REVIEW: Caitlyn Smith – ‘Starfire’

If there’s any justice in the world this album should do for Caitlyn Smith what ‘Traveller’ did for Chris Stapleton. Yes, I know that’s a bold opening line but I’m going to even go one step further and say that ‘Starfire’ is a better, more important album for the genre of Country music than ‘Traveller’ was.

OK – review over. I’m done. I’ve dropped the mic, blown you all a kiss and walked off.

I suppose I owe it to you all to explain myself and so I shall.

Minnesota native Caitlyn Smith has been writing songs in Nashville now for 12 years. Nothing special there then is there really? So have 75% of all the waiters, cleaners and coffee shop baristas in Music City and the town owes them nothing. You don’t get a free pass to stardom by just simply hanging in there. The difference with Caitlyn Smith is that she possesses a voice and a gift for writing a song that is rarely found in ANY genre, let alone the often clichéd, often boundary ruled genre of Country music. So, she’s set out to re-write the rules and further break down the barriers that confine and constrict so many artists working in Nashville today. She doesn’t care whether you come with her on the ride, either, and that only adds to her appeal.

Chances are if you’ve been listening to Country music in the past five years you’ll have heard one of Smith’s songs on the radio somewhere. Artists like Cassadee Pope, Garth Brooks, James Bay, Meghan Trainor and Lady Antebellum have all cut tracks with or by her. Have you spotted a pattern yet? Here is a writer and artist that can operate across multiple styles and genres, that is important to understand before you listen to ‘Starfire’ and whilst similar ‘powerhouse’ writers like Natalie Hemby, Lori McKenna and Liz Rose have all also released their own solo albums over the past year they have debuted quieter, more introspective pieces of work when compared to the bombast and sheer force of nature that is ‘Starfire’.

The album opens cautiously with ‘Before You Called Me Baby’, saving all of its high notes and big reveals until you are settled in and ready for them. The track, a love song, is full of slide guitar and expressive lyrics. “I was a sad Mona Lisa with a crooked smile,” Smith sings, coming off like a Southern Chrissie Hynde jamming with Eric Clapton in a Nashville honky-tonk. Bigger comparisons can be found on the next track, ‘Do You Think About Me’ where Smith’s raspy growl reveals echoes of both Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin but it is on track 3, the title track that the album begins to really move up through the gears into stellar territory.

‘Starfire’, the song itself, is a funky anthem that contains an almost ‘From Dusk ‘til Dawn’, Tarrantino-style guitar riff that gives way to the catchiest chorus on the album. Smith has a middle-fingered message to the critics and haters when she sings, loud and proud, “You can’t burn out this starfire, no matter how hard you try.” The track is a real highlight of both the album and her songwriting career and is destined for a bigger life on TV shows when she releases it as a single.

That almost cinematic scope can be found on two further songs on the album. Both ‘East Side Restaurant’ and ‘Scenes from a Corner Booth’ might well blow the minds of Florida Georgia Line fans who stumble across ‘Starfire’ on Spotify, making them spit out their grits in surprise at what Smith is trying to achieve here. Both songs are quiet, observational treatises about places, times and human nature. The former, in particular, highlights Smith’s bravery and willingness to take risks in her music. It has an orchestral sweep to it that is similar in nature to Sarah Darling’s ‘Montmarte’ from her excellent ‘Dream Country’ album but it could also have been plucked from a Tom Waits album too. The latter, featuring some lovely slide guitar notes, details the desperation of a night in a bar and the sheer tininess of everyday life. Neither are Country songs per se but then this album isn’t about that at all.

Don’t get me wrong, there are Country moments in there amongst the blues, the jazz, the pop and the rock. ‘This Town is Killing Me’ is probably the best song about Nashville I have heard in many years and might well be the one song that propels this album into the (southern) public’s consciousness. It details, superbly, that love/hate relationship that artists have with the town, the struggle and the almost addiction-like properties it induces. With a modicum of good luck and a following wind this song is the song that will sell ‘Starfire’. The town will adopt it as its unofficial anthem and people will nod sagely at each other over the coffee counters and check in desks when they hear it over the airwaves and PA systems because it’s their own stories, their own lives in one three-minute anthem. There are a number of superb songs on ‘Starfire’ but ‘This Town is Killing Me’ dwarves them all like some sort of genius overlord – it is the glue holding the whole album together and it deserves to eventually sit alongside the other classic country songs of history, the ones that are bigger than the albums they were on and often sometimes even bigger than the artist that recorded them.

‘Tacoma’ is another song almost in that bracket. It’s a soulful ballad that contains the album’s standout vocal moment – I won’t spoil it for you in advance, you’ll know it when you hear it but it is a moment so huge that it must have given Garth Brooks a heart attack even thinking about it when he recorded it for his ‘Man Against Machine’ album.

In other places on ‘Starfire’ Smith channels the brooding greats like Emmylou Harris. Both ‘Don’t Give Up on My Love’ and ‘House of Cards’ are slow burning anthems with big choruses that someone like Adele would kill for. The former is another song about the struggles of being a musician and trying to balance that musical dream against the harsh realities of real life. Both are engaging in their storytelling and pull you into Smith’s world, something that only the most skilled songwriters can do. ‘St Paul’ achieves that too, it being about the Minnesota town that she used to drive through on the way to Nashville. Set against a sort of Paul Simon, ‘You Can Call Me Al’ type of rhythm, it almost breaks your heart when you hear Smith sing, “I cut my teeth playing sad songs on a cheap guitar’ but at least we have the luxury of knowing that it all turns out OK in the end!

And it does. Turn out alright for her in the end. Well, more than alright actually because she’s only gone and produced one of the most important albums of 2018. I don’t want to get into gender politics here like some other reviewers have done, I want to focus purely and simply on the music. ‘Starfire’ is an immense beast of an album. It’s chameleon like in its nature, crossing all musical genres and boundaries and whilst she is being marketed as a Country artist at the moment that is purely because many people’s musical perceptions are simply too narrow to cope with what Smith can actually do – it’s for our benefit, the Country tag, not hers. SavingCountryMusic, the notoriously grumpy website that champions the cause of traditional Country music, called ‘Starfire’ ‘an opus’ and they are not wrong. Every track says something, every track takes the listener on a journey somewhere and every track contains the sort of musical and lyrical impact that will leave you breathless and wanting more by the end. It’s an addictive album that doesn’t wither or wilt under repeated plays, the type of album where your favourite song on it will change each time you listen to, depending on your mood and your daily experiences.

(Actually, it won’t because your favourite track will be ‘This Town is Killing Me’ but that previous sentence will ring true for all the other tracks on the album who are competing for second place!)

‘Starfire’ is quite simply a stunning album from a stunning musician. It’s brave, full of well taken risks and it soars, both musically and lyrically. It is the herald of a brave new era, one in which we embrace the breaking down of genre barriers and celebrate the talent of both men and women who are leading Country music into a bright, new future. Like I said right at the beginning, this album could well be the ‘Traveller’ of 2018 – ignored by the radio programmers but devoured and adored by the masses who aren’t interested in the type of formulaic stuff put out there for mass consumption. We owe it to Caitlyn Smith to make sure that happens – she’s done her bit and lived up to her side of the bargain, it’s up to us now.

James Daykin
@rockjames