Adrienne Smith has one of the best voices in Frederick County. That’s indisputable. She’s also been around this scene long enough to see venues come and go (or change names), and bands explode onto the map … only to implode (or change names) soon after. She’s led a band called The Merrylanders and she’s won the hearts of coffee shop troubadours with her acoustic work. If there’s someone who knows a thing or two about a thing or two when it comes to Frederick music, it’s Adrienne Smith.
Perhaps more importantly, however, she has some serious talent to back that experience up. And with her latest project, The Dirty Middle, that talent shines as bright as the glean from the National Guitar about which Paul Simon once wrote. A pop-blues outfit, the quartet is one of Frederick’s best secret weapons, a sturdy combination of quality playing, songwriting and sensibility. Better yet, its debut five-song EP lives up to any expectation one may have.
Opener “Change Wait” sets the impressive tone with its surprising indie rock structure taking shape in sugary fashion. Laid back with just enough swing to make a toe tap, the song’s chorus lights up the stereo with Smith’s fiery enunciation of the title’s two words. Spicing things up is the Texas-blues undertone the guitars offer with every accent, presumably making Stevie Ray Vaughn grin wherever he happens to be shredding up in heaven. The stylistic decision is minor in execution but major in influence — and certainly unique in Frederick music.
“Messing With The Kid” then steps up the fun, allowing the band to get funky and let loose in ways not otherwise seen here. Guitarist Michael “Ponyboy Blues” Joyce glows underneath the spotlight after each hook dissolves, his lead work good enough to eventually inspire Smith’s scatting near the end of the song. What truly takes centerstage, though, is the groove, which recalls a specific blend of Memphis soul best heard on the Stax imprint decades ago. Give these guys a B3 and the Booker T comparisons ought to start rolling in, pronto.
Taking that formula to the next level is “The Ballad Of Ensign Jimmy.” The EP’s best, most memorable track booms forward with the help of Justin Erlich’s driving drums and a mystery that doesn’t come cheap (or often enough anymore) in the blues realm. Slithering along with help from Matt Felipe’s bass, Smith lowers her voice to a croon, smartly creating a dark vocal atmosphere aimed at matching the ominous — yet hip-shaking — musical tone. Her singing takes a different shape each time she returns to the “wah-wahs,” making the production not merely complete, but also unforgettable.
The only time the band slips — even if it is ever so slightly — is when they complicate things for themselves. “Heart Of Stone” gets better with each listen, but at first glance, the tricky time signature turnarounds don’t line up as solidly as they should. Amounting to somewhat of a waltz, it’s the least accessible tune here, and while that doesn’t have to cement failure or disappointment, it does take away from the momentum the rest of the album accrues. It also features the band at its least inspired, uncharacteristically coming off more clunky than unified.
All is forgiven, of course, when the group gets back to its bread and butter, which is their version of the blues. “Losing Touch” is a slow dance that builds and subsides in the way this kind of music does when its done effectively. Recalling latter day live versions of Elvis Costello’s “I Want You,” Smith excels throughout, her voice as smooth as it is strong, as flexible as it is confident. More lasting is the abundance of Adriennes we occasionally hear come in and out of the mix, making an already powerful instrument a force of nature as it harmoniously echoes above the electricity.
It makes sense that Smith’s voice can stand above controlled chaos — baring her soul as willingly as she does sets her apart from a lot of other vocalists in and around town. It’s the burning of an internal flame that everyone possesses yet few can access. Adrienne Smith, though? She can access it whenever she steps to a mic and The Dirty Middle provide a perfect temperature for that fire to rage. Suffice to say, these five songs burn with intensity and sizzle with pride.
No gasoline needed here. The fuel is in the details.
*** 3 STARS OUT OF 4 ***