For a couple of decades, Darden Smith has made his mark on the fertile musical landscape of Austin. He's put out ten records, and has even ventured into dance theatre and teaching music to children. As great as he is, that's a relatively small pond for how many big fish one might find.
Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen or even Tom Russell are some of the bigger fish on the world stage, for various reasons and in various ways. That said, they have nothing on Darden Smith artistically, musically. But his name may come up more in the same breath as veterans Eric Taylor or any of The Flatlanders, or younger guns like Guy Forsyth. His music is subtle, it's softer; these are not qualities that necessarily propel Texas songwriters, though in our eyes and ears, they do.
Darden Smith's Field Of Crows, a beautiful work of hope for a troubled world, is not likely to radically change any of this. Smith is certainly not a brash polemicist in the mould of a Steve Earle or a Rodney Crowell, but his articulate observations are nevertheless equally compelling and no less convincing.
Field Of Crows has an almost live feel, and Smith's nylon-string and subtle keyboard work set the tone. Steuart Smith is impeccable throughout. Well known for his studio work with Vince Gill, Roseanne Cash, and Crowell, and his somewhat controversial replacement of Don Felder in the Eagles roadshow, here he contributes understated lead electric and acoustic guitar, keyboards, percussion, and harmonica. The core band is rounded out by drummer Sammy Merindino (Cyndi Lauper, Anita Baker, Joan Osborne) and bassist Roscoe Beck (Robben Ford, Eric Johnson). The quietly ubiquitous David Mansfield lays down some fine string arrangements and atmospheric pedal steel.
The record lifts off with the smooth "Talk Me Down," which sets up the theme of the album. The loping melody contrasts starkly with the singer's search for stability. "Golden Age" is a groove perhaps reminiscent of Buddy Miller's charming "When It Comes To You." Sweetened by backing vocals from Austin's favored daughter Eliza Gilkyson, the dark foreboding of the lyric is belied.
Gotta have love, gotta have peace
The title track again juxtaposes the gently shuffling rhythm and the image of the stoic scarecrow, resolute in the face of the unrelenting attention of his antagonists. "Spinning Wheel" is a Memphis style bluesy workout where Smith wonders aloud about the "someone else I could have been, had I done it differently." He contemplates the universal need for grounding love, without which he "can't keep it real," he'd "be a spinning wheel."
"Satisfied" is tender, gently nostalgic reflection, punctuated by delicate twin acoustics, leading into the jazzy, funky celebration of "It Takes Two". The high point of the album is the stately, gospel-like "Fight for Love." Here above all, the blend of Darden and Eliza hits inspirational heights.
Field Of Crows is, to our ears, a standout record, profiling what's cool about Austin's music scene. Refined, down to earth, substantial. Satisfying. Superior. Pick it up.