Reviewed by Music Journalist Annie Reuter - AOL’s The Boot and RollingStone.com .
Years after his former band split, Stephen Smith released his debut solo album, Next Train to Nowhere. The 12-track LP showcases multiple sides to the singer-songwriter. From the beginning stages of a budding romance to wrenching heartbreak, and all the possible emotions in between, Smith gets his point across.
Next Train to Nowhere kicks things off with gritty guitar and a steady percussion on “What Happened Last Night.” Soon after, Smith’s wavering vocals enter as he tries to recall the previous evening’s events. With a distinct pop sensibility and sing-along choruses, it’s a palpable radio hit.
The fast-paced music continues on “Summer of 84.” The tale of first love, the track is relatable as Smith sings of obvious insecurities when he questions, “I wonder if you ever think of me.” His eased singing style and steady instrumentals continues to draw the listener in.
Next track, “When the Birds Fly South,” quickly switches gears with slowed and saddened vocals from Smith. The gradual buildup of the track and accentuated electric guitar further reveal unfortunate heartbreak.
While “When the Birds Fly South” showcases Smith’s more serious side, “Mr Benn” provides much needed diversion. With upbeat music that brings to mind Blues Traveler and powerful finger picking and a dance ready beat, the track transforms the LP.
Smith’s ability to metamorphose from high energy dance tracks like “Mr Benn” to more somber ballads like “All That I Want” further showcase his talent. With soaring string accompaniment, lively percussion and dark vocals, the album makes a drastic 360 turn. All the while, Smith’s heartfelt lyrics strike a chord.
Lucky for the listener, the unpleasant mood doesn’t last for too long. The upbeat “Somebody Stop Me” follows and recalls former hit “Walking On Sunshine” with feel good instrumentals and Smith’s spirited singing style. Nearly impossible to not tap one’s foot along, it is his energetic tracks that leave the greatest mark. In fact, throughout the majority of Next Train to Nowhere, Smith easily alters from the more somber tracks to the lighthearted numbers. While his segues are impressive, it is on the happier, uplifting songs that represent Smith best.
First single off the album, “Liar Liar,” features Smith’s emotional singing and eased guitar accompaniment. Slightly repetitive, it is hard to differentiate Smith from other singer-songwriters on this track. With predictable vocals and guitar parts, the track leaves the listener wanting more.
“Until Tomorrow” continues the pace with slowed acoustic guitar and Smith’s resonating vocals. Singing of leaving regrets in the past, the stripped down track exemplifies Smith’s ability to soar and fade at the most opportune times without music being in the way.
Standout title track, “Next Train to Nowhere” is a major deviation from the previous material represented on Smith’s record. With solid rock & roll that brings to mind numerous bands from the 60s, more songs like this could have left a bigger impact. Powerful guitar interludes and a steady beat only add to Smith’s energetic vocals.
Unfortunately, his biography doesn’t give him enough credit. “He doesn’t possess the greatest of voices and his guitar playing often leaves a lot to be desired. However, one thing Stephen does possess is an ability to relay his feelings and beliefs through his songs, in a way that allows the listener to connect.”
While the latter is true, the writer fails to acknowledge his ability as a musician. Though his voice wavers from time to time, it is perhaps this that most connects with the listener. This is no cookie cutter album. It ebbs and flows with love, heartbreak, and loss, and at the best moments the listener grasps Smith’s unyielding emotion.
Review by Annie Reuter
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)