Last month, Strange Attractors Audio House reissued Sean Smith’s terrific album, Eternal.¹ Where Sean’s prior recordings: the self-titled LP, Sacred Crag Dance, Corpse Whisperer, and contributions to Berkeley Guitar, established him at the forefront of the underground solo guitar scene, Eternal reveals him to be a gifted arranger as well. Most of the album finds Smith in ensemble with combinations of Adam Snider, Fletcher Tucker and Angela Hsu on stringed instruments (violin, mountain dulcimer, banjo, etc) and Spencer Owen on percussion (claves, sandpaper blocks, drum kit, etc). As with his solo work, Sean takes on a number of different folk styles, and the ensembles allow him to superimpose a variety of textures. The result is an album that is as entertaining as it is challenging, which cannot always be said of offerings from even the most talented instrumentalists.
In a cool gesture of continuity and regionalism, Eternal begins with Smith’s rendition of the late, Santa Cruz-based guitarist George Cromarty’s fantasia, “Topinambour.” Cromarty’s version appeared on the obscure Grassroots Guitar LP, released on his own Thistle Records label in 1973. I don’t have that version to share here, but another cut from Grassroots, “Flight,” appeared on The Numero Group’s excellent Wayfaring Strangers: Guitar Soli compilation in 2008:
George Cromarty – “Flight”
Sean Smith – “Topinambour”
After the irresistible country stomp of “Palak Paneer,” comes “Goat Seer,” which could be a lost track from Pink Floyd’s Meddle LP. (Don’t misinterpret this as a snipe! Smith’s Weissenborn on the track fondly evokes Gilmour’s slide work, from “Pillow Of Winds” in particular). The psychedelic mood carries over into a dirge-y redux of “The Real,” which first appeared as a raw guitar solo on Smith’s Sacred Crag album. The Eternal version is tighter, underpinned by Owen’s ride cymbal and highlighted by eerie violin and banjo parts. Here are both versions:
Sean Smith – “The Real” (Solo version)
Sean Smith – “The Real” (Group version)
My favorite cut from the album is “Holly”. For this one, Smith dispenses with boom-chick bass structure in favor of an elegant, chromatic chord progression that beautifully intertwines with Hsu’s violin during the repeat. The generic-sounding outburst of “rock” which bisects the track is perhaps the sole misstep on Eternal (Smith’s fellow Bay Area guitarist Matt Baldwin managed this sort of juxtaposition more successfully on his Paths Of Ignition LP.)
On “Prompter of Conscience,” Smith lays down minimal lines with the Weissenborn over a droning reed organ. I generally have limited patience for this sort of thing (I feel like I hear it too often) but Smith executes well and doesn’t run it into the ground. So, instead of filler, “Prompter” feels like an interlude, setting the table for album’s ultimate track: the epic, solo guitar collage, “Greetings. Death, Love (excerpts).” The track combines five disparate movements, beginning on steel string guitar, with improvised figures giving way to a pair of lovely chord progressions, and culminating with a series of arpeggios on nylon string guitar. Though “Greetings…” rolls on for nearly thirteen minutes, Smith varies and orchestrates the movements in such a manner that it never gets stale. I’m more eager than ever to hear where he takes us next.
¹ The first issue by Gnome Life Records in 2007 was on limited edition vinyl; this year’s reissue is on CD & MP3.