I first encounted Mindy Smith on VH-1 Country, of all places -- it was a video for her cover of Dolly Parton's "Jolene" (with the divine Ms. P providing backing vocals), which matched Smith's unfussy, dulcet voice with a mournful, almost eerie arrangement. Notably, she tweaked the chorus and made it her own, adding a lilt to the fourth "Jolene" in the refrain as she begged for mercy from the auburn-haired siren (in the video, caught mackin' on Mindy's man in a car in the woods). The follow-up single, "Come to Jesus" -- from her Vanguard debut, One Moment More -- suggested a more Johnny-Cash-finds-religion kind of Christianity than Bible-thumping zealotry, a theme that lurked around the edges of the album with references to angels and the like. Other lyrical topics included her mother's death (the moving "One Moment More") and the country throwback "Train Song," about a woman waitin' on a lover who's left her lonely -- and more than a little pissed about having to tend "all this shit" he left behind.
Smith -- whose Amazon.com "also recommendeds" include Patty Griffin, Alison Krauss, Kathleen Edwards, and similarly emotive singer-songwriters -- follows up One Moment More with Long Island Shores (Vanguard). The title nods to her New York upbringing, referenced in detail in the title song ("There my father/Preached at the church/on the corner of Old Nichols Road"), though Smith also confesses, in "Tennessee," that she's adopted the Southern state as her true home.
Smith wrote or co-wrote all but one of Long Island Shore's 12 tracks; she also co-produced, favoring a folky, largely acoustic sound. I can't really pinpoint a tune that VH-1 Country would really latch onto -- there's not much twang going on here. I caught one of Smith's early San Francisco appearances -- at the Independent soon after One Moment More dropped -- and I thought maybe her future recordings would reflect her live show, which had its moments of quiet reflection but also rocked on occasion. But Long Island Shores is pretty sweet and mellow overall; there's no real let-'er-rip equivalent to "Come to Jesus." The songs focus on love -- romantic, lost, coy (the lilting "You Know I Love You Baby"), and, in particular, spiritual. Smith playfully likens a deceptive partner to Beelzebub in "Little Devil" ("How was I supposed to know the devil got so damn pretty?"), but most of her statements of faith are quite sincere: "I'm reaching for heaven/Down on my knees" in "I'm Not the Only One."
In less careful hands, the effect could be entirely cloying -- and a big turn-off for listeners who'd just as soon keep the sermonizin' out of their iPods. But Smith's relationship to the God she sings about is entirely personal -- it's her own private link that happens to be on a level so strong she can't keep it out of her songs. "I try to change the way I am/And hope God forgives me when I can't," she muses in "Peace of Mind," the Smith-and-acoustic-guitar track that brings Long Island Shores to a quiet, contemplative close. This may not be the greatest album Smith has in her, but her talent is true -- give her a few more years, and she'll likely achieve it.
All photos courtesy of www.mindysmith.net.