The cover art of Steve Almaas and Ali Smith's debut -- consisting of the song titles next to a photo of a couple in old-fashioned duds and a grandfather clock -- is a little misleading, looking a bit like a classic country duo album. But these two are decidedly more rock 'n' roll than old-timey -- Almaas was leader of the roots-rocking Beat Rodeo, while Smith has played in the psychobilly band Speedball Baby. And would revivalist poseurs open an album with a cover of the Fleetwoods' "Come Softly to Me"? Lesser interpretations could easily overpower the song's music-box arrangement, but these guys play it straight, adding personal warmth to the starched-and-pressed original.
Smith's voice, a Suzanne Vega-ish wisp, is prettier than, say, your average bassist's, able to carry a torchy version of the dBs' "Moving in Your Sleep" while at the same time doing justice to the deadpan ditty "Shrunken Head." Other well-chosen songs include the Louvin Brothers' "I Wish It Had Been a Dream" and the crafty Bo Diddley tribute "Little Jean" by NYC musical insult comic Adam Roth. The playing is solid throughout, rootsy and breezy, driven by bassist Mark Sidgewick and with much more restrained drumming than you might expect from a guy who calls himself Andy Action.
But restraint does have its drawbacks. Among the six Almaas originals, the elopement ditty "One Kiss at a Time" and the sparse "Mistake" may have grace, but the others, often too cerebral or understated, seem not to want to stick out like sore thumbs in such distinguished company. And the combination of Almaas and Smith's vocals doesn't soar, break your heart, or form a single, charismatic presence like George Jones and Tammy Wynette.
Still, the work of revered country duos was about sublime voices and towering talent. Perhaps Almaas and Smith represent a different kind of excellence: great taste. And that's something nearly as rare.
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