better if sung

All This and That (Itsa Keeper)
Al Smith

By Michael Campbell

Ever listened to a recording knowing something's missing, struggling to identify what that is? I'm chagrined to admit that this is the case for Al Smith's All This and That.

With Louisville's own Pharaoh of Phunk Steve Ferguson's name emblazoned across the front, expectations are set to significant altitude (he plays on only two songs), and a lowdown groove is set forth by drummer Ammed Solomon on the opener "Eloise." Add a pinch of Memphis-sounding horns, some annoying scat lines by the talented Julie Adams (of Mountain Stage fame), and finally that chicken chokin' furious Ferguson Telecaster riffing, and you've got a wonderful premise left unfulfilled by Smith's lead vocal. He doesn't really sing. He talks. I don't mean rap, he speaks with the same phrasing that the melody would occupy. Unfortunately, for the bulk of this recording, this is the missing ingredient.

Al's arrangements are pretty decent throughout. His use of violin on the reggae-tinged "It's Not Love" seems unlikely, but works very well. Other musical styles are presented with style and sophistication, such as the folk setting of "Close To Heaven," in which the singer rediscovers home after factory life in the big city. This song benefits from being sung, not spoken, by Dave McCormick--and to a thoughtful melody at that. The instrumental "Nia" lays down a Van Morrison "Domino" mood, interspersed with sincere R&B instrumental chops.

The other distraction on this effort is the inconsistency in the quality of the lyrics. The aforementioned "Close to Heaven" poignantly observes: "Mountain so high/Ain't it odd/So close to heaven/But so far from God." From this simple eloquence, the lyrics rapidly sink: "Bully Boy" disses a wide variety of males from wife beaters, leaders of China, the protagonists of Waco, to Richard Nixon (!?), while "Your Sunshine" sneers "You know all the groovy people," employing a tired AABB rhyme scheme. This is social commentary to prepare us for the '70s.

Al has some real gifts as an arranger and bassist, and is given the benefit of the doubt as a composer, but needs some serious collaborative help with vocals and lyrics. Songs are for singing.