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Spotlight on: Smart Kid by The Clumsy Lovers

Cover of Smart Kid by The Clumsy Lovers The Clumsy Lovers, Smart Kid

The Clumsy Lovers were my discovery of the year; they released my favorite album of 2004. After the Flood, with its pop-oriented blend of rock, bluegrass, country, Celtic, and whatever else the band decided to throw into the pot, struck a chord with me and quickly became a staple of my CD player, especially on long road trips. It is not about to wear out its welcome anytime soon. So, when a review copy of the Lovers' latest, Smart Kid -- their second album with the Nettwerk label after five albums of independence -- became available, I jumped at the opportunity to hear it. To see if it would fail to live up to, or possibly improve on, its nearly perfect predecessor. Somehow, it does both.

Again, the bulk of the songs come from bassist Chris Jonat. This is a man who truly has a way with words and music. His lyrics invariably imbue a sense of fun, even to maudlin subject matter, always with an appropriate folk song played during the instrumental break. For an example of Jonat's brilliance, just listen to the opening track, "Bobby Banjo," where a kid carries around the title instrument, eventually learns to play it, and is visited by Martians who clean him up and marry him to Claire Danes. It's a down-home, science-fiction, hometown-boy-makes-good tale all in one, set to a simple rhythm and instantly memorable melody (using "Eighth of January" for spice).

Trevor Rogers' tunes don't quite reach the same heights -- although "People I've Been Meaning to Thank" gives both Rogers and banjo picker Jason Homey a chance to show off their speed chops -- but his everyman's voice could not be more ideal. He seems so familiar with the sentiments and phrasing of Jonat's songs, it's as if he were involved in the writing of them himself (and with "Rockefeller" he was). Also, this time around, two eponymous tunes rear their heads. Neil Dickie's "The Clumsy Lover" (I'm not sure, but I think there's some namesake inspiration to be found here) is used to great effect in "Coming Home." And, after the "Clumsy Love Intro," we are treated to further wordplay with "This is Clumsy Love." After listening, you'll know why this kind is different from the other kinds.

Where several songs on After the Flood were both exceptionally clever and exceptionally catchy, most of Smart Kid leans one way or the other. Also, after several listens, there are already songs I regularly skip -- the closer "Not Long for This World" is a singular buzzkill -- and others that get heavy replay treatment. "Okay Alright" is a particular favorite (Andrea Lewis should come from behind her fiddle more often) as are "Bobby Banjo" and the titular "Smart Kid." And I'm not sure if it's going to be easy to find radio stations that will play something so hard to classify, but "Save for You" sounds like a surefire hit single. A love song with depth, it is one that seems to mean something different, depending on whether you listen to the music or the lyrics.

But the crux of the Clumsy Lovers is really all about the band, and how Jonat's bass, Rogers' guitar, Homey's banjo, Lewis' fiddle, and Gord Robert's drums all blend into a cohesive whole. The improved sound on Smart Kid (most likely due to Nettwerk's picking up the tab and giving producer John Webster access to more expensive studio equipment) highlights this blend, as each song flows better into the next. But while, though some of the songs seem to be missing the dual nature of their predecessors, as an album it may be an improvement. Its glossier texture almost guarantees mainstream success with the right promotion.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2005. Reprinted with permission.

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