It's Only Rock 'n' Roll

By JOHN SWENSON, United Press International  |  Aug. 21, 2002 at 5:07 PM
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Leslie Smith has been a respected vocalist on the local New Orleans scene for a long time, but she has remade herself over the course of the last two years, taking up the piano and becoming a singer-songwriter. Before that she had pursued her lifelong love of singing ... from the time she was a 13-year-old runaway living in San Francisco and singing her favorite Sarah Vaughan songs every afternoon at the subway entrance in the Powell Street Pavilion.

At 15 she returned to New Orleans and picked up work singing at various clubs on Bourbon Street. She was discovered by the members of Astral Project, who urged her to quit working on the street. She began a regular gig at Tyler's Jazz Club and continued working as a vocalist until her recent transformation into a singer-songwriter.

Her debut, "Paper Doll," showed a lot of promise, but it was clear she was growing by leaps and bounds when she played more than a dozen new songs at her record-release party. Those who witnessed this event were struck by how much Smith reminded them of Carole King.

Some of those songs are on the Dancing Iguana release "Just a Girl," an outstanding record that improves on the promise of "Paper Doll" and suggests that Smith is quite likely a late-blooming star in the making. The work has little to do with the signature sound of New Orleans, but the fact that this music-rich city is nurturing sounds that might be more associated with the California studio tradition shows that there's more going on here than meets the eye.

Of course, this is New Orleans we're talking about, and Smith pays her dues to the city she knows is "lost in time" on the easy-swinging paean to her hood, "This Old Town." She pays real homage to this mystic terrain when she sings, "I'm standing in the pouring rain, and there's no point in going home," a vivid image to which anyone ever caught in a French Quarter downpour can relate.

Smith's exchange with saxophonist Tim Green on "Just a Girl" is really great, reminiscent of Tom Scott's superb backing of Joni Mitchell. Green shadows Smith's voice in a gorgeous foil of tonality, and takes one beautifully concise break. The song is strong but somewhat misleading in the context of the album. Smith is far from being "Just a Girl." The rest of the album's songs make up a brilliant song cycle about a mature woman's search for love and self-realization, the kind of stuff at which Carole King was particularly adept.

Smith is disarmingly candid about her misgivings on "I," and paints a gorgeous picture of tender intimacies on "See You Sleeping," which features another great saxophone break from Green. She navigates heartbreak expertly on "Need a Rainy Day," "Always" and "Song in Blue," then reaches a blues perigee in the exquisite dialog with Green, "There's a Place For You." She's even good at expressing resignation on "Mercy" and, finally, the big kissoff on "Honey."

Smith's ability to peel back the skin of emotion in these songs is almost startling at times given that her sweet, straightforward voice is emotionally neutral, always in service of the well-crafted melodies. Toward the end of the album she breaks out of her mode of personal emotional observation to lament in the protest song, "What Kind of World Are We Making," a plea whose urgency is dramatically underscored by the expressive violin accompaniment of Nancy Buchan.

Smith inhabits this material effortlessly, but it's very easy to imagine any number of marquee divas turning several of these songs into mainstream pop hits. Smith's publishing company should be working overtime plugging this material.

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