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Food for the folky soul Kitchen, Love'

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To my mind, musicians are at their best when they're telling a story. Some people believe the melody to be the most important part, others will swear by the rhythm. And they're not wrong.

But for me, nothing beats a song that tells a tale.

Maine folk stalwart Putnam Smith offers up a dozen such tales with his latest album 'Kitchen, Love' This marks the singer/songwriter's fourth release, all of them on Itchy Sabot Records. Smith, a do-it-yourselfer to the core, even prints his own CD cases on a century-old letterpress obtained and refurbished for that very purpose.

Suffice it to say, he's a throwback.

Every track on the album has something to offer, but there's a run in the middle of the lineup (tracks 4-6) that is particularly strong. Track four is 'Emily Dickinson,' a sweet and simple song where Smith harmonizes with fellow singer Heather Styka and offers an homage to the idea of an Emily Dickinson lifestyle. The fifth track, 'The Stars Will Line Up Someday,' is one of the more complex that Smith has ever tackled, featuring rhythm and brass sections; it features the impassioned introspection that Smith's vocals carry when they're at their best. And track number six is 'Cast Iron Pan,' a raucous and joyfully st-kicking tune offering Smith's version of pitching woo (which unsurprisingly includes wearing a vest and cooking eggs).

Smith's previous albums have involved relatively few people, but with 'Kitchen, Love' he had a lot more help than before. Not only does the album feature frequent Smith collaborator Seth Yentes on cello, but Smith gets some help from the dynamite fiddle playing of Erica Brown. Jason Rafalak plays upright bass while Zak Trojano handles percussion and Brad Yoder plays such disparate instruments as the soprano saxophone and the glockenspiel. He's also got a number of beautiful voices helping with the harmonies, not to mention the rock-solid brass section.

There's a feeling of transition that flows throughout this album; Smith seems to be spreading his wings a little bit. Part of that is the natural evolution of any artist; while Smith's earlier efforts had a stripped-down feel to them, some of the songs on 'Kitchen, Love' show that he has clearly grown comfortable with broader, deeper arrangements. His work's musical complexity has increased, as has his confidence in terms of that complexity.

Of course, the soul of Putnam Smith's work is steeped in simplicity. And the expansion of his horizons hasn't changed that his songs still reflect a man who wants to live that simple, separate life. He's just found some new ways to tell his stories. 

'Kitchen, Love' is the work of someone who loves music the way it used to be. Whether Smith is playing the guitar or piano, plucking a mandolin or clawhammering his banjo, he's evoking the voice of the past in a modern context. It's rare for music to be of an era without feeling derivative; the key is the genuine joy Smith takes in what he does.

'Kitchen, Love' is available for purchase at putnamsmith.com.

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