Since Elliott Smith passed away in 2003 it seems like all of sudden we’ve been flooded with singer-songwriter types. As difficult as it is to be bitter with him, there’s a sense that Smith’s passing is to blame for the cloying replacements that fill the emotional voids of teen telly and John Lewis adverts. A clutch of relatively impressive singles ago Benjamin Francis Leftwich seemed the type who could sit atop the plaid-clad sob-mob that began with Mumford and Sons, and while Last Smoke Before the Snowstorm is certainly a step away from that faux-folk routine, it falls disappointingly short of anything outstanding or groundbreaking.
Leftwich sets his stall out with ‘Pictures’, and there are fewer more interesting opening lines to a debut album than “if you crash a car/into your best friend’s house”. Built around a prettily picked guitar line and a hushed, double-tracked vocal, it’s a previous single that at the time showcased an ear for a great melody and still does on this record. When ‘Box Of Stones’ follows, we’re treated to the same finger-picking trick but with a little bit more meat around it, building instead to a violin-accompanied chorus. The smoky haze of Leftwich’s voice takes much from the wistfulness of Elliott Smith and Nick Drake, and it provides a prettiness that is more than appealing. But as the old adage runs, it becomes too much of a good thing. When you get past ‘Atlas Hands’, which on first listen was a goldenly pop-sensible, lovely track (and remains so on the album), each half-whispered vocal fades off into the background of each plucked guitar line. It’s a shame, but suggests that maybe Last Smoke… would’ve found better fortune as an EP release.
In fairness, there’s absolutely nothing to sneer at on this record. It’s polite and unchallenging, but therein lies the reason it loses grip so easily. At times, it’s about as edgy as a wet cardigan. Without the imagination of Leftwich’s song writing, you feel the album would tread tepid water with the likes of James Blunt/Morrison. As it is, Leftwich has produced a debut that offers sincerity and a well crafted song or three but lacks the longevity and depth of other, admittedly older and more experienced, singer-songwriter efforts.
Key Tracks: ‘Pictures’, ‘Atlas Hands’
From Joe Abbitt.