REVIEW: John Smith “The Fray” is Stubborn Optimism


John Smith – The Fray

For those who thoroughly enjoy the warm lived-in vocals of the late John Martyn or Marc Cohn, this collection will be satisfying. British folksinger John Smith’s 6th LP co-produced with Sam Lakeman at Peter Gabriel’s Real-World Studio is a delight. All the guest musicians were recorded remotely.

Smith’s stubborn optimism shines through each individual tune. There’s hope, forgiving transgressions, reckonings. Judging from the varied CDs I’ve reviewed recently there are lots of musicians second-guessing, forgiving, & sad reflections going on in their minds. Not a bad thought for songs in general but let’s hope it won’t be a habit.

Smith’s honey on gravel voice as it’s been described & exquisite guitar dominate these 12 cuts found on The Fray (Commoner Records/Thirty Tigers-Drops March 26). Cut 2 really grips like a Marc Cohn song & the CD spills out the excellent “Hold On.” Many who know my writing know how I feel about such titles (“Hold On” has been used a million times). But, in this case, the words find their balance, Smith utilizes them creatively & Jessica Staveley-Taylor vocals (toward the finale – is stirring). 


“Deserving” digs into a late John Martyn groove & it’s a pleasure with its sublime approach yet powerful melodic touches just above the surface. Smith is obviously well-schooled in this British style folk & his expertise is highly polished without losing an ounce of reality to production techniques. He would’ve been a good singer/guitarist with the late Mr. Martyn.

“The Best of Me,” is also of interest with flowing jazz guitar notes by Bill Frisell & world music touches. But once Smith begins to vocalize it’s wholly a wonderfully lyrical shading. Clever rhymes, pacing almost like a lullaby with gentle vocal support by Courtney Hartman.

Smith (acoustic/electric guitars/lap steel) is joined by Ben Nicholls (electric/double bass), Jason Rebello (piano), Jay Sikora (drums/percussion), Emma Gattrill (clarinet/bass clarinet), Sam Lakeman (percussion), Sarah Jarosz (vocals on “Deserving” & “Eye to Eye”), The Milk Carton Kids (vocals “The Fray”), Kenneth Pattengale (guitar on “Star-Crossed Lovers”), Lisa Hannigan (vocals “Just as You Are,” “Star-Crossed Lovers” & “The Fray”), & Jessica Staveley-Taylor (vocals also on “Just as You Are” & “To The Shore”).

Some songs are drenched in slow meditations of feeling more than just instrumentation & showboating vocals. Feeling? They certainly succeed especially on “Star-Crossed Lovers.”

The style of the late John Stewart is resurrected on the expressive “To the Shore,” one of the best cuts on the LP. Not just as a song but how well it was recorded & captured. “Eye to Eye,” as well as assured ensemble playing – the musicianship is nourished. Smith’s vocals with Sarah Jarosz are stylistically rollicking. This is a good team. Actually, all the female vocalists accompanying Smith provide vocal finesse.

The CD is delightfully fluid & subtle. Excellent consistent songwriting. All 12-cuts have depth without any weight. The 48-minute CD is available at

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