The first album from writer and multi-instrumentalist Shelby Smoak has an unusual genesis. The origin of the project is the 2013 publication of Smoak’s non-fiction book Bleeder: A Memoir which examined the journey and challenges for a young man living with a HIV and hemophilia diagnosis. The book wasn’t quite enough for Smoak, however, and he soon began writing songs aiming to depict the experience in a dramatic musical fashion. The result is a nine song collection that the Chapel Hill, North Carolina resident invests with the same thoughtfulness, eloquence, and excellence defining his prose. Smoak handles much of the instrumentation on this release, but he’s recruited two superb collaborators, guitarist Drew Speziale and drummer Chuck Campbell, to further aid him in realizing his musical vision. The release should not be viewed as merely some companion piece to his book. Instead, it is a standalone piece of musical art that complements Smoak’s written work and expands on its emotional possibilities in a way only music can.
Some gently strummed, meditative guitar begins the album’s first song “Happiness”. The light post production effects applied to both the instrument and Smoak’s voice artfully builds some atmosphere without ever going too far overboard. There’s a number of influences that one can identify in this opener, but they are so thoroughly strained into Smoak’s songwriting and presentation they are scarcely noticeable. The full band makes its first appearance on the album’s second song “Little Souvenir”. There’s few of the post production effects heard on the first song and, instead, the production renders Smoak’s sinewy guitar lines with warm clarity. Smoak’s vocal is still lightly clouded with some sonic touches, but it gains more from this than it loses. The lyrical excellence personifying these songs reaches an early apex with this effort.
It is entirely fitting a song entitled “The Past” begins on such an elegiac note. The unusual tempo set by Chuck Campbell’s drumming is given a memorable twist by its surrounding instrumentation. The arrangements on Bleeder are uniformly evocative and truly embody the emotional tenor of Smoak’s lyric content without ever lapsing into self indulgence. Smoak’s guitar playing near the song’s end helps reach a much deserved fiery conclusion. His penchant for dramatic six string work hits another high point with the track “Fate”. Despite potentially portentous titles like the aforementioned, Smoak does a fantastic job of providing us with small lyrical snapshots that embody the titles without ever being too heavy handed. “Satisfied” is another exceptional track distinguished, in part, by its compelling drumming. It gives Smoak’s guitar an ideal platform for its extemporizations and, on this number, there’s a decidedly darker edge to his playing. The vocal reinforces the slightly off-kilter mood and his lyrical contributions on “Satisfied” have a directness many listeners will admire, “Hold Your Tongue” concludes Bleeder on another note – this is an alternative rock guitar workout and surprisingly heavy. There’s a fair amount of repetition in the lyrical content, but he never pushes it too far and the concept neatly fits in with the song’s emotional stance. Bleeder is everything it promises to be. This is a powerful rock and roll album with stylistic range and tremendous intelligence.