From a music biz standpoint, April Smith is a cutting-edge marvel, making good use of most (if not all) of the tools available to indie musicians; she’s recorded a Daytrotter session, she’s on Facebook, MySpace, purevolume, YouTube, and Twitter, and raised the funds for her band’s new album, Songs for a Sinking Ship, by using Kickstarter to drum up donations from fans. But in the places where it really counts, Smith’s 100 percent old school: she built that fanbase through dedicated touring and sharp live performances, her music is grounded in live instruments, and her voice — oh, her voice! — is a throaty marvel that sweeps aside Auto-Tune and melismatic showboating in favor of good old-fashioned singing.
There’s a distinctly retro vibe running throughout Sinking Ship — when Smith found out I was reviewing the album, her advice was “If you get the urge to do the Charleston, don’t fight it!” — but that’s partly due to the fact that we’ve grown so accustomed to hearing our pop singers hide their voices behind technology. When a woman simply steps up to the microphone and lets her voice ring out, we’re left fumbling for aged, not-quite-appropriate references (Etta James! Doris Day! Um…) when all that really matters is this: April Smith and the Great Picture Show make lean, sharp pop music, and Songs for a Sinking Ship only tightens its grip with repeated listens. And don’t let the old-timey album artwork fool you; lyrically speaking, Smith is a modern girl with a wicked axe to grind, whether it’s against trampy competitors for her man’s affections (“Dixie Boy”) or shitheel exes (closing track “Stop Wondering,” which ends with the marvelous line, “If you ever wonder if I’m dreaming of you — bitch please, I’ve got better things to do”).
Resplendent with too-rarely heard instruments like ukulele, Chamberlain, accordion, Mellotron, and Fender Rhodes, Sinking Ship sashays from bouncy (“Colors”) to torchy (“What’ll I Do”) with joyous ease. We’ve all done our fair share of bemoaning the loss of the old record industry, but if records this solidly crafted — and this free of traditional label interference — are a sign of the new one waiting to take its place, we might not have much to be sad about after all.