Darren Smith
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Darren Smith

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Darren Smith titled his new album Last Drive, and the inner sleeve depicts him torching a pickup truck. But evidence to the contrary, in real life Smith—who plays Friday, November 3, at Conor Byrne—respects his ride, a 1997 Subaru Outback ("I know, it's not really rock 'n' roll"), and wisely so. "Just over the last two weeks, I toured through Idaho and Eastern Oregon, and put about 2,200 miles on it," he admits. "It handled like a champ."

Many of the songs on the rustic Last Drive deal with characters in the process of coming or going, or wrestling with sentiments between stations. The truck driver of the titular song yearns to see his departing sweetheart one last time. "Someday" recounts the brief family reunion incurred by a funeral, while the romantic "Goodnight Stars" finds a wanderer putting on the brakes long enough to fall in love.

Then there's the lead cut, "Dogtown Mines." Accompanied by subtle accordion and mandolin, a dusty epic—inspired by the story-songs of Gillian Welch, the Louvin Brothers, and Steve Earle—unfolds via Smith's casual vocal delivery. "That one was one of the most fun to write because I had a specific story in mind. I wanted to create an old-time-sounding song with a story that might be old, or might be contemporary. It built on the idea of the main character going off in search of wealth, with the plan of returning home a 'rich' man, but life sort of got in the way. The story builds on that, and how priorities change."

Just as Smith, who formerly played in Seattle ensemble Straw Dogs, takes his time to sing his originals—even the shortest cut on Last Drive clocks in at over four minutes—he is equally devoted to refining them in excruciating detail. "I spent a long time sitting with most of the songs on the record. I like to have them around awhile before I record them. I'll make demos and listen, revise, re-record, until I have something that I can stand to listen to more than once. It's a painful process, because I really hesitate to finish songs. But recently I've gotten better at letting go."

Smith has also gotten better about jumping in his Subaru and driving to wherever the bookings take him. His emerging fan base in Idaho, where he recently played with Josh Ritter, seems to be particularly strong. But he has no intention of leaving Seattle; he loves the music community here too much. "You really can't go it alone in this business.

"Part of it is that I love to see live music and am curious to see what local bands are up to," he adds. "I always learn something from seeing a performance," citing Damien Jurado, Rocky Votolato, and Conrad Ford among current faves.

"Speaking of which, any Seattle bands that are looking for a touring support act, don't hesitate to call," he concludes. "No, seriously! I travel light." And he has his own wheels.

KURT B. REIGHLEY - Border Radio


Best Americana album by a little-known under 70-year-old this month. Beautifully crafted folk-country rock songs in the Neal Casal/Pernice Bros mould, with fine lyrics and a voice that has both a lightness and depth. Dogtown Mines starts out with folky, prettily picked acoustic guitar, before the fiddle, band and groove make it sound like a back-porch group on a flat-bed truck cruising down an empty country road.
- Sylvie Simmons - Last Drive - ****


Lovely whispy voice starts this record off over a picked banjo. The voice is that of Straw Dogs singer Darren Smith on this his first solo disc. Gradually the band slides in behind him in a Big Pink era Band way and it is lovely. Thus ends 'Dogtown Mines' with its tale of a gold prospector getting lost in moonshine and sadness. Great stuff, great start. A little like Arkansas Traveller Michell Shocked record.

The melancholy acoustic vibe flows on through some more tales with a beautiful range of backings. Someone described it as David Gray backed by Nickel Creek...not bad but I thought it closer to the late great Dave Carter and Slaid Cleaves. This is noteworthy literate folk music that deserves a wider audience.
Particular highlights the title track....the story hinted at on a great design package (top marks there whoever did the graphics) where the singer walks away from a blazing truck....let's say it not happiest tune in world:-)

There is sadness on this record but like Springsteen's Nebraska it has a quiet joy to it. Indeed you'll find more songwriting on this disc than a shelf full of Seeger tribute discs...there ain't no filler here.

Mr.Smith is no Mr.Jones...he does know what's happening and he sings it right

if you see this coming flag it down it's worth a spin round the block - Trailerstar gives 'Last Drive' ****


Darren Smith works his days as a carpenter and spends most of his nights fronting the Seattle-based Americana band Straw Dogs. With Last Drive, his first solo record, Smith temporarily closes the door on his band and takes off down the road with a 10-tune cycle that is at once heartbreaking and hopeful. His deft and literary lyric style works magic with stories of lives broken by misfortune. The album kicks off with the potent and wistful "Dogtown Mines." It's the story of young man who goes looking for gold only to get lost and broken, while the whole time desperately missing his fiancé. And that is just the first verse. From there, Smith throws anchor in an ocean of longing with the chorus:
"With all the heartache and lost souls that pushed me/debts and devils they held me/always looking for the next wind to take me out/Broken towns from the goldrush days/faceless cities all set ablaze/but in the darkest alleyways/is where I keep you pressed up against my heart." The song (and the rest of the album) goes on to detail more defeat and yearning with melodies that hook and reel you in.

Last Drive's hard-luck-story songs are buoyed by arrangements that put to work all the standard alt-country ingredients: acoustic guitars, brushwork drums, a pedal steel and an accordion. Together these instruments work to create a spacious foundation for Smith to build his deliberately paced poetic stories. The album, as a whole, hangs with the best of the genre: Josh Ritter's Golden Age of Radio, Lucinda William's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road and Townes Van Zandt's High, Low, and In Between. It does this by zeroing in on two feelings--longing and hope--and maintaining them for the whole record.

