Danny Schmidt is one hell of a songwriter. Sure, he has a good voice and plays a mean guitar too, but few write like he does. The very first song I ever heard by him, “Leaves Are Burning,” knocked my socks off. I've pretty much been sockless since, at least when he releases an album.
He does it with his fingerpicking. With the slight warble in his voice when he emotes. With his varying attitudes. Mostly, though, he does it with his songs.
You see, Danny Schmidt is a lyric machine. He tells stories. He creates magic -- good and bad. He goes places I did not know existed. He is a pied piper. We follow, those of us who get him, and we wonder why so many don't. If it was drugs, he would be our dealer.
After hearing “Leaves Are Burning,” I swear I heard a voice saying, way in the background, “Here, kid, the first one's free.” If I did hear it, I didn't want to. All I cared about was the song and the story. “Spill my lungs of dirt and fury,” he sings, “Cause dirt and fury have filled my lungs/Kick my feet and spit my story Of rage and glory, come clear my lungs.” Them's lyrics, Skeezix. I wish I had written them, but my lyrics are mere stick figures to the full characters he paints.
He bookends the feel of that song in Owls, the latest in a string of albums which seem to be getting better with each release. Only instead of spilling lungs, this time he spills guts. “Bad Year For Cane” tells not of a love gone bad but a whole life.
It was a storm last spring that sealed his troubles
When Eva left him in an unmade field
Now he carries that weight, but he drags his shovel
Just waits for the ugly wounds to heal
It'll all grow back again
We've all been led by a promise that the heart can mend
Cause that April day he'd fought the combine
Caught by the arm and the combine won
Now who's to dance with a one-armed farmer
Who's to bandage a one-armed farm
The album is not all that dire, thank the gods, but it shows the depth Danny can reach. Put some intense fingerpicking beneath those lyrics, a voice strained and tense, and some serious string-bending and you have the dark side of Danny Schmidt. There is a lighter side in songs like “Guns & The Crazy Ones” which splits the difference between The Band and Country & Western in sound, and “Soon the Earth Shall Swallow” with its rock and roll base and a chorus in which Danny and Carrie Elkin sound almost like a country fiddle (allowing Carrie to carry that final note to fruition is genius--- funny how something that simple can make a real difference). He goes Country Rock on songs like “Faith Will Always Rise” and “Looks Like God,” both prime examples of how a band can take a good song over the top. He returns to his roots (you did know that Danny made his name in Folk, right?) on “Paper Cranes,” “Cry On the Flowers,” and “Cries of Shadows” and saves his classic song for a capper. Listen closely to “Wings of No Restraint” and you will hear Danny at his rocking best. Danny and band.
Let's talk about the band for a moment. Lloyd Maines sits in and does his usual excellent work on steel guitar, Carrie's background vocals are better than ever, but I have barely heard of the others--- Mike Meadows- drums, Andrew Pressman-bass, David Goodrich-guitar and piano, Keith Gary-piano, and Daniel Thomas Phipps and Ali Holder on harmony vocals. What I mean to say is that I should have heard of them and should be hearing more of them. I want to. And in that combination.
Danny has every right to be proud of this album and I think he is. Years ago when I was asking him about Little Grey Sheep, he kept pointing to an earlier album -- Parables and Primes. Study it, he told me and then linked me to a page he had set up for the stories behind the songs (click here). He has done the same with Owls (click here). Read both. You might learn something.
Another thing. Danny is simultaneously releasing what he is calling Owls--- Solo Acoustic Demos--- a collection of rough tracks from what became the studio album. It doesn't mean the sound is rough, just that the songs are in a minimal state. For me, listening to the demo album is as good as listening to the completed album. It's kind of like fan club stuff. I dig it.
Here is the link to the Bandcamp pages (click here). If you've heard him, you will know what is there. If you haven't, listen. Closely. He ain't your grandfather's folkie.