Chris Smither

Live as I'll Ever Be (Hightone)

Chris Smitheris about as unassuming a songwriter as you're likely to find. Over the past two decades, he's quietly released a dozen records and toured consistently without so much as a brush with big-time fame. Live as I'll Ever Be isn't likely to change that. But it's a wonderful record, a compilation of recent live performances that showcase Smither's unsung melodic knack, understated wit, and virtuoso guitar-picking.

Part of the reason Smither has remained a critics' darling is because his music is difficult to pigeonhole commercially. He lacks John Prine's hayseed charm or John Hammond's growling intensity. Instead he's content to meld genres. "Winsome Smile," for instance, features bluegrass fingerpicking, while "Slow Surprise" mixes its bluesy tempos with Celtic balladry. "I Am the Ride" has the dark, brooding feel of a country dirge, while "Up on the Lowdown" chugs along to a riff so infectious it sounds almost poppy. The undisputed standout track here is "No Love Today," a searing slice of heartbreak that comes closest to capturing the melancholy desires that live beneath most of Smither's compositions.

As a singer Smither also favors a low-key approach. He's certainly capable of letting his baritone rip -- as he does on a surprisingly energetic cover of the Robert Johnson chestnut "Dust My Broom" -- but more often his delivery conveys the tender frailties of the characters about whom he writes. That is not to say that Live as I'll Ever Be is one long bummer. For all his somber musings, Smither is also possessed of a stinging wit. As he consoles one of his sad sack protagonists: "But time will wound all heels, and it ain't pretty/With any luck at all she'll find some dope that you can pity."

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