Local Musician Doug Cameron went to high school with Darren Smith. And it has been since then that Cameron says he has been waiting for his friend to release a solo record. Last Drive is such as amazing album, let's hope Smith doesn't wait another decade to release his sophomore effort.
- Ryan Peck
- Darren Smith "Last Drive"


Last Drive opens with ‘Dogtown Mines’, just Darren Smith and a mandolin, then accordion, then drums, then pedal steel before the guitar and bass pull the whole thing together. It is an alternative build than that found on most Americana records and sets the tone for an album which does just that; Takes the industry standard tools of the genre but keeps things fresh with the deftest of touches.

Smith steps up to challenge the likes of Justin Rutledge and Rocky Votolato have recently set and acquits himself admirably. I toyed with a James Taylor comparison but pondered whether that may send out the wrong signals. I have decided to include it with the disclaimer that one must remember just how ‘cool’ and ‘alternative’ Taylor was when Peter Asher first introduced him to a Laurel Canyon scene already waist deep in cocaine and ego. Like Taylor before him, Darren Smith has no fear of standing emotionally naked before his listener with deeply confessional lyrics, the best of which can be found on ‘Goodnight Stars’ and ‘Surrounded’, but in truth litter these ten songs.

Those of us steeped in the music we reluctantly pigeon hole as Americana, or Alt. Country, actively seek artists that either take the music to a new level, or deliver the goods in an accomplished and crafted fashion… with Last Drive, Darren Smith definitely achieves the latter. His well formed songs, excellent recordings and musicianship bring something comforting to an (lets face it) already crowded table, but I think we should find a little room for him.
- Pete Gow
- The sweetest mix, the timeless and the latest…


Of course there are just some bands I've missed out on and I'm just never going to make a connection with. Seattle's roots rockers Straw Dogs is a perfect example. I've heard rumblings but never come across their music. It's too late for me to catch up with Straw Dogs but it's not too late for frontman's Darren Smith's latest solo release Last Drive (Crafty Records, April 6, 2006)

The sound is pure americana with pedal steel, mandolin, accordian and dobro. Darren's voice and the way he structures his songs reminds me of recent stuff from Slaid Cleaves. It's tasteful and every element from the instrumentation to the backing vocals are just perfect. - Songs: Illinois


"Darren continues in the tradition of his eccentric rurality with Last Drive, writing songs that borrow from a long line of Americana and folk artists, yet with a new and beautiful incarnation. This is one of those albums that plays from start to finish without ever the slightest inclination of disinterest or impatience. This is what Nickel Creek might sound like if fronted by David Gray. I dig it!" -Ryan Hoffer - The State of Americana


Darren Smith wraps his songs with creative heartfelt emotional lyrics. Then he weaves in singer/songwriter tested pop-rock envelopes. His vocal delivery is sugary and that combines nicely with Appalachian guitars. The production is solid as is the musicianship; Darren Smith enlists some friends to play drums, bass, mandolin, dobro, pedal steel, and accordion. Great music! - Editor's Pick


Darren Smith removes himself temporarily from the long running Seattle based alt. country group Straw Dogs so that he might explore his own melancholic sense of self through song. Last Drive, which features many current members of the Dogs` rhythm section, is a contemplative effort that incorporates the rural charm of bluegrass and the easy feel of contemporary pop Americana. Smith`s warm, mellow vocal tone sees each song through with "eyes-closed, straight-from-the-heart" sincerity, capped off with a sense of yearning. A sad beauty permeates the 10 song set, the slow waltz of "Ghost" winning best of show in the melancholy category. "Back With The Bottle" choogles along, but sharp detailing of a family`s struggle with a son`s disappointing and heartbreaking return to addiction anchors the song with impending tragedy. But there`s no lack of spirit in Smith`s easy way; his songs are unhurried, but vibrant, allowing a sense of hope to emerge. One hopes the last drive, in Darren Smith`s case, is the one back to a cozy home.
---Robinson - Feature


Discography

2006 - "Last Drive" Darren Smith - Crafty Records

Photos

Feeling a bit camera shy

Bio

Darren Smith has found the hard-to-find, that sweet mix of the timeless and the latest, on his new solo record, Last Drive (Crafty Records). Since releasing his first solo album in early 2006, Smith has been on the road, playing to crowds small and large—including opening for friend and supporter Josh Ritter.

Originally a carpenter by trade, Smith has since swapped his hammer for a guitar and has been making converts of his wistful, story-song style.

"Beautifully crafted folk-country rock songs...like a back-porch group on a flat-bed truck cruising down an empty country road."
- Mojo ****

“...no fear of standing emotionally naked before his listener with deeply confessional lyrics."
- Americana UK

“… a dusty epic—inspired by the story-songs of Gillian Welch, the Louvin Brothers, and Steve Earle.”
– Kurt B. Reighley. The Stranger

“Last Drive is, in my humble opinion, a masterpiece of a first album. Stunning, varied, and wise.”
- Buddy Levy, AmericanaUK

“The album, as a whole, hangs with the best of the genre: Josh Ritter's Golden Age of Radio, Lucinda William's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road and Townes Van Zandt's High, Low, and In Between. It does this by zeroing in on two feelings--longing and hope--and maintaining them for the whole record. “
- Boise Weekly

On each track, Smith's voice and guitar work are up front where they should be, plaintive and yearning, determined to be heard - no, listened to - as he recounts lost adventures, fearful returns, and the relentless pursuit of the truth in love.