Let’s establish two things about this album before we go any further. One, it is not country, and Apple’s label of “singer-songwriter” is only slightly more appropriate, as basically it’s pop, or perhaps folk pop. Two, it’s not claiming to be anything other than itself, and maybe that’s why, even though it comes from Nashville, and Smith has written songs for country artists, we should just treat this as a musical endeavor, independent of genre. It would be different if Caitlyn Smith were marketing this as country, or if her brand of pop were even remotely radio-friendly, or if she weren’t anything but herself on this record. But she’s being authentic, and for some, it might take a couple listens to get that, or at least it did for this listener. But if you take Caitlyn for Caitlyn, and you value quality music, you’ll enjoy and appreciate this effort.
So what is it about this flavor of pop music that makes it so different from radio-friendly material? certainly the title track, with its catchy lyrics and rising chorus, would be a pop radio hit in a different world, but even this has more substance than 90% of what you’ll find on either modern pop or country radio. But even more than the substance, it’s the organic and intimate nature of most of the album which sets it apart. “East side Restaurant,” a heartbreak song in which the narrator makes the other side of town seem as far away as if her ex were across the ocean, only works because the production isn’t overdone, and you feel as if you’re sitting there with Caitlyn in the restaurant. “Scenes From a Corner Booth at Closing Time on a Tuesday” carries that same intangible, almost live feel, so that it’s as though you’re sitting in the bar in another booth , observing the same people described in the song. And “Cheap Date” wouldn’t be half as good if it didn’t sound so intimate, speaking of forsaking a date night on the town for a romantic night at home. The warm piano here really adds a nice touch to this track as well.
And not enough can be said about Caitlyn Smith as a vocalist. It’s not just her insane range and power, shown off on the aforementioned “East side Restaurant” and “Tacoma,” but also the incredible depth of feeling in songs like “House of Cards.” She can slay a fun, sultry song like “Contact High,” and then blow you away with her vulnerability on “This Town is Killing Me.” It should be noted that this one is the most country and is the one you should start with if you’re a strict traditionalist. Here, Caitlyn tells us in heartbreaking detail the struggles she has gone through and continues to experience on a daily basis just to make it in Nashville. She sings, with such conviction that it’s impossible not to sympathize with every word, “I wanted it so bad, and now I just wanna go home.” And oh yeah, then there’s the range and power, and moments like on “Tacoma” where Caitlyn nails the key change a cappella by holding out a ridiculous note with such raw intensity that you can’t help but be impressed. It’s rare to find such a wonderful technical singer who can also convey so much emotion, and I know I’ve made much of this, but independent artists, take note. This album is the benchmark of vocal ability among all albums I’ve reviewed on this site to date, and the one which shatters all arguments for good writing eclipsing a superior voice. I can tell you now that this same record, with the same songwriting, and even the same intimate sound, left in the hands of a less competent vocalist, would be mediocre at best and absolutely boring at worst.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some boring moments on the album as it is, and sometimes, it seems like Caitlyn and/or her team were going to the other extreme, showing off her voice in lieu of strong songwriting. The first two songs on the album are unfortunately two of its weakest tracks lyrically, and this is part of the reason that it took me awhile to warm up to this record. Then you get to “Starfire,” and it all comes together, blending that amazing voice with better melodies and smarter lyrics. After that, there’s not really a bad moment at all, except for “Don’t Give up on my Love,” a pretty forgettable track in the middle of the album.
The great part of this record, though, is that all those strong songs just keep getting stronger. This album has already grown on me significantly and will continue to do so. There’s always something new to uncover in the lyrics or a moment to be awed by vocally. The terrible part of this record? Caitlyn’s heartbroken line in “This town is Killing Me,” as she whispers, “Nashville, you win. Your steel guitars and broken hearts have done me in.” Nashville, you embrace plenty of things that aren’t stone cold country, and yet here you are, overlooking the ridiculous crossover talent of Caitlyn Smith. Is it because she’s female, or because her songs have substance and character? Is it because even though she’s singing pop music, she’s being 100% herself, and you know you can’t manipulate her into some sort of Music Row tool? Or is it just that you haven’t embraced talent in so long, you have no idea what to do with it when it’s right in front of you? Whatever the case, Caitlyn Smith and her talent deserve better. She deserves more than obscurity and songs that, in her words, “Never see the light.” I hope she will break out with this album, as she rightfully should.
As noted, traditionalists may be opposed to this record because of personal taste, but I encourage you, if you can get past genre lines and recognize talent and good music for what they are, please check this album and artist out.