Until very recently I had believed that Hemlock Smith was an alias of the Swiss songwriter and singer Michael Frei, but now I learned that it is actually a band or rather a project with different musicians. Either way, the man behind it is Michael Frei and everything else might just be a question of how one wants to look at it.
I don´t know Hemlock Smith´s other albums but I know Frei´s intelligent lyrics from Oscar Louise´s beautiful album “Empty House”. Here the man himself is singing and the first thing I notice is that unfortunately I don´t like his voice all that much. However, I am positively surprised by the stories told and they keep me listening to the album. The lyrics are by no means average quality, but snapshots of life and narratives with intelligent wording and sometimes astonishing twists. The music that goes with it is varied in the best sense of the word. No song sounds like the other and it never gets boring. There is bluesy music to be heard on one song and strings on another, one song sounds like Tom Waits, another more like Johnny Cash. Not all of the music works for me but the arrangements always fit the song perfectly. “The Noisemaker”, a song about Charles Lindbergh, but also about fear of technological advance, deserves a special mention here. It starts out quietly but gets louder all the time just like industrialization made the world noisier. In the end it dissolves into noise.
The album was recorded in a living room in just four days. The songs were supposed to be captured without much rehearsal, as close to „live“ as possible. To achieve the sound he wanted, Frei invited different musicians: the string quartet Barbouze de chez Fior, 17f, The Houseguest and Les Poissons Autistes. The lyrics are as different as the music. There is the absurd “Story of Cpt Death”, where the devil keeps said captain from doing harm by giving him a TV, the French “Je n´ai Paris” or “Invisible Man” that Frei wrote about his father. For the lyrics alone this album is worth listening to and anyone who likes intelligent songwriting will find something here. The music is hard to put into one genre because it mixes many styles but it is, for sure, more suitable for people who like to listen rather than rock out. A good album for stormy autumn nights.