Shelby Smoak knows how to get things off to an excellent start. His nine song musical debut Bleeder tackles the thorny issues like the daily experiences of dealing with HIV and hemophilia, but this is ultimately a collection much more about the cost of humanity and the price we pay to keep our own in a world that often seems intent on stripping it from us. The Chapel Hill, North Carolina based songwriter, vocalist, and multi-instrumentalist brought in some top flight talent to help him make these songs spark to life – guitarist Drew Speziale and drummer Chuck Campbell – and this trio carries off Bleeder’s music with attitude and aplomb. Bleeder takes all of the best qualities from Smoak’s published book Bleeder: A Memoir and filters them through a different medium in such a way that those experiences seem even more gripping and visceral. This is one of the year’s best albums – from anyone.
“Happiness” begins things a little unexpectedly. The guitars and vocals are the sole musical force throughout the track and they have a slow pacing that doesn’t promise to be very gripping at first, but slowly exerts a greater and greater hold over the listener’s imagination. Smoak shows off a great ear throughout the collection evidenced by how he frames the material – there’s always some form of echo or reverb and artful miking that enhances the songwriting without ever pushing too hard. “If You” comes on much stronger with muscular guitar work but, despite his obvious talents on the instrument, he never aims for some virtuoso moment that might otherwise distract listeners from the songwriting. The music on Bleeder is universally geared towards serving the songwriting goals and never fails. “The Past” has the best dynamic build of any song on Bleeder and shows how well Smoak works with general songwriting ideas, like someone’s past, and makes it resonant for listeners thanks to the intimacy he creates.
“Fate” is a similar effort. Smoak’s reflections on these things never strain the listener’s patience with overly wordy droning and still get the essence of the idea in an imaginative way. There’s a lot of guitar in the song, as well, but it shows the same general thrust as some of the earlier guitar heavy tracks. “Satisfied” takes the album back to a confident, alternative rock setting and it makes a great impression late in the album, but the mood darkens again with the final two songs. There’s a simmering tension that powers “Hanging On”, but Smoak strikes a memorable note with the way his singing seemingly works against the musical arrangement. The last song “Hold Your Tongue” has a much more assertive guitar presence than any of the earlier songs, but it makes for a great final curtain on Bleeder. Shelby Smoak’s songwriting, musicianship, and lyrics stand out in a crowded field of talent and makes for an excellent elaboration on his book. Few releases this year will challenge listeners in the way Bleeder does.