Darden Smith

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When CBS (now Sony) signed Darden Smith in 1987, they may have hoped they were getting another country-pop singer-songwriter like Rodney Crowell. By the time a couple of albums had suffered undeserved anonymity, however, they may have been hoping for a critics' favorite with a modest commercial breakthrough like John Hiatt. But major labels do not wait forever for even the most promising artist to start exceeding his advances, and with this, his fifth album, Smith is now recording for his manager's indie label. It turns out this is all for the better, artistically, anyway. Darden's well-written songs are sufficiently straightforward enough to answer to any one of several production ideas. A good country producer could take them in a Garth-like direction, and a good rock producer could find another Tom Petty. Instead, Stewart Lerman has assembled a stellar backup unit of relative unknowns -- anchored by bassist Graham Maby from the old Joe Jackson Band, and guitarist Richard Kennedy and drummer Stanley John Mitchell from the late, lamented Drongos -- for a restrained folk-rock treatment that emphasizes the songs. Smith's lyrics cover familiar ground, touching on restlessness, hopelessness, hope, despair, freedom, aging, and, oh, yeah, lust. But he often has unusual ways of putting things, and he sings with conviction. There may not be a place for him on a major anymore, but he continues to grow as a songwriter and performer, and perhaps an audience will find him yet.

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