By Andrew Hertzberg
Stephen Paul Smoker is hard to describe succinctly, but he’s not without his RIYLs. He’s toured with Mewithoutyou, who may not seem an obvious connection at first, since Smoker’s sound is a bit more chaotic and the whole album, Ripe Fruit, is seen through a haze of…I don’t want to use the term psychedelic, but you see it plenty to describe Smoker’s sound. And to be fair, it’s hard not to think of Pink Floyd at times (“I dreamed I was the Milky Way / I watched over planet Earth”) and harder to imagine Smoker having ignored the entire Flaming Lips catalog while listening to his debut LP.
The distorted bass and upbeat tempo of "In Cairo" open the album with tension, quickly resolved with an ultra-catchy chorus to draw you in. This is followed by "Green City," definitely the anomaly of the album, suggesting what it would sound like if Robyn Hitchcock fronted the Cramps but with more religious undertones: the song closes with the chant “If I am not my own brother’s keeper / I am damned, damned for sure.” You know how the reverb in a catholic church is to sound so imposing and make you, feel really small? Yes, you godless heathen reading this review, you. SPS does that in a similar way but was lucky enough to grow up in a world where rock music is a better way of reaching the masses. Likewise, "Salutations" offers low-end heavy post-rock verses with angelic choir choruses and a Jason Pierce-like way of singing “Hallelujah” that sounds simultaneously sincere and sarcastic.
"I Dreamed I Was" is perhaps the most haunting track, an acoustic led number that provides an unexpected and quite harsh come down from the epic high of the first three rockers. Naturally, this is immediately followed by the alternating time signature jilt of "I Gotta Try," and exhales a breath of optimism that covers the entire record: “I spent the last ten years in outer space / I can’t decide if I’m ready or not / I gotta try.” The end of the album finds us moving into territory reminiscent of Sea Change-era Beck: acoustic, atmospheric, but just off enough to not be derivative.
While the album bears only the title, Smoker's name and a lone picture of him on it, it should be mentioned that his backing musicians cast their own eerie glows when called upon. The rhythm section is subtle but suitable. The album features Gerald Baily from Black Bear Combo for trumpet and Emma Hospelhorn of Hollows for flute, the latter beautifully featured in "The Light…Pt. 1’" (Ripe Flute jokes, anyone? No?). As for "The Light…Pt. 2," we’re back into layered guitars and pounding drums building to an epic catharsis. The album ends with the folky "Man Dives Deep" leaving us miles away from where we started, with almost a feeling of being stranded, before that wave of optimism washes over: “you’re still and free / at the bottom of the sea.”
The whole album is streaming at this link and out now on Kilo Records. You can hear "In Cairo" below. 'Ripe Fruit' was released last month, but the official record release show is this Friday, April 27th at Empty Bottle with Taught Abroad and Il Tandre Neu (10 PM, 21+, $8). You can buy tickets here.
Or, if you like to live dangerously, it's free if you RSVP ahead of
time...with the money you save at the door, you should pick this up on
clear vinyl. It’s a good ‘un.
In Cairo by Stephen Paul Smoker