Singer-songwriter John Smith, like so many, had a brutal 2020. Even putting aside a pandemic — which destroyed his in-person concert livelihood practically overnight — he and his wife suffered a miscarriage and his mother learned she had cancer. Unsurprisingly, Smith channels that sadness into The Fray, an album of bare songs featuring his flinty vocals and thoughtful arrangements.
If the sadness is expected, the surprise of the album is “Friends,” a poppy track that sways like the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way,” minus the ridiculous production and boy band bravado. Smith strips everything down, just the whisper of his guitar, some finger snaps, and his vocals, the song slowly yet dynamically building until horns and pianos arrive, moving the track into a new phase. Smith never lets the tune degenerate into a big chorus, almost as if he’s afraid to be too happy, a sentiment reflected in the lyrics: “I’ve been chewing on this brand new pain / It just sits in me.”
The track epitomizes The Fray, which features songs that slowly expand on a diet of equal parts controlled sadness and Smith’s restrained guitar. Smith is a session musician who’s played behind Joan Baez, David Gray, Joe Henry, and more, and he applies the rules of session work here, keeping the music supportive and in the background. Contemporary music production works around the concept of making everything loud. Smith goes in the other direction, turning down the music volume so that his vocals pop, but also so that it doesn’t feel like he’s coming at you through a bullhorn.
Smith’s deference to his vocals works for the songs, but his occasional guitar spotlights makes you wish he were a little less disciplined. “Deserving” uses percussive guitar hits and a trippy acoustic riff beneath a pretty vocal melody. The song grows in complexity, drums taking over for the Smith-made percussion, singer Sarah Jarosz joining him to reinforce the vocals, and the guitar gradually receding into the background as “Deserving” turns into a full-blown anthem. Watching a song evolve so dramatically over the course of less than five minutes is compelling, but it would also be fun to hear Smith rock out with his acoustic cranked for a whole song or two.
We think of lyrics as the window into an artist’s personality, but songwriting and production also tell us a lot about the person behind the music. The Fray shows how the guitars are an important part of Smith’s process. You hear it in the music, but also see it in the liner notes, where he lists guitar tunings right next to lyrics, an equal part in the song creation, if not the production. But the way he carefully manages the guitar sound shows his session experience. It allows Smith to create a meticulously constructed album that expresses its sadness but doesn’t get bogged down in it.