Thursday, November 16, 2017

Cameron Smith/Sur Duda's "Paper Knife"

After the Wreck Room on West 7th Street -- my favorite rawk dump of all ti-i-ime, which I saw as the locus for a community based around music that I'd idealized since I was a kid -- shut its doors in 2007, my wife and I were like stateless people for awhile, trying to find new spots to dock. We were never really regulars at 1919 Hemphill or the Where House, but we dipped our toes in those scenes while they existed. (I'm still waiting for someone to document them the way we did our old haunt with Wreck Room Stories.) Eventually, my bands were able to gig at the Chat Room, a dive over in the funky-but-chic Fairmount district, and the now-defunct Fairmount, a former gay bar a few blocks east of the Chat, but a bridge too far back when all the storefronts in that part of West Magnolia Avenue were dark by show time.

In 2012, I stopped gigging on a regular basis, but was still able to observe the blossoming of the Fairmount district into a thriving hip enclave with anchors like the Chat and its impresario Brad Hensarling's other watering hole The Usual; pioneering vegan eatery Spiral Diner; local roasters Avoca Coffee; the Boiled Owl Tavern; and old favorite Benito's Mexican restaurant (across the street from which an old ally of mine will be opening a record store, Panther City Vinyl, later this year). Leon Bridges' breakout success (Major label contract! National TV appearances!) put Fairmount on the map for folks from elsewhere who follow such things, while no less an authority than Texas Monthly has hailed the Near South Side 'hood as a scene to watch -- and Cameron Smith as a key player in its development.

Since 2011, Smith has fronted War Party, a punkish outfit with roots in earlier forms (from the Belmonts to the Kinks and Velvets) whose stock in trade has been its leader's smart songwriting, wedded to unusual instrumental textures (their lineup includes a full-time trumpet player, but their sound is redolent of neither jazz, nor Cake). In 2015, War Party's label Lo-Life Recordings joined forces with fellow musos (Year of the Bear, the Fibs) Jennifer and Robby Rux's label Dreamy Soundz to birth Dreamy Life Records, a concern which has documented Fort Worth's indie scene on over 40 releases -- so far -- in various media (cassette, CD, and vinyl, as well as digital), and grown to include a small record store co-located with the Fairmount Community Library, and Cloudland Recording Studio, also located on the Near South Side.

This month, Dreamy Life is releasing Paper Knife, Smith's most fully realized solo work to date, and it's a corker, consolidating all of his strengths and presenting them in sterling settings he crafted with the able assistance of co-producers Peter Wierenga and Britt Robisheaux. Smith's lyrics are observational and only occasionally obtuse, and they tumble out as though he has a lot on his mind and wants to make sure he gets it all across, with a delivery that alternates between casually slurred lines and others that soar with longing. The backing musos -- War Party drummer Peter Marsh on guitar and bass, Jesse Gage (Movie the Band) on drums, Andy Pickett (an estimable songwriter himself, with a self-titled album about to drop) on keys, and flautist Alex Rhea -- provide solid support that makes the songs shine.

"Baby Teeth" kicks the door open with a rumination on crossing over from innocence to experience, with a subtle nod to Leon Bridges and an '80s pop bounce: "They don't tell you selling out is more innocent than unemployment / They don't tell you getting soft just means living how you want to live....But they don't call it paying dues when you're in there washing dishes / They only call it paying dues when their hands are holding tickets."

"Long Hands" bespeaks alienation over sleek post-punk sonics: "Every face in this place has got something to hide / I've been thinking a lot about where I call home / Every square inch of space in this room is occupied / and in a crowd this size, I'm always alone."

"Royal Jelly" is an electric piano-driven garage rock pounder (shades of the Remains!), leading into the title track and lead-off single, wherein Smith wearily slogs through the day-to-day hoping for redemption (sounding for all the world like Paul Westerberg or Joe Strummer circa Sandinista!), with a guitar hook that'll imprint itself in your synapses on the first or twelfth listen. "It's Whatever," which Smith introduced at Lola's back in September as being about "what your kids think," examines the disconnects between parents and adult children.

The doleful beauty of "Rearrange the Room" harks back sonically to the heyday of the Smiths and Joy Division, while "Lie In It (Sunshine)" captures the angst of searching for moments of peace in a country at perpetual war: "I saw bodies falling from buildings when I was in school / and the live feed is streaming still -- It's cruel / but it's hard to let go of a battle habit, / especially when you're still in love with it."

In "Fort Night," Smith expresses some ambivalence about the community he's helped create, over backing that chugs along like primal VU, with backup vocals that fairly ooze ennui: "When the sun goes down the neighborhood really comes alive / But lately I've been drinking, thinking I'd rather see it dead again." Paper Knife's deceptive simplicity reveals new levels on each listening. This might just be the best new record I've heard this year.


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