Owls by Danny Schmidt

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This is a new name for me and it’s surprising that someone this good hasn’t come to my attention before. Danny is from Austin, Texas and he’s been recording now for just over 15 years and “Owls” is his ninth album and for me, it’s a real find. Sing Out magazine described Danny as “a force of nature: a blue moon, a hundred-year flood, an avalanche of a singer-songwriter. His songs are a flood of poetry, mythology, folk wisdom, and surprise. He is perhaps the best new songwriter we’ve heard in the last 15 years.” High praise indeed but for once I feel that the hyperbole is completely justified. Schmidt’s template for song writing has been the greats – Neil Young, Dylan, Leonard Cohen with dashes of some of those classic, but less well known, writers like John Prine and Townes Van Zandt.

The overall sound of the record is acoustic Americana but Danny’s voice is sand blasted and has the sound of the wide open spaces of American desert baked into it. The songs are heartfelt and melodic telling stories of hardship, death, storms and mortality. “Bad Year for Cane” is a stupendous song telling a contemporary distraught tale of drought, struggle and loss in the farming community:

“The ground grew grey and dead in August
The bed lay barren, just crying for rain
It’s been a bad year for the sweet pea harvest
It’s been a bad year for the sugar cane”

The sound is stripped down with just a spare guitar, splintered drums and bass but that’s all that’s required to paint these wonderful word pictures. There’s no doubt that Schmidt has a fine voice and a great ear for melody coupled with a sharp pen too. “Cries of Shadows” is a wonderfully evocative song about ageing and an acceptance that the different stages of our lives should be welcomed and accepted not feared and worried over. The final verse finishes at the close of a life describing it in wonderfully poetic terms:

“And I’ve always dreamed of nighttime and always wondered what’s the means
That clicks the gears of time each day, and what fills the time between
When you’ve made your bed of clay and when the sun’s beneath the floor
What brings around a newborn day and the cries of shadows born?”

Cries Of Shadows (Live) by Danny Schmidt

Schmidt doesn’t shy away from the tough subjects either and so we get “Guns and the Crazy Ones” that points fingers at the insanity of the American gun culture and highlights the almost casual horror of the results:

Seems to me it’s just as plain as please
It’s plastered the news
Cause every day there’s a new display
Of cannons come loose

Once was tough, two’s a called bluff, three’s enough’s enough
Four was cruel, five’s a dead school, six is like they’re gunning for you

So blame the guns or blame the crazy ones
It’s almost the same
Cause in the home of the free and brave
These tools are insane

All the eleven songs here touch the high standards of his influences and we have an album here of finely crafted, evocative songs that beg you to sit down and just listen to them. It’s a shame that this kind of song writer remains somewhat under the radar for most but I’ll certainly be checking out his back catalogue and you should do the same. This is a fine melodic, hard hitting album that has a straight forward simple tone that enhances the quality of the songs whilst the excellent musicians bring real warmth and depth to the whole thing. The album is out on 19th May and he’s on tour in September with the nearest show for the North East at Saltaire on 27 September – well worth a trip.

Reviewer: Greg Johnson

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