Saturday, February 3, 2018

album review: 'starfire' by caitlyn smith

So this was a record I didn't plan on covering, at all. And I can imagine for those of you in the know going in before this album came out, a lot of my assumptions might seem justified... but that's just it, they were assumptions, and from the critical buzz, they might have been the wrong ones.

So okay, background: odds are you don't know who Caitlyn Smith is unless you've been reading through the liner notes of very specific records. If you knew her at all outside of country it was for 'Like I'm Gonna Lose You', that big duet hit between John Legend and Meghan Trainor that came out a few years back, but what caught my eye was writing credits on 'Wild Boy' for Danielle Bradbery, and while her career may have gone off the rails in spectacular fashion, 'Wild Boy' was a really good song, and apparently Caitlyn Smith was a powerhouse vocalist on her EPs...

And then she signed to Monument Records. If you recognize the imprint at all it's probably for a ton of music that dropped in the 60s and 70s, but after some mismanagement the imprint was solid and then rebuilt as a short-lived country label in the late 90s-early 2000s. Most recently it's been revived by mainstream country megaproducer Shane McAnally, and while I've said a lot of good things about him in the past, inflicting Sam Hunt upon us in recent years killed a lot of good will and signing Walker Hayes as the first artist to Monument killed the rest. So while I knew Starfire was never going to be as bad as boom was for Hayes, I had no reason to believe McAnally was going to push Caitlyn Smith in a good direction... and yet apparently all the critics are going crazy over this, so there must be something I'm missing here. So I decided I'd check out Starfire - was this country debut I've been waiting for in 2018?

Well, yes and no, but that's more because Caitlyn Smith's Starfire is a little tougher to contextualize than you'd expect for the average mainstream pop country country debut. Part of me is a little amazed this got a full, major-label debut budget, because while there are moments where this could slip in next to Carrie Underwood or Miranda Lambert, more of it feels like it'd fit in the tier of mainstream-adjacent, lyric-driven country acts who really should be dominant and yet are a shade too smart to get there - think closer to Cam or Eric Paslay or Brandy Clark. And yet even with that, this is one of the more fully realized pop country debuts I've heard in some time, and a pretty damn great one to boot. 

And a huge part of that is the sound and production - and while it's easy to praise this record for what it isn't than what it is, I can't deny that there's something incredibly refreshing hearing this brand of pop country without drum machines or garish synths or blatant autotune or anything beyond the thick, organic, groove-driven warmth that cultivates intimacy without feeling claustrophobic, with a lot of potent tone without overwhelming the audience. Now if you're going in expecting this to hew closer to the roughscrabble, more burnished tones of indie country, you're not really going to get that: with the infusion of rich, tasteful strings and pianos on songs like 'East Side Restaurant', it almost plays more to the old-fashioned pop tropes of the 50s, or at least is trying to cultivate that classy vintage veneer. And I actually don't mind this at all - 'East Side Restaurant' is absolutely gorgeous as a song and there really isn't anybody in mainstream country or even pop that's playing for what Caitlyn Smith is going for, especially when you consider how other tracks are very much grounded in a more indie-country-leaning direction. Look at the bare atmospherics of 'Don't Give Up On My Love' that remind me of Brandy Clark, or how more detail-focused and acoustic tracks like 'This Town Is Killing Me' and 'St. Paul' and 'Scenes From a Corner Booth At Closing Time on a Tuesday' and 'Cheap Date' - hell, a lot of this wouldn't be far removed from the adult alternative scene twenty years ago, albeit with some of the edges sanded back. Now I will say when this record pivots towards slightly more 'modern' or upbeat tunes it can stumble a bit - I like the jagged guitar work on the title track and the waltz cadence on 'Before You Called Me Baby' or the loose stab at country funk on 'Contact High', especially when they use more minor tones, but they're also songs you could give to Kelsea Ballerini and they don't have the same colour - and on the flip side, when you have songs like 'Tacoma' and 'House Of Cards', they play for power ballad territory that might as well have been pulled straight from the mid-90s, and it's not always the most flattering territory for Smith - more on this in a bit.

But when you dig into the content I really love the balance that Smith brings to the table between vintage power balladeer and singer-songwriter, and while I personally prefer the latter style for her, she's plenty capable of nailing both convincingly, especially when she leans into the details. Let's face it, 'East Side Restaurant' and 'House Of Cards' and 'Do You Think About Me' and the Garth Brooks cover 'Tacoma' are not exactly complex in the breakup situation, but it's the little details that knock them into stronger territory, like how the feeling her prayers aren't being answered or the lonely meal she's eating alone in East Nashville - for songs that go big or broad, those details help the songs stand out. And when she leans all the way into that, we get great pictures put to words: the reminiscences of her home in Minnesota on 'St. Paul', or watching the character interactions on 'Scenes From A Corner Booth At Closing Time On A Tuesday', or the cute little hookup on 'Cheap Date' - the lived-in details are what stands out, and make these stories and pictures so much more interesting than the regurgitated checklists from bro-country that I've heard hundreds of times before. And while I'll admit I've got a personal weakness for these sorts of songs, 'This Town Is Killing Me' is the follow-up to Charles Kelley's 'Leaving Nashville' I've been waiting for - just as honest about the life of a songwriter and independent musician in Music City, and showing how despite how much she wants to leave, she never will. On the flip side, there are songs that feel a little more conventional that just don't grab my attention in the same way: 'Contact High' and the title track and even 'Don't Give Up On My Love' are fine tracks, but they don't stand out in the same way.

And this takes us to my biggest issue with this record: Caitlyn Smith herself, specifically her voice. Now she is a powerhouse singer - she's got huge pipes, real charisma and emotive presence, she can play for subtlety when she wants to - but I'm reminded a little of Jewel in the mid-90s, how there are points that feel a little oversung and overdone, and while the right production behind her helps, it doesn't get all the way there for me, especially in comparison with someone like Lindi Ortega, who sounds very similar and has slightly more refined poise. The larger issue comes in enunciation and tone, because while I get she's supposed to sound a little slippery and unstable on 'Contact High', the huskiness in her voice across this album can get distracting and doesn't always help the details in her writing get the right emphasis. I'm not sure if it's an issue of just being a bit pitchy or a tone that's more fit for campfire songs than power ballads - although she certainly has that raw power to go big - but if you're going to draw inspiration from huge 90s power ballads with singers who also had huge voices, it's more noticeable when it doesn't work, at least for me.

At the same time, this is her debut album, I see those rougher patches getting figured out with future releases... and I hope they do, because Starfire is really damn great. And I see this finding an audience and lane too: in mainstream, pop-leaning country, Caitlyn Smith strikes a great balance between old-school class and a more refined focus on songwriter detail that makes her material both memorable and potent. It will probably play best to an older audience, it's a little too world-weary and refined, but to me that's a huge part of its appeal, which is why it's getting a light 8/10 and definitely a recommendation. Folks, I damn near slept on this, and with every listen, I'm kicking myself for it - definitely take the time and check this out!

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