English folk guitarist and singer John Smith released his debut album ‘The Fox and the Monk’ in 2006. Since then he’s gone on to release a further five studio albums, his most recent ‘Hummingbird’ was released in 2018. New album ‘The Fray’ has been shaped by the past 12 months against the backdrop of the pandemic, which saw Smith facing plenty of personal hurdles including his wife losing a pregnancy and his mother being diagnosed with cancer. He also, like all artists, experienced a complete life change when touring was halted thanks to the lockdown orders across the world.
‘The Fray’ is a collection of 12 deeply personal songs that were produced by Smith with his long-time friend and collaborator Sam Lakeman. Recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studio, the album features a host of collaborators including Lisa Hannigan, Jessica Staveley-Taylor of The Staves, The Milk Carton Kids, Bill Frisell and Sara Jarosz. The theme that runs through the record is that life is hard, and that sentiment has been magnified for everyone thanks to the on-going global pandemic that has cut us off from pretty much everyone.
Opening with ‘Friends’, ‘The Fray’ kicks off with a hopeful and optimistic tone as Smith reflects the way that relationships can change whether you want them to or not. One of the more upbeat moments on the record, Smith’s voice drives the melody. The tempo stays in the mid-range with ‘Hold On’ featuring The Staves’ Jessica Staveley-Taylor as Smith sings about holding on as the hard times feel insurmountable. It’s a message that’s more pertinent today than perhaps it’s ever been and I’m sure Smith’s fans have found his words comforting.
Elsewhere on the record Smith strips it back for ‘Deserving’, a song that deals with finding yourself in a place you didn’t expect and struggling to cope with it, ‘The Best Of Me’ featuring Bill Frisell is a gorgeous acoustic ballad that finds Smith at his most self-aware as he tackles drinking and loneliness, and ‘Star-Crossed Lovers’ sees Smith trading verses with Lisa Hannigan on one of the album’s highlights.
The album’s stand out moment is ‘She’s Doing Fine’, a short acoustic-driven moment, that finds Smith sharing his feelings about his wife’s miscarriage. There’s no way you can listen to the words without feeling the emotion and grief, and it’s a powerful moment. Another highlight is ‘Eye To Eye’ with Sara Jarosz, which finds the duo harmonising beautifully over a twangy guitar riff that builds into a wonderfully melodic chorus.
The final song on the record, ‘One Day at a Time’, serves as a good reminder that we’re all doing the best that we can and sometimes living life day-to-day is the best we can, and should, hope for. Smith captures the feeling of being utterly helpless and despairing but he peppers it with optimism that better days lie ahead.
‘The Fray’ is an album that is at times difficult to listen to. Smith is so honest across these songs and the impact of the pandemic that we’re still in is taking its toll, so the rawness of these songs is sure to hit a never. That being said, fans will be able to take comfort and likely find solace in the fact that they haven’t been going through this hard time alone. There is hope and optimism throughout this record but Smith doesn’t shy away from his struggles, and for that he should be commended.
Track listing: 1. Friends 2. Hold On 3. Sanctuary 4. Deserving 5. The Best Of Me (feat. Bill Frisell) 6. Star-Crossed Lovers (feat. Lisa Hannigan) 7. To The Shore 8. Eye to Eye (feat. Sarah Jarosz) 9. Just As You Are 10. The Fray (feat. The Milk Carton Kids) 11. She’s Doing Fine 12. One Day At A Time Record label: Commoner Records / Thirty Tigers Release date: 26th March 2021 Buy ‘The Fray’ now