Two Durham, Maine-based singer-songwriters will be celebrating the release of their new albums with a show at the St. Lawrence Arts Center on Saturday night.
Putnam Smith’s fifth solo album is called “99 Desires,” and Ashley Storrow’s is “The Bear and the Bird.”
They’ll sing backing vocals for each other, and both will be joined by cellist April Reed-Cox and upright bass player Nate Martin. Both Smith and Storrow are thoughtful songwriters and listening to their records was time well spent as they both are superb wordsmiths.
I’ll start with Smith and some of the back-story for “99 Desires” that he shares in the CD’s liner notes. Last fall, Smith holed up in his cabin with a vintage Tascam 388 reel-to-reel recording setup, a few mics, a spinet Cable-Nelson piano, his grandfather’s 1925 Martin guitar, a fret-less banjo and a borrowed accordion. Then he went to work and recorded the 13 songs that are on “99 Desires.”
Smith spent seven years on the road playing shows around the country and took what he calls a musical “sabbatical.” During this time, he penned a bunch of songs and realized that this collection of tunes felt different from his previous records in that they were intimate and vulnerable and didn’t need brass, strings and multi-layered arrangements like some of his previous work.
“I wanted to make a record that let the songs speak for themselves; a record that didn’t hide behind elaborate instrumentation or fancy production,” wrote Smith.
It was important to him that the recording process matched up with the character of the songs. Enlisting only the help of Storrow for some harmony vocals, Smith played all the instruments you’ll hear on “99 Desires.”
Smith said he was hoping to make an album that was spare and haunting. Well, Mr. Smith, you’ve done just that. “99 Desires” begins with “It’s the Year I Disappoint My Friends,” a song about putting yourself first ––for once. And not in a mean-spirited way, but because of finding true love and wanting to wrap your arms around that tightly and fearlessly.
“Now I hardly even turn my phone on, I’m fallen in love so deep. And I know you might not forgive me for treating our friendship so low and I know it might seem heartless, but I’ve been without love so long,” Smith sings in such a way that anyone who doesn’t give him a free pass for letting friendship maintenance slack a bit needs to get a clue. In less than two and a half minutes, Smith gets the message across with eloquence.
“All in Good Time” is a bittersweet love song that holds out hope. “If you’d go dancing with me, I’d be the happiest man alive. Here’s hoping it will happen, all in good time,” sings Smith with an infusion of Storrow’s sweet vocals. You’ll hear that old piano on the album’s title track while Smith sings about wringing as much out of life as he can. “I thought I wanted just one thing for this little life of mine. Well turns out I’ve got 99 desires.” The rest of the album continues along this gentle, mellifluous path with songs about love, life and living, such as “Cape of Good Hope” and “Come for the Flowers.” But Smith will also have you tapping your toes and snapping your fingers with “Gotta Go Where the Love Is.”
Storrow’s “The Bear and The Bird” has Storrow on vocals and guitar, Reed-Cox on cello, Lilly Pearlman on violin, Smith on guitar and back-up vocals, Jud Caswell on 12-string guitar, Charlie Lester on drums, Fogcutter Emma Stanley on trumpet and Nate Martin on bass. I name all of these players because they all make significant contributions to an absolutely gorgeous record.
Strings are the first sound heard on the opening track, “Hold On.” Storrow sings about instilling the strength to hold on even after losing someone you love or facing other seemingly insurmountable challenges. The cello, violin and acoustic guitar merge with Storrow’s resplendent vocals making for a song you want to listen to a couple of times before moving onto the next track. But when you do move on, the reward is immediate with “Wild Wind.”
“Wild wind, where do you go? Will you carry my song to the mountain?” asks Storrow in the song that mentions pine trees, bees, cicadas, morning clouds and bluebirds. On the whole, “The Bear and the Bird” is full of tender, poetic songs that will provoke thought, optimistic smiles and even a misty eye. Storrow chose her musicians wisely and they accentuate and adorn the songs perfectly.
Smith and Storrow will both be selling copies of their CDs at this show so do yourself a favor and tuck a little dough in your pocket so you can leave with one or both of them.
Here’s a preview!
7:30 p.m. Saturday. St. Lawrence Arts Center, 76 Congress St., Portland, $12 in advance, $15 at the door. stlawrencearts.org