This month I’m inspired to write about a new collection of songs by an acquaintance of mine. I don’t write about new music very often, but new music that’s this good doesn’t come along very often, either. The new CD is Wide Open Night (available on CDBaby.com), and it captivates me every time I listen to it.
I first met guitarist and songwriter Cyd Smith at Puget Sound Guitar Workshop in 2009 when I took a class from her with the goal of expanding my chord vocabulary (I’m still workin’ on it, Cyd…). She is a fine jazz guitarist and superb musician; her first release in the early 1990s featured Joe Pass and Bob Brozman on guitar and Denney Goodhew on sax, as well as two musicians who perform on Wide Open Night: Nova Devonie and Kim Scanlon. I liked Cyd’s first album, but I’m enjoying this new one a lot.
Because of Cyd’s background I was expecting to hear jazz and swing tunes, but these songs aren’t so easily pigeonholed. I’d call them pop songs, but that doesn’t do them justice; there’s a richness and depth that I haven’t heard in pop songs for a long time. They’re not fluff, but they’re not stuffy art songs, either. They’re filled with gorgeous melodies, spry rhythms and lush harmonies. The uptempo tunes are cheerful, and conjure visions of sunlit frolic and pastoral scenes. They’re just great songs!
The subject matter and lyrics are mostly playful but sometimes deep, and celestial references abound. “Midnight Mystery” is about seeing in the dark – meditating, perhaps? – and “Light Bulb” is a well-lit ode to – the light bulb, of course. “Lament for Humpty” is – well, see what you think. There’s also “About Sex,” a sly, witty and subtly hilarious female perspective on one-dimensional connections that Uncle Bonsai could probably have fun with. And “Not Gonna Call This Love” is a great torch song, with Cyd and bassist Keith Lowe playing some gorgeous chord changes, although it’s a sad lyric.
The first song is “Little Moon,” an infectious tune that celebrates nature and acknowledges lady luck while pondering the wisdom of the man in the moon and whether good times might be ahead. It pulses with spring-like energy and makes me want to dance – a perfect opener. And some of the most delicious sounds on this song and throughout the album are provided by two players whose work I’ve long admired: Nova Devonie on accordion and Ruthie Dornfeld on violin and viola.
It seems to me that Nova can play about a zillion different styles and enhance any ensemble. Her playfulness is evident here, sometimes breathtakingly so, as well as her considerable musical skills. I’m mostly familiar with Ruthie’s playing through her work with Nashville guitarist extraordinaire Russ Barenberg; there is a spark and wit in her style that always draws my attention, and her tone and sense of pitch are impeccable.
When Cyd added Dobro meister Orville Johnson to the mix, she set the stage for some seriously potent sonic adventures. Calling Nova, Ruthie and Orville accomplished musicians is like saying Dom Perignon is just another champagne. They are virtuosos, and the various combinations of accordion, violin and Dobro on these songs dazzle my ear – I find myself grinning at the sheer musicality of it all. Their contributions alone are surely worth the price of admission.
But there’s also the way Cyd’s musical intelligence and awareness shine throughout each of these songs. Although they might sound simple to the casual listener, the chord progressions are musically fascinating. Rhythms are interesting too – check out the way the time signature in “Light Bulb” changes from a duple meter into waltz time and back again. Cyd blends all the ingredients into a well-seasoned stew; her playing is tasteful and her presentation flawless. For example, the way she ends her half of the solo break (after an outstanding clarinet solo by Hans Teuber) in “Midnight Mystery” knocks me out with its inventiveness. The gentle dissonances in the lovely “Applegate Girls” riff are like the perfect apple – a fresh combination of tart and sweet. And her guitar solo in the aforementioned “Not Gonna Call This Love” will make your heart ache.
The musicality of all the players is apparent throughout the album. One of my favorite parts is in “Galileo’s Trio” (by Mark Gostnell, the one tune not written by Cyd). After the chorus, Orville plays a hilariously loopy and harmonically slippery Dobro solo that makes me feel as if I’m watching a slapstick clown traverse a tightrope, hoping he won’t fall. Orville’s solo is followed by Nova’s stunning entrance on accordion that somehow – I know this sounds weird – reminds me of salsa or barbecue sauce dripping uphill in some gravity-defying but strangely logical world. Ruthie’s violin provides a strong conclusion to the solo section, and then all three players make wonderful atmospheric noises with their instruments in the ensuing verse. You can hear in the music how the players are having fun – the musical camaraderie is magical and a delight for the ear.
The vocal harmonies are exquisite throughout. Kim Scanlon and Libby Torrence weave a warm, luscious tapestry in and around the tunes with just the right touches. Their rich harmonies complement Cyd’s lead vocals and help solidify the songs, and sometimes remind me of those great Kate and Anna McGarrigle harmonies from the mid-1970s.
The songs are also well-anchored, built on solid foundations by Keith Lowe on bass and Will Dowd on drums and percussion. Will’s playing is measured but wonderfully funky; despite their complexity, he keeps those songs that he plays on moving forward without creating clutter. I think his rhythmic accents and other flourishes are just right.
Whew. If you know me, you know how I love good songwriting and playing. Well, this is some of the best I’ve heard in a while. My hat’s off to Cyd and everyone involved on the project. Do yourself a favor and buy this album – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Listen to it with someone special. Or buy an extra copy and send it to someone you have a crush on – it might work some magic.