Darren Smith works his days as a carpenter and spends most of his nights fronting the Seattle-based Americana band Straw Dogs. With Last Drive, his first solo record, Smith temporarily closes the door on his band and takes off down the road with a 10-tune cycle that is at once heartbreaking and hopeful. His deft and literary lyric style works magic with stories of lives broken by misfortune. The album kicks off with the potent and wistful "Dogtown Mines." It's the story of young man who goes looking for gold only to get lost and broken, while the whole time desperately missing his fiancé. And that is just the first verse. From there, Smith throws anchor in an ocean of longing with the chorus:
"With all the heartache and lost souls that pushed me/debts and devils they held me/always looking for the next wind to take me out/Broken towns from the goldrush days/faceless cities all set ablaze/but in the darkest alleyways/is where I keep you pressed up against my heart." The song (and the rest of the album) goes on to detail more defeat and yearning with melodies that hook and reel you in.
Last Drive's hard-luck-story songs are buoyed by arrangements that put to work all the standard alt-country ingredients: acoustic guitars, brushwork drums, a pedal steel and an accordion. Together these instruments work to create a spacious foundation for Smith to build his deliberately paced poetic stories. The album, as a whole, hangs with the best of the genre: Josh Ritter's Golden Age of Radio, Lucinda William's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road and Townes Van Zandt's High, Low, and In Between. It does this by zeroing in on two feelings--longing and hope--and maintaining them for the whole record.
Local Musician Doug Cameron went to high school with Darren Smith. And it has been since then that Cameron says he has been waiting for his friend to release a solo record. Last Drive is such as amazing album, let's hope Smith doesn't wait another decade to release his sophomore effort.