Smiley Mikey is a songwriter-singer rather than the other way around. He’s a songwriter first, and a singer second. In a different era, he might have been someone like Jimmy Webb, penning tunes for marquee names to sing. His new album, November Wind … And Other Stories, features a variety of vocalists—different singers to fit the different moods of each track and to portray the different characters that Smiley Mikey has created.
The diversity of vocalists and styles makes the album feel a bit like a sampler, and the production is tasteful to the point of being modest, which gives the album the feeling of a collection of piano-led songwriter demos to shop around to other artists, rather than a cohesive album.
Most of the songwriting is good, with strong central melodies and funny, satirical lyrics. The problem is that some of the vocalists gel with the material better than others. Smiley Mikey himself sings three of the eight songs, and his voice, though thin, is able to convey the lyrical satire of songs like “Reno,” a song about deluded local musicians and artists who “pretend you are a star, then you hit the road and are told who you really are.”
Most of the other vocalists, including Cliff Porter of Jelly Bread, are technically better singers than Smiley Mikey, but here they sing in a straight, slick, studio manner that doesn’t help convey the nuances of the character-driven, narrative songwriting.
And not all of the writing works. Smiley Mikey, who, as Michael Sion, is a writer who contributes to the Reno Gazette-Journal and other publications, relies a bit too heavily on hokey spoken asides. And “18,” about the Occupy Wall Street movement, is one of the record’s best songs in terms of production and performances, but is topical to a fault, not to mention condescending.
By far the best overall song on the album is the title track, a straight-up country song which appears in two different versions, opening the record in ballad form and closing it as a bar band honky tonk. The opening version especially is terrific, with duet vocals by Therese Curatolo and Troy Ferris of the band Whiskey Dawn. Writing country songs for competent country singers to sing might be the best direction for Smiley Mikey.
Rigorous Proof’s “Carolina” is just a one-song CD single, and the line-up on the recording is different than the current incarnation of this Reno rock band, but it’s a good song. The production, mixing and mastering sound super pro. It’s a radio-ready track that would fit well between, say, Kings of Leon and The Black Keys on a contemporary modern rock summer jams playlist.
The guitars and piano sound great, and the snare drum cracks in a vibrant, polished way. The lyrics are nothing special—something about a girl—but they’re better than embarrassing. There’s a nice guitar solo that segues into the best part of the song: an atmospheric, out-of-leftfield organ breakdown that goes right back into an extended version of the chorus.
It’s a promising single, which speaks well for whatever these guys get up to next. It’s also streaming on their Reverb Nation page, www.reverbnation.com/rigorous proof, and worth checking out.