Smile Smile – Truth on Tape Blends Pop, Folk
by Brian Willett
There’s no doubt about it – blending folk and pop can be tricky. At worst, the fusion can sound forced and hokey. But the rewards can be great when the two genres are handled with capable hands and creative musical minds. Such rewards come in the songs of Smile Smile’s Truth on Tape, a sweet, simple album from an up-and-coming Dallas duo. At first, the combination of a self-taught guitarist (Ryan Hamilton) and a classical pianist (Jencey Hirunrusme) might seem like an odd pairing. However, as Truth on Tape shows, the diverse musical background allows the two to be flexible and creative and offer a sound as irresistible as an insistent young puppy.
And if trying to make folk, rock and pop work together wasn’t a tall enough task, Truth on Tape is also intended to quiet some of the questions about the duo’s relationship, offering insight into their lives together. Perhaps it is for that reason that the album’s first track, “Tempo Bledsoe,” sounds so heartfelt and touching. Here, Hamilton and Hirunrusme interlace their vocals in a musical embrace that will likely impart a thousand smiles. The lyrics tell of the infatuation of an unexpected romance: “You’ve been untouchable for years, and now I want to touch you, I can’t believe you’re here.” The duo doesn’t try to do too much here, offering simple guitar strumming throughout and some light, floating choruses to maintain the mood.
The next track, “Beg You to Stay,” finds the duo once again showing their lovestruck side, although there is a slight bit of self-consciousness evident: “Yeah I sing a lot about love, it’s only ’cause I love you so much.” Again, simple acoustic strumming is prominent, though Hirunrusme’s piano can be heard throughout as well. As with the previous track, Smile Smile offers simple but heartfelt lyrics, giving listeners something with which to relate but also something to ponder. After hearing this song, listeners won’t need to be begged to stick with this album.
“Cancer” follows, and brings the tempo up a bit, with some smart, staccato percussion and piano. Once again, the duo sings of an unbreakable bond and the desire to make the most of every moment, with Hamilton singing, “You better live your life like I’ve got cancer.” A morbid phrase, perhaps, but a clever way of expressing the idea. This song rocks along with sparse instrumentation – piano, snare and guitar, but it doesn’t feel bare or unfinished. As many other tracks on this album display, Smile Smile has a knack for finding what works just right.
The next song, “Somebody Else,” introduces a slower pace, with Hamilton and Hirunrusme harmonizing at a near whisper. Unlike the previous tracks, though, this one tells a darker story, with Hamilton singing, “I’m so foolish for believing you cared for me than you did yourself.” This is another simple song in terms of instrumentation throughout the verses, with guitar carrying the load along with the vocals, though the duo brings in piano and backing vocals at intervals to create some contrast. The lyrics offer a contrast to the rest of the disc as well, though Smile Smile still offers simple but powerful words; Hamilton sings, “I threw your diamond in the ocean, I burned your letters in the fire…this is far from a conversation, and what you are is in my way.”
“Truth on Tape” offers more heart-wrenching emotion, this time relying on piano rather than guitar. On this track, Hamilton and Hirunrusme alternate singing and occasionally harmonize, creating a beautiful, unique sound. While guitars, violin and percussion eventually enter on this song, the real treat remains the vocals. The subdued tempo and volume of “Truth on Tape” allow Hamilton and Hirunrusme to show off their range and vocal skill in addition to their song-writing ability. While the beginning of the track is quite calm, it gradually builds to a glorious finish.
The duo follows the title track with “Move Along Folks…”, which finds Hamilton and Hirunrusme brooding over the aftermath of a broken romance. Still, the pair manage to wax philosophical, wondering, “Why say break up when we tear apart?” An eerie echo on the vocals and piano makes this a haunting track, a great contrast from the rest of the album. Though short (2:06), it is nonetheless powerful.
“Days Go By” is another song of heartbreak, with honest lyrics and Hamilton strumming on guitar strings as if plucking his own sorry heart strings. While the “I can’t live without you” song has been written millions of times throughout the history of music, Smile Smile manages to keep it fresh here. One might think that piano, guitar and vocals offer little hope for variation, but Smile Smile don’t seem to mind.
The next track, “The Attic,” offers a literal account of cleaning out the attic that is also brimming with metaphors – Hamilton sings that there’s “not a key to these locks” and that “there is nothing here to see,” which, given the context of the rest of the album, don’t just relate to spring cleaning. It’s interesting that the duo also chooses not to harmonize for the majority of this track, which illustrates the break in their relationship.
“Sleepwalking” changes things up a bit, with Hamilton telling of his father walking out on him and his mother. Despite the difference in subject matter, the combination of drums, guitar and piano, along with the duo’s irresistible vocals, manages to make this song into a success. For the first time, Hamilton sounds bitter, asking, “Did you ever think twice and turn that truck around? Or was a wife and a kid all too much to take?” Hamilton may be sleepwalking due to the experience, but this track won’t be boring anyone to sleep.
The following song, “Goodbye Caroline” is another emotional farewell song, except Hirunrusme takes over the lead vocals, singing sorrowfully at a near-whisper. This is at once heart-wrenching and haunting, once again showing Smile Smile’s versatility.
The record ends with “Labor of Love,” in which Hamilton boldly declares, “You’re not forgiven for what you’ve done – playing these games with me, I hope you’re having fun…let me be the first to return the favor.” This has the feel of a traditional folk song, as it features just Hamilton and his guitar. Despite the sparse instrumentation, it’s still a well-crafted song, and listeners can feel the pain as Hamilton spits, “this is what you get when you cheat…I hope the pain you feel leaves a scar that never goes away.”
Though singer-songwriters are hardly in short supply, Smile Smile offers a sound unique enough to differentiate themselves from the crowd with simple, powerful songs of love and heartbreak. Even in an overpopulated music scene, Smile Smile does enough right to set themselves apart and are definitely a band to watch.