By Al Kaufman
At the tender age of 22, Sahara Smith sings like an old soul. If her voice is as beautiful and fragile and butterfly wings, they are also the toughest wings ever a butterfly possessed. They may flutter with the breeze, but they will not tear.
“Thousand Secrets,” which opens the CD, demonstrates such beauty. Her delicate voice gently caresses all the upper registers of the musical scale, with poetic lyrics such as “There is a quiet hunger I have curled myself inside.” Translation: I may sound feeble and meek, but don’t fuck with me. If more examples are needed, one only needs to listen to the following song, “Are You Lonely,” a poppier tune in which Smith abandons her subtle imagery for the more blatant, “Are you lonely/Do you want me.” That, in turn, gives way to “Train Man,” a song with a cool smoothness to it that would not be out of place in a David Lynch movie.
Smith’s vocals are a national treasure, and fall somewhere between the country-tinged Tift Merritt and the ethereal Sarah McLachlan, but she can reach beyond both of them. “The Real Thing” has a sultry soulfulness to it that Jennifer Nettles used to possess before she went country with Sugarland.
But this is not a solo acoustic record. T-Bone Burnett is a fan of Smith. He recruited players such as guitarist extrodinaire Marc Ribot — who has played for everyone from John Zorn and Tom Waits to Rufus Thomas and the Black Keys (Ribot’s recent instrumental release, Silent Movies, is not too shabby either) — as well as drummer Jay Bellerose (Joe Henry, Aimee Mann, Solomon Burke), and lap steel guitarist Greg Leisz, who works primarily with Dave Alvin and Bill Frisell, among countless others. Although Burnett did not actually turn the knobs on this one (he left that to friend Emile Kelman, who has recently engineered music from the likes of Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, and Jakob Dylan), it certainly has that same T-Bone rich, full feel.
This is a gorgeously mature record from a woman who still has so much left to discover. It is enticing to see just how much better she can get.
Sahara Smith plays Eddie’s Attic on January 22.