things that Smith has in this past year and perhaps the old cliché comes into play again, music can be a healing force.
- Jim Hynes