Essential New Music: Steven R. Smith’s “Spring”

The title Spring evokes images of rebirth and new life. But if you’re already acquainted with the work of Los Angeles multi-instrumentalist Steven R. Smith, your likely takeaway will be that he is staying the course. That’s not a bad thing; for more than two decades, his cottage industry of homemade, instrumental sounds has displayed rare consistency. He might vary the sound and themes, so much so that certain of his approaches have been assigned to creative alter-egos. But you can count on the music to engage with the visual-production centers of your brain and exert an emotional pull while doing so.

Spring branches out only slightly from Smith’s usual one-man band methodology. Clarinetist Gareth Davis (an American who currently resides in the Netherlands) snakes wood tones through several of tunes, amplifying their wistfulness and melancholy. Otherwise, it’s Smith on his own, building songs from gritty, electric-guitar tracks. Smith is a patient melodist, willing to let the notes rumble and disperse, but he’s also a canny colorist, adept at sharpening a vibe with a few piano additions or darkening it with a shuddering harmonium drone. And when he gets behind a drum kit, the garage-band swing in his beats spins the camera before your mind’s eye, so that you see the suburban abodes and modes of transportation to either side of that wilderness scene you glimpsed when you squinted straight ahead. Ready for a trip, but unwilling to leave your house? Spring is at your service.

—Bill Meyer