- Category: Volume 86 (Fall 2014 - Spring 2015)
- Published: 12 November 2014
Montclair, NJ-based artist Zak Smith released his newest album Signs of Life on Oct. 7, 2014. This marks his sixth official release and his first collection of new tracks since 2013's The Precambrian Age.
Smith, the winner of the 2013 Jersey Acoustic Music Awards "Top Male Vocalist" category, delivers a distinct Americana sound in his latest effort that reminds listeners of another prominent NJ artist. Signs of Life features songwriting that takes many cues from Bruce Springsteen's musical catalog. Though both artists feature a sound that appeals to folk, rock, and country lovers, Smith's stripped-down musical approach and humble sincerity in his voice establishes its own unique identity on his album.
This unique musical identity also sets Smith apart from other current NJ artists. His approach looks back to American music icons such as Springsteen and Neil Young, but he shows a modern sensibility in his songwriting that prevents his music from seeming like a rehashing of classic Americana staples. Though his music might not resemble anything other local artists are striving for, Smith's sound can easily fit in with whomever he shares a gig. The versatility evident in his songs allows him to reach a broad range of audiences across multiple genres.
Signs of Life uses a minimal number of instruments on each track, yet still delivers a masterfully crafted sound. Piano, guitar, percussion, and vocals make up the four major musical components distinctively heard on the album, save for harmonica used sparsely throughout. Female backing vocals also accompany Smith's voice on multiple tracks.
Though this minimalist approach proves effective, one component had been left out entirely: drums. No song on the album features the use of an actual drum set. Though the drums could enhance the dynamic on some of the songs, Smith still delivers a collection of strong tracks with musical timekeeping cared for by mixture of percussion instruments such as a tambourine, shakers, and a cajon.
The album opens with the track "Have You Looked Outside." Listeners are instantly introduced to the musical direction the album takes from its first note to its last. Guitar and piano couple together in an intricate network that drives the music over a subtle percussion beat, which lays the foundation for Smith's vocals. Though Smith's voice bears a rugged, raspy resemblance to Springsteen's, Smith has a distinctive raw edge in his voice that sets him apart from any further comparison to "The Boss."
The next two songs take on a sound similar to the opening track, but track four, "The Universe is Bigger," strips things down further. The song treats listeners to somber piano at the forefront, which provides a nice interlude for the album. The following track, "Brand New Party," provides a pleasant contrast and displays a more upbeat sound with the piano and guitar following the percussion tightly with more rawness than any other track before it.
Track seven, "Minstrel Show," sidesteps from the rest of the album dynamic. The piano plays a folky swing melody joined by a harmonica and tambourine. The album then returns to its dynamic present in the previous tracks and closes with "Alamo," a song where Smith's lyrics are joined by female backing vocals over a somber piano and guitar combination that surprisingly manages to end the album with a bright atmosphere.
On a five-point scale, Signs of Life receives four and-a-half points. Though some of the album's tracks could benefit from featuring an actual drum set, the album presents a refreshing Americana sound not heard in many other artists' current releases. Though listeners can draw comparisons between Smith and Springsteen, Smith's music takes on an identity of its own and proves he is a viable contender in the music scene.
Smith will be performing at Zachary's at Route 36 and Oceanport Ave. in West Long Branch, NJ on Nov. 22 at 9 pm. To listen to and learn more about Smith's music, visit facebook.com/zaksmithband. Listeners can also stream and purchase his entire catalog via Smith's personal website at zaksmithband.com and at soundcloud.com/zak-smith-band.
PHOTO TAKEN by Stephan Alessi