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She Talks to Angels

 

Mindy Smith: One Moment More

Vanguard, 2004

Rating: 3.5

 

 

Posted: January 23, 2004

By Kevin Forest Moreau

On the strength of a straightforward, affecting cover of Dolly Parton's "Jolene" -- one of the highlights of the 2003 tribute album Just Because I'm A Woman: The Songs of Dolly Parton -- young singer-songwriter Mindy Smith has generated a good deal of buzz. Much of it has been downright gushing in tone. The All Music Guide, no stranger to adoration disguised as utilitarian criticism, has this to say about her debut album: "Many artists spend years working up to the point where they can make an album as graceful and telling as One Moment More, and Mindy Smith managed it in her first time at bat."

Graceful? Certainly. Telling? Well, sure, just in a different way than the reviewer probably intends. There's no denying that Smith possesses a gorgeous voice, one that suggests a maturity beyond her years. To be sure, she's certainly got a way with her instrument, bending and curving it to pristine effect throughout One Moment More like a skilled singer twice her age or more. Smith's voice, in itself, isn't exactly unique -- at times it evokes Kasey Chambers (without the nasal, Lucinda Williams influence), at times Alison Krauss, Shawn Colvin or even the Sundays' Harriet Wheeler. But her precocious ability to mine it for picture-perfect effect, as she does so often here, most certainly is.

So, yes, One Moment More definitely sounds graceful, even mature. Especially given the album's assured production, which blurs the lines between alt-country (an ill-defined genre that Smith, like Chambers and singers like Gillian Welch and Kathleen Edwards, can be said to belong mainly by default) and Adult Contemporary so seamlessly that it takes the listener a few listens to realize the subtle manipulations in its lush arrangements. (That Smith herself co-produced the album -- with the aid of Steve Buckingham -- is further proof of her burgeoning talent.)

But telling? That depends on your perspective. One thing One Moment More tells us about Mindy Smith is that she's a young woman of deep religious conviction ("I truly believe that God picks me up and puts me where He wants me to be," she says in the liner notes). Nothing wrong with that, except that a song like "Angel Doves" ("Keep on believing God is / Soaring above a world that's / Running out of love") sinks dangerously close to the treacly level of Contemporary Christian Music. By contrast, the opening "Come to Jesus" is more effective, a beautifully constructed Southern hymn of the kind that Welch, for one, has proven so good at crafting; one that serves a story rather than proselytizing for its own sake.

Another thing the album -- and critical reaction to it from the likes of PopMatters and Rolling Stone -- tells us is that delivery counts for a lot. To look at the lyrical content as "telling," in the sense of being revealing, is a bit naïve; Smith's lyrical reliance on angels ("There's too many times I've lost / My chance to talk with an angel") and other clichés ("I'm going down in flames;" "I was born at the bottom / Of this mountain I am scaling") reveals a songwriter still largely dependent upon simplistic metaphors to express herself. (On "Raggedy Ann," she even piles them on: "I'm Raggedy Ann / Making believe I'm happy, hey / Raggedy Ann / Falling apart at the seams.") That's not a bad thing, per se, especially for an artist so young. But it's not, let's be clear, the stuff of fresh or profound insight.

No, it's Smith's preternaturally poised, emotive singing -- coupled with the aforementioned production -- that sells Moment's more earthbound moments. Which raises questions -- deeply interesting questions, given Smith's obvious talents -- as to whether her future works will strike a balance between art and craft, whether she'll grow into as confident an artist as Williams, Emmylou Harris or even Parton herself (whose aforementioned "Jolene" appears as a hidden track here). If she's still relying so heavily on such well-worn conventions ten years down the line, will audiences be as willing to listen?

One Moment More definitely has its high points -- the scrappy "Falling;" the stirring "Train Song;" the shimmering, slightly dark verses and sprightly choruses of the engrossing "Hard to Know" -- points that indicate such questions may well be moot, or answered in the affirmative as Smith develops as a writer. But for all its moments of touching grace, the album never fully shakes free of the impression that it's coasting on Smith's gossamer vocals.

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