RAVE: James Coberly Smith & LeAnne Town’s “Living Room Songs”
James Coberly Smith with LeAnne Town
Living Room Songs
By PAUL ZOLLO
Joy. It’s the first thing I hear when I listen to these songs. A whole lotta joy. It’s there in the writing of the songs, the beauty of the tunes, the play of the words, the sparkle of guitars, the heady blend of these harmonies. It’s the sound of people making music together for the sheer joy of making music.
Well, it’s the way he’s always done it. It’s the reason he’s been beloved for so long. For the purity of heart and soul he’s instilled in his music over decades, as part of famous duos and solo. He’s a man of much musical grace and charm, who has reminded the rest of us for years just how joyful this thing called music can be.
Now he’s back with a brand new collection of classic, joyful songs. Songs which reflect an ingenious spirit, entwining lyrical textures of modern times with tunes evoking ghosts of blues, ragtime, R&B and folk, tinged with the lush tunefulness of jazz standards. Songs of mystery and romance, laughter and love, rendered in a living room.
He’s also got a new partner in song, the great LeAnne Town. A gifted and versatile vocalist, she sings like an angel, and like James, seems at home with every style of music under the sun. They harmonize with an exultant nearness that sounds like siblings singing, like they’ve been singing together their whole lives. There’s something infectious in the sound of their voices merged, something undeniable. It’s brand new and yet warmly familiar.
First the walls go up, they sing in the first song. And then the walls come down. And it’s at that point that we begin : where the walls we humans build come down, and we get a brand new look. A brand new look at each other, and at ourselves. It’s there that this journey of the soul starts.
It’s a journey through human time, which is forever limited, seasoning each song with fragility. “I’ve got a fragile sense of something coming,” he sings in “Rental Car,” reminding us that we don’t own these vehicles, we just get to use them for as long as they last. At the timely intersection of folk and funk is “Hands Up,” an exploration of the incessant modern distractions that rob us of time and dignity, landing on the mantra which underscores all of these songs, both a celebration and recognition: “Life is a grand and fragile thing.”
This is an epic opus, but a friendly one, shaped to human scale. Living room music. No digital trickery here, nothing that can’t be done in the real world. Produced with delicate purity, it’s about music that can be made at home. It’s close-up magic, when you stand only inches from the magician, and watch magic unfold before your eyes. It’s the essential stuff only, beautiful haikus of sound, where every nuance shines, every harmony line, every aching guitar note. “Maybe it won’t be enough for everyone,” he said, “but it’s enough for me.”
Okay, truth be told that when Mr. Smith left Los Angeles to relocate with his beloved wife Irene to Boise, wherever that is, many of here in the City of Angels mourned. He was, after all, one of the most beloved figures on the acoustic music scene here, both as a remarkable solo performer and as part of a beloved duo, for 20 years, with the legendary Severin Browne. Their shows were legend here in this town of legends, forever ripe with fun and soul. But his Idaho has been evidently inspirational; he’s written some of the best songs of his life, and found a new partner in song, both of which have led to this new spirit sound that’s as rapturously right as rain.
Asked about the roots of this project, he wrote back: “Give me a good song, an acoustic guitar, great harmony singing and a nice guitar chair in a comfortable Living Room. That’s all I need.” Of course, that equation rests squarely on “a good song.” Without which, none of this would matter. But the man has a gift. A gift for writing sturdy songs. “A song shouldn’t fall apart like a cheap watch on the street,” said Van Dyke Parks, and it’s true. Songs need to be built to last, solid as gems, like little jewels. Luminous, priceless prizes these are, crystalline and compact, reflecting facets of light in wondrous ways. They’re the kind of songs people often moan nobody writes anymore. Well, he still does.
Countless delightful musical and lyrical moments abound. Sometimes he writes songs like “Daisy,” that seem sprung directly out of a romantic springtime circa 1926, all rosy ragtime rhythm and spry romantics, including naked cartwheels and a slide trombone. “I Can’t Stop Loving You” resounds like a modern standard, a song Elvis would have sung the hell out of, poignantly punctuated with acoustic slide guitar. “Seven Songs” is all aching melodicism, haunted like an ancient sea shanty discovered in a shipwreck bottle, a chilling dream of distant, oceanic mystery. “Argentina” is an exquisite anthem of yearning, set long ago in a dusty western town, connected by stagecoach and dreams. Savoring the greatness of every day, every moment, is “Savor The Day,” while the hectic blur of modern times is sweetly projected in “A Little Busy,” in which our hero lists all the reasons there’s no time to do much but make lists.
It brings to mind the old understanding that “limitations create possibilities.” Give a poet just a few lines, and timeless haiku can emerge. Give James two voices and a guitar, and a universe of possibilities emerge. Always a genius with vocal and guitar arrangement, he’s got a knack for devising the indispensable part, the part that holds the thing together. He’s a man content, not unlike Buddha, with the essentials.
“Life is a grand and fragile thing,” they sing with a great acoustic R&B groove on “Hands Up.” The same can be said of a song – grand in its ability to inspire and to defy time, yet so essentially delicate, composed of ethereal, intangible elements, language and melody. That fragility is at the heart of this song cycle. This is music for humans. It’s all about the human heart, and its endless capacity for love and empathy.
These are times of much dissonance and disorder, chaos and confusion, with ceaseless stories of humans clashing every day. Sometimes the news gets so dire there seems no room for hope. But then we hear this – the sound of James and LeAnne joining their two voices in perfect harmony, locked in luminous song. And it doesn’t get any better. This whole world could fall apart but when you have something like this to hold onto, there remains room for hope. It’s all you need.