Like the somber black-and-white photos of lonely back roads on the cover, singer/songwriter Darden Smith travels the darker byways of the human psyche. The music seldom escalates above a mid-tempo strum, but these tunes are so beautifully conceived, sung, and arranged that the album never stagnates or seems repetitious. Story songs like "Mill Creek" slither like alligators, building tension through an eerie stripped-down approach that arrives like a slow-moving thunderstorm. He doesn't sing these haunting tunes as much as whispers them into your ear, sounding like secrets that you share with him. Clever turns of phrases like "Make Love So Hard," which can be interpreted in a few ways, and "Shooting Star" (not the Bad Company hard-rocking hit) infuse this music with smart yet subtle impact. Steuart Smith, Kim Richey, Shawn Colvin, Jim Lauderdale, and Lloyd Maines all contribute, but nobody weakens the focus on Smith's gripping, predominantly acoustic tunes. Bleak but hopeful, this is an album made for quiet times and headphones, when the intricate arrangements and intelligent lyrics can be fully absorbed without distractions. Although Maines contributes occasional pedal steel, this is not country. Rather, the marvelous standup bass of Roscoe Beck injects a jazzy yet forlorn feel, taking the music into a more thoughtful space. When a small string section embellishes the gorgeous and poignant "Late Train to London," it lathers the low-key sound in a steamy mist. Similar to some of fellow Austin resident Alejandro Escovedo's work, Circo is a mature, reflective fully realized project from a seasoned musician whose talents are underappreciated. With any luck, this fine album should change that.
AllMusic Review by Hal Horowitz