Bleeder – Bleeder
The nine song album Bleeder is Chapel Hill, North Carolina resident Shelby Smoak’s musical testimony about more than just his journey living with HIV and hemophilia. These nine songs are about just making your way through life’s vagaries. It’s about finding the humanity in countless experiences and learning how to rise above the hand you’ve been dealt. This isn’t an entirely one man show. Smoak has enlisted the help of two excellent musicians as accompaniment and those selections put a great deal of attention and thought into their contributions to Bleeder. The truly distinguishing feature of this song cycle is how Smoak translates an intensely personal experience into something resonant for people no matter what context their personal struggles take. This is a supremely artistic work with an abundance of musical and lyrical strengths that make it one of 2017’s most memorable pieces of musical art.
“Happiness” isn’t like the album’s remaining eight songs and seems deliberately chosen for its spot in the running order. The song’s structure is stripped back. It’s just Smoak’s voice and guitar, but both are laid out in a slowly developing way that leaves a lot of space contrasting with the instruments. “Little Souvenir” is a much more straight ahead alt rock tune with some of the best writing on the album and Smoak gives us a strong vocal notable for its engagement and phrasing. The same qualities define his singing performance on the song “If You”, but the guitar grabs much more of the stage than we’ve heard before and has a nice crunchy sound that will hit listeners hard. “Sideways” has a sound much more reminiscent of the album’s second track, but it isn’t quite as distinguished lyrically. No one should mistake this for a criticism – it is fine, nonetheless, but not nearly as transcendent. “Fate” is a big cinematic guitar-driven number with a vocal that lives up to the instrumental bar he sets for himself. Smoak’s guitar playing is every bit as good as his songwriting skills and gives a powerfully intimate quality that might surprise some listeners going into this album.
“Satisfied” has a surprisingly ethereal quality and much of this is due to the production, vocal harmonies, and incremental arrangement. The lyrics have a stripped back quality in comparison to the album’s show piece songs, but the on point conversational qualities of the lyrics are strong. Bleeder ends with the track “Hold Your Tongue” and revisits the guitar histrionics we heard on earlier songs, but it’s used in a magnificently heavy fashion. Smoak really lays the six string power on in an aggressive way. Bleeder is a sizzling debut. Even if it only ends up being an one off release, it makes its mark as one of the smartest collections of songwriting released in the last decade. His work with the other players crackles with chemistry and the album has a flow that’s impossible to ignore.