REVIEW: Wasperjaws “Nine Good Songs” hits with humor, poignance


Wasperjaws “Nine Good Songs”

“Wish I could sing it pretty but I’d be too proud if I could,” vocalist, singer and songwriter Danny Smith confesses on “How Will This World,” the first track of Wasperjaws’ Nine Good Songs, a 10-song folk, gospel and blues album for lovers of John Prine and the Kentucky Wildcats.

Danny’s modest vocals are backed up brilliantly by his wife Ashley on vocals, Dave “Tips” Marley on percussion, vocals and other instruments, and Everett Conaway on bass. These bandmates have helped Danny put out his best album yet and have assisted in getting the attention of Americana great Scott Avett, who shared the album shortly after its release on October 27.

The shout-out from an Avett brother comes well deserved, as Nine Good Songs runs the gamut of emotions and pays tribute to the struggles we all know. Danny’s wit is ever present and always welcome. This is evident in nearly all the tracks, including “Lucky in Kentucky,” a clever play on Merle Haggard’s “Okie in Muskogee” made for those in Wildcat nation who bleed blue. He captures the culture, and some of the cult heroes from the area, too, such as Gilbert Galbraith, a native of the Commonwealth and friend of Willie Nelson’s who was ahead of his time in the crusade to legalize marijuana. There are many name-drops in this song Kentucky fans will appreciate.

As a University of Kentucky alum and loyal Wildcat fan, I admit I get some extra pleasure from this song, just I get extra heartbreak from the track that follows, “March 28, 1992,” that Danny co-wrote with his brother Paul. This date may not stand out to you, but you know the moment, and you’ll be reminded of it every NCAA tournament. This song brilliantly embodies the emotions of Wildcats fans after the soul-crushing last-second shot by Duke forward Christian Laettner. What makes it extra powerful is how it captures emotions from a child’s perspective. The loss cuts even deeper. Every March Madness us Wildcat fans see the Elite Eight buzzer-beater clip ad nauseam, and that gut-wrenching feeling comes back a little each time. For this Wildcats fan, Wasperjaws’ “March 28, 1992” – which features a haunting bass run by Conaway – will certainly play on my Bluetooth speaker to help ease the pain, serving as an antidote to the inevitable trigger. “Lucky in Kentucky,” for that matter, can serve the same purpose.

Danny Smith and Wasperjaws sing about much more than basketball, though (although there is more NCAA history in the heartbreaking track about the sudden death of Loyola Marymount standout Hank Gathers, which features Marley on trumpet). In “Impostor,” perhaps my favorite track on the album, Smith takes on married life, confessing the struggles of the everyday, and doing so in a relatable and humorous way, similar to Prine in many respects. The song, which is driven by Conaway’s captivating bass line, brings attention to some of the small, fleeting thoughts we have when frustrated in a way that’s self-deprecating but not cynical. That’s a difficult balancing act, but Danny does it very well here. For me, this song is just as cathartic as it is catchy.

Then Wasperjaws bring it back down for “Lottery Dust,” a clever ballad about a dynamic between two people that doesn’t make sense. Danny doesn’t try to explain it here. Once again, he does what he’s best at lyrically: he humanizes and sympathizes, and Marley makes it easier for the listener to get there with his beautiful piano playing and some tasty melodica. 

Wasperjaws switch gears here with “Danny’s Daydream,” a mellow gospel singalong featuring Ashley on gorgeous harmonies, which were written by Marley (same with most harmonies on the album). The band picks it up a little with “For the Good Times,” as Marley switches to an organ and Stella Blue sings along with Danny, a pleasant duet that paints a picture of the best Appalachia has to offer, memories both tainted and strengthened by loss.

Marley cranks up the organ on “Lights,” providing a much-needed pick-me-up after “Hank Gathers.” Marley goes all out here, making it clear why Danny describes him as a “mad genius.” “Lights” is a hopeful plea that once again is elevated by intoxicating harmonies. This is definitely the most joyful track on the album.

“Lights” also perfectly sets up the transition for the closer, “May You Know,” a more reflective tune with Marley back on the piano. Closer to gospel than folk, the song’s chorus – which has Ashley a little louder in the mix – stays with you, echoing throughout the day: “like a bird is in the air/like how roots push into the ground/like a branch is in the vine/like how life doesn’t make a sound.” Sweet and sentimental, Danny and Wasperjaws want you to know you’re not alone, a message Wildcat fans will likely need to hear before March comes to a close.

Highlights: “Lucky in Kentucky,” “Impostor,” “May You Know.”

The album is self-released and available on all streaming services. Those interested in purchasing an album can contact Wasperjaws on its social media platforms. https://wasperjaws.bandcamp.com/album/nine-good-songs-2

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