There is the album and there is the mixtape. The former is a progression, infused with the sensibilities of the artist; the latter a progression infused with the sensibilities of the person curating the collection. These don’t have to be different things, particularly if the curator is also the songwriter and therefore accustomed to curating a collection for a variety of ears.
Caitlyn Smith has combined the two in her debut album, “Starfire.” It’s not an album, in the sense that it isn’t obviously thematically curated. It wanders around. It’s not a mixtape in that Smith permeates every song. There’s the soaring voice, the unmistakable style. There is also an expected sensibility, despite the wandering, given that Smith’s time as a songwriter in Nashville.
Yes, She’s Based in Nashville
People think of Nashville and think country music. If they think of songwriters in Nashville — and, yes, there are still people who get paid to pen tracks that will be recorded by a variety of others — they also think country. But that’s not all there is to Nashville. Smith herself co-wrote Meghan Trainor’s “Like I’m Going to Lose You,” featuring John Legend. That track hit the eighth spot on the Billboard Hot 100.
Smith’s written for indie folk rocker James Bay. Dolly Parton cut one of her tracks. It is Nashville, after all. A songwriter there is going to write some country tunes. That doesn’t mean the town is going to kill you, not by a long shot. Nonetheless, Smith, a Nashville songwriter, isn’t a county artist. “Starfire” has some slide guitars here and there, but it hangs in the territory of pop Americana, sometimes leaning more in the pop direction and sometimes more in the Americana direction. Sometimes she leans in different directions with the same song. “Contact High” on the album bounces along more like a straight pop song. When Smith performed the tune on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Kimmel on January 16, it rocked and swung with more Americana as she strutted around the stage and belted it out.
Those two songs hint at the theme. The penultimate track, “House of Cards,” begins to sum it up. It’s wistful, as is the album, even when it drives along. Then we finish with “Cheap Date,” which while still wistful, is also optimistic. There is always hope, particularly as we learn to settle down and stop fighting. It takes a moment to get there, though. Before we do, we visit “East Side Restaurant,” a hauntingly beautiful song in which Smith transports us into a film noir, and “Don’t Give Up on My Love,” a fierce plea with her voice sailing as the music quietly roars behind her.
These tracks will matter more in a minute. For now, we have to get back to the mixtape.
Pay Attention to the Threads
The thing about the mixtape is that it sets a mood, which means it is thematically curated, just in an unexpected way. It doesn’t follow the rules of the album, which often suggest large stylistic threads. That isn’t a bad thing, albums continue to exist for a reason, but so does breaking the rules.
With “Starfire,” Smith is breaking the rules. There are threads, just not the ones you’d expect from an album. While this means it’s easy to listen to from start to finish, this also means you can take chunks and use them to set the tone in a variety of situations. Like at bedtime with your youngest child.
About Getting a Child to Bed
She was being a terror, in full Hulk-mode, stomping about and making unreasonable demands. At least she wasn’t smashing things. Still, as I listened to “Starfire,” getting ready to start writing this review, I heard her over my earbuds, making her presence known
I went upstairs and found her in our bedroom, not her own. She was throwing a perfunctory tantrum at the head of the bed. I sat at the foot. I called her to me and she came reluctantly. I popped the right earbud into her ear as the title track, full of spitfire, played. She settled a bit. Then came “East Side Restaurant,” with its wistful, there it is again, mellowness. She relaxed into my chest. Then “Don’t Give Up on My Love.” It drives along, with lyrics way more serious than the moment the kid and I were sharing, but the balance between energy and desire to recline in the track was the perfect mix.
“Want to let me tuck you in now?” “Shoulders.” And up she went on my shoulders for a quick trip through the homestead, which is thematically related and curated if not perfectly logical and expected, before we arrive in her bedroom.
She crawled into her bed (she’s on the top bunk these days) and I followed, pulling out my remaining earbud as she began a freewheeling rendition of “Hush, Little Baby.” I scratched her back and she sang, then got quiet. Then rambled a little more. I continued scratching and her breaths got deep and regular. I slipped out, closing the door behind me. Mission accomplished.
Now, Where Were We?
I popped my earbuds back in and hit play, not needing to back up to some other point. I listened from where we’d stopped. I worked on this article, hit replay, kept typing, kept listening, brushing my teeth and washing my face, taking out my earbuds, hitting the hay.
Okay, maybe I typed that part, and this one too, first, but those other things definitely happened after I typed them. Throughout, I listened to “Starfire,” paying attention here and there, merely nodding in the background at other moments. As I hit replay a few times, and had listened to it more than a few times prior, I caught different things with each pass. A mood here, a lyric there. The voice and sensibilities always at the fore.
There is the album and there is the mixtape, but sometimes you want both. While you write and put a child to bed and brush your teeth and get ready to go to bed yourself, for example. Or maybe you want to brush your teeth and get ready for work and drive there. Let’s not limit ourselves here. With “Starfire,” Caitlyn Smith has us covered. It’s in the background, it’s in the foreground, it’s present. And it never leaves us in a lull, because it never gets in one, just as a good album shouldn’t.