Little Grey Sheep
It isn't enough that Danny Schmidt starts out his Little Grey Sheep CD with an outright stunning song, “Leaves Are Burning”, which lands the listener somewhere just short of despair. It isn't enough that that dark, mysterious song takes you right to the edge of Schmidt's moment of madness. It isn't enough that listening to it is looking to a deep black hole, practically blocking out the sun altogether. No. In a moment of pure genius, he and producer Paul Curreri loose fellow Virginian Joia Wood for some gut-wrenching and astonishing wailing and moaning which clutches the throat in its intensity. Normally a beautiful harmony to Schmidt's solid, down home lead vocal, she reaches so far down and squeezes so hard that you have to be impressed if not amazed. “She's incredible,” Schmidt says. “For that song, in particular, Paul and I literally put the microphone up as loud as it would go and snuck out of the room as quiet as we could and just let Joia moan and wail all over the place. You can actually hear the door squeak and close (from us sneaking out) at the beginning of the track.” Indeed. A squeak and a percussive noise that I would have sworn were as naturally as part of the song as the controlled feedback that I finally realized was part programming and part Wood. Eerie and captivating. Add single stroke piano at the break, wow. Words cannot come close.
You might think it hard to follow up a lead-in like that, but Schmidt simply takes a left turn. More acoustic and folkie than the breathtaking start, track after track takes you on the Danny Schmidt Special, and it is quite the ride. There is a flow to the songs which makes this a throwback to the days before digital downloading and every bad thing it entails. You soundbyte this, you miss out. “Drawing Board” is light and folkie, “Go Ugly Early” has a head-nodding, plodding country rock flavor, “Cliff Song” out-ballads most folk ballads (Wood's voice, more straight harmony than on “Leaves Are Burning”, is an excellent offset to Schmidt's slightly warbled tenor), “Around the Waist” brings Stephen Foster into the 21st Century (in my mind, at least) with a downright beautiful combination of melody and guitar picking... And it continues like that, front to back. Nothing heavy, except in content. Just good, solid acoustic folk and blues with Schmidt's and Curreri's magic touches. And Joia Wood's, as well.
If Danny Schmidt is not a master songwriter, you couldn't tell by listening to this. This album reads like a list of the best songs available from a top folk music publishing house. I can see some artists picking up on one or more of these to flesh out an album or a live performance. Most are stage-ready and would fit many a musical style. But even the best will steer clear of “Leaves Are Burning” unless they have a great voice, a tremendous depth of soul and a Joia Wood in their arsenal. It is a song for the ages. Just catch this one verse:
Spill my lungs of dirt and fury
Cause dirt and fury have filled my lungs
Kick my feet and spit my story
Of rage and glory, come clear my lungs
I know lyricists who would sell their soul for a verse that good. Schmidt has plenty. And for those who appreciate why and how songs are written, he even has a “Thematic Overview” section on his website at www.dannyschmidt.com. It's a great read and worth the effort.
- Frank Gutch