Getting the band back together after a lengthy hiatus (in Smalltown Poets' case, 14 years between full-length, non-seasonal albums) is a dicey proposition many times. Most bands' finest works were born out of the momentum of the road and youthful energy, and the time in between can often blunt that songwriting edge.
Thankfully, in the case of Smalltown Poets' new album, Say Hello, the band (which includes all five original members) mostly succeeds in capturing the old fire of their 90's output. In fact, listening to Say Hello is a bit like taking a trip in the way-back machine, to a time when flannel was still the choice outfit of rockers and gritty pop rock was the order of the day.
The title track opens with lead singer Michael Johnston's distinctive tenor voice over a minor-key piano line, before the full band opens with a flourish that brings to mind groups such as the Wallflowers and The Gin Blossoms (two bands that serve both as contemporaries and band influences to this day). With a terrific mix of swirling Wurlitzer organ, piano and electric guitars, "Say Hello" is a great opener that drops several poetry references (among them, Alfred Lord Tennyson's famous "Charge Of The Light Brigade") and reintroduces the band well.
The following "Song Of Hallelujah" finds the Poets entering the worship music game with a heartfelt song of praise that melds a vertical subject with their trademark sound. This song is a particular treat in that it sounds just like the band's classic work, yet stretches them in new ways. To hear an original worship song with an honest sound in today's worship music climate is a rare thing, and ought to be celebrated.
First single "In The Middle Of A First Love" shimmers and chimes like something from vintage 60's era folk rock band The Byrds, and has great harmony vocals and a kind of audio crispness that will bring a smile to the face of longtime fans. "Let Me Love You" hearkens back to "If You'll Let Me Love You" from the self-titled debut album (still the Poets best work"), but slows down the tempo considerably for a poignant song about resting in God's love. The song pulls off the neat trick of referencing an older song's lyrics and melody in a new context. It's as if one side of the song shows the artist's youthful exuberance and the slowed-down, mellow version shows a veteran's wizened perspective on grace. It's an interesting experiment.
Alas, the back half of the record flags a bit in quality. The hymn-like "You're My Shepherd" is a song idea that never quite takes off, despite the fine vocal performance of Johnston and longtime band friend Mac Powell of Third Day. "Impossible" is a misfire of a vintage Soul Music tune, while "For The Ones Who Run" cranks up the volume and tempo, but becomes a bit of a repetitive and uninteresting rocker. Likewise, the ending "Like Home" and "Are You With Me" are well meaning, but float by without much impact.
But, for the first six songs, the old fire is back, and Smalltown Poets now have some momentum going forward for a new chapter in their story. It's good to hear this band again, and to dive into some "poetic" music once more.- Review date: 5/14/18, written by Alex Caldwell of Jesusfreakhideout.com
Record Label: Friendly City Records
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