Published Feb 23, 2021Bet Smith may be one of Canada's most underappreciated folk artists, and her latest album, Downer, is set to change that. The album is an unabashed and honest testament to 2020, expressed through minimalist instrumentation, evocative lyrics and powerful vocals. Recorded with the Currie Brothers in Gravenhurst, ON, the album is an understated exploration of Smith's personal pain, anxiety, and — most importantly — capacity to love.
Largely a collaboration between Smith and her frequent artistic partner, Rob Currie, Downer is a firmly contemporary folk release that feels timeless. The production is limited, showcasing the personality of its acoustic instruments and Smith's command of her voice. Downer leans on its strengths by putting Smith at the forefront, complemented by an assortment of organ, guitar, and basic percussion. As a result, the songs seem deceptively simple on the surface, but each draws power from the sheer vulnerability and sincerity of its construction.
The album borrows the sounds of the past as it looks forward to the future: it at times casts a foreboding shadow of dread, such as the (subtle) environmentalist warnings in tracks like "What Matters Most" and "Downer." Yet, spirituality also permeates the album, imparting an optimistic note that prevents the message from sliding into cynicism. Without relying on feel-good new-age clichés, Downer manages to be hopeful about what comes next — while reminding listeners of one's personal responsibility to make that happen.
The songs on Downer are complicated. The opening track, "Forgive You," is a driving mid-tempo track that is almost at odds with its lyrical content: a condemnation of an unnamed offender, juxtaposed with the victim's deep desire to just move on. "North Ontario" is ostensibly about Smith's rural life, but her haunted delivery and sombre refrain "Truth is I'm still working on letting you go" suggest the song is less about where she ended up, and more how she got there. While these and other tracks appear deeply personal, they also feel deeply relatable.
Two of the tracks on Downer were previously recorded on the 2017 release Tightropes & Loose Ends, and fans of Smith's work will likely find the new versions lacking. "Signs of Hostility" appears on Downer in a much stripped-down form that begs for a bass line, while "What Matters Most" isn't improved by the new simpler approach. While both tracks better fit the overall ethos of Downer in this form, they feel lacking — at least compared to the previous iterations.
Bet Smith is no newcomer to the genre, and she's been releasing music regularly since 2015's Loose Ends. Yet, the artist has yet to really break out into the greater Ontario folk scene. If she continues to create music like Downer, it could be only a matter of time before that happens. (Pine Lake Records)