Band Name: Josh Small
Album Name: Tall by Josh Small
Best Element: A hit-and-miss collection of rootsy, banjo-led folk songs
Label: Suburban Home Records
Josh Small sounds authentic. Small’s weary tenor resonates with the clarity of someone who knows what they’re talking about, and the creepy, mournful, banjo-led songs he writes sound like they came crawling straight out of the bayou. Standout track “Peek Out the Windows” features a quick finger-picking banjo, tambourine slap and a teetering vocal performance that hangs on the line “look out the window/oh my Lord.” I don’t know if he’s from the bayou or not, but he sure could convince me if he said he was.
The only problem with Tall by Josh Small is that even though Josh Small has his name on the album, there’s a full band playing on most of these songs. The full band is not as exciting as Josh Small solo (or nearly solo). For the most part, his solo songs are fast – the full-band tracks are mostly mid-tempo to slow. It feels almost as if Small couldn’t bear to have many people in on his best songs (“Knife in My Belly,” “Peek Out the Windows,” “Boozin Susan”), but tried to fill out his lesser tunes with more parts to bring them up to the same level as his near-solo tunes. This is given some credence due to the strange relationship between number of players and quality: the more people present per song, the less interesting the base songwriting was to begin with.
The two exceptions to this are “Who’s Foolin’ You” and “Move Your Hips.” The banjo part to both songs could stand up to a Josh Small solo rendition, and the arrangements provide zip to both tracks. The drums and Rhodes contribute a lot of mood to the more upbeat “Who’s Foolin’ You,” while the piano delivers some enough melodic wallop in “Move Your Hips” to necessitate multiple listens (especially in the bluesy solo section at the end). Neither are as memorable vocally as “Peek Out the Windows” or “Knife in My Belly,” but they do have a lot more staying power than “Indiana” or “Moses.”
Tall By Josh Small is a scattered affair – I enjoy half of the tracks very much, while I can’t remember the other half at all. Josh Small is very talented instrumentally and vocally, but this particular set of songs was a little bit messy. I hope that Small can spread the best aspects of his sound into the rest of his tunes and create a solid album next time around.