Shelby Smoak’s experiences as a hemophiliac and HIV carrier formed the basis of his 2013 book Bleeder: A Memoir and he’s extended the potential of that piece into musical form with his none song release and band project entitled Bleeder. He’s brought in a couple of experienced musicians to help him smooth out the rough edges and round his artistic vision, but his voice, lyrically and instrumentally, resounds as the raw beating heart of this collection. The production reflects the care and passion investing the project. Smoak is never flashy and, instead, works mightily towards crafting a definite, though never linear, narrative for listeners to follow. Few recorded works in 2017 possess the impact and emotional heft of Smoak’s Bleeder. This is the sort of substantive work music devotees regularly clamor for and it certainly sounds dredged from the depths of Smoak’s heart while still retaining all the necessary accessibility.
There’s a decidedly artistic quality to this album from the beginning. The first track “Happiness” works as a prelude of sorts and that feel is reflected in the song’s arrangement. It’s just Smoak’s voice and his patient guitar – space is an important part of this song and interspersing the gaps with swaths of vocals and guitar gives the composition a dramatic effect distinctly different from other tracks on Bleeder. One of the most solid performances on Bleeder comes with its second song, “Little Souvenir”. The nuance and literary skills Smoak can bring to bear as a songwriter come to the fore here in a way quite unlike other tracks on Bleeder, but this illustrates one of its beautiful aspects –each of the best songs on Bleeder has an individual quality yet an unity of artistic excellence. “If You” catches listeners attention immediately with its light riffing at the start and it soon segues into a mid tempo march with massed guitars echoing through the mix. There’s a nicely lazy quality to Smoak’s singing that matches up with the tempo.
“The Past” mixes up listener’s expectations with a powerfully rhythmic track that draws the audience in from the outset. Smoak delivers one of his most memorable vocals with this performance and it shows the same attentiveness to the musical arrangement that we hear elsewhere on Bleeder. There are some light keyboard touches on the track “Sideways” and the restrained uptempo shuffle propelling the song never gets too carried away. The cut wisely contrasts a practically laconic Smoak vocal with its biting lyrics and the relaxed arrangement. There’s some light punk influences heard in the track “Hanging On”, but it straddles the stylistic line quite carefully and perfects a straight forward amble from the first. The finale “Hold Your Tongue” ends Bleeder on an extremely forceful note. Assertive guitar isn’t alien to the album, but deployed in a much more overt fashion than before. Bleeder makes an impact from the first and has the same brightly burning intensity readers found in his written work. None of these nine songs miss and we can only hope that Smoak pursues the project further than just a single album.