americanaUK – Year Of The Dog album review

“A stark and honest album from a brilliant songwriter” is how americanaUK’s James McCurry described Year Of The Dog, giving it 8 out of 10.

Read on for the full review…

It’s said that those born in the year of the dog are forthright, faithful, spirited, dexterous, smart and warm-hearted.  They’re also stubborn with the right things.  It’s perhaps fitting then that Phil Smith decided that his 3rd release be titled “Year Of The Dog”.  The well-travelled Brisbane based troubadour wrote and recorded the album over a period of 3 ½ years and, given the overall tone of the album, that period threw a lot his way.  It’s clear that it’s been a long haul.

Like the best songwriters in the genre, Smith manages to shape an album of his and others’ troubles, a dash of drink, women, self-reflection and redemption. And like the best albums, “Year Of The Dog” avoids being defined by its mood; relying on the strength of the songs rather than the weight of the subject matter.

Calling Home is an affecting opener, with additional guitar and faint pedal steel offering some classic country licks and emotive atmospherics as Smith sings “rivers in the darkness we must cross, or remain forever lost. I promise to return dear, but I must go. Calling home. I’m calling home”. It is a song that recalls the best heart-breaking work of Ryan Adams.  In fact, the best tracks on the album evoke Adams, Townes Van Zandt and Kris Kristofferson.

There are nods to a number of his influences, such as Avenue Girl with echoes of Nick Drake or Neil Young, while Homeward Bound is an effective Ryan Adams and Bob Dylan fusion.  Memories is one of the best songs you’ll hear this year – sounding like Van Zandt channelled through Whiskeytown.  Like the rest of the album, the weight of the words resonate and Smith’s phrasing is perfect in sending the message home.  El Corazon, where the intricate picking is accompanied by some subtle piano, sounds like something Richard Buckner or Calexico may have produced.

The Ballad of Joseph Henry is possibly the stand-out.  A remarkable song which also happens to be the first of a tremendous 3 song cycle that brings the album to a close. It’s followed by The Train, which a is an effective Whiskeytown and Cardinals- era Ryan Adams fusion and Sometimes You Laugh; a song about the hazards of bottle that would not be out of place of Springsteen’s Nebraska or Damien Jurado’s Where Shall You Take Me?

Between his troubles and those of the people he has met on his journey, Smith has crafted a very special album.  Stark and honest, but special.

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