If you like to keep your ear to the ground for up-and-coming talent, make sure you give a listen to former Israel & New Breed member Leah Smith’s independent EP Beautifully Made released October 20, 2009. The bi-racial beauty’s agile and mature soprano belies her 20 years on the planet. The subject matter she chooses to tackle on her solo recording debut is no bedtime story either.
Over the course of 6 appetite whetting tracks, this Philly native touches on topics such as self-esteem, inner city life, marital discord, unity, and a sin-sick humanity’s desperate need for a savior. There are several points during a full listen where one wonders where she acquired the beyond-her-years wisdom that takes center stage on Beautifully Made. The next element that becomes apparent is Leah’s respect for musicality as the entire EP is completely carried by live instruments and devoid of any vocal gimmickry.
The theme of dreams and nightmares is woven throughout. It makes its first appearance appropriately on the 70’s informed opener “Dream World.” If you’re familiar with the plot of The Matrix, you’ll understand what Smith means when she croons, “wake us up out of our dream world.” With a horn section punctuating her phrases like a chorus of co-signers, she describes the harsh realities of crime, violence, and political disappointment in the inner cities. The heart of the song is summed up in the vamp where she admonishes that we keep “praying for change… also working toward seeing the world restored.” Anyone who took to the sound of Sheri Jones-Moffett’s “Restored” will appreciate the percolating electric guitar licks in “Dream World” all the more.
The organic quality of Beautifully Made‘s instrumentation might lend itself to being called folk music if it wasn’t for the soulful presence in Smith’s voice. A great use of her gift, she keeps each song interesting without falling prey to the temptation to oversing.
To that effect, “Shields and Swords” glides in on a cloud of gently brushed drums and twinkling bells. Smith keeps the mood ethereal as she laments the pitfalls of offending one another with words spoken in anger. The refrain asks “did we abandon our shields and swords? [We] don’t protect each other like we did before.” [If you appreciate Leah's lithe voice here, you would also enjoy singer/songwriter Lauren Evans.]
The EP places its somber moments judiciously. The title track steadies itself on a warm bed of strings while Smith calls to every disenfranchised group she can think of and asserts like a mantra “I am beautifully and wonderfully made.” The closer “Untitled Song” is a plea for redemption and a narrative of finding faith in the face of adversity. The former is cushioned with background vocals like soft foliage around a picture of paradise where the latter stands solely on unobtrusive piano accompaniment. On both, her dulcet tone is reminiscent of songstress Tamia.
The stand out on the set is the galloping centerpiece “Monster” with its exuberantly modern Motown bounce. Shuffling snares echo her sentiment as she frantically sings “I’m runnin’ from a monster, feel like I’m runnin’ and runnin’ and runnin’… and I guess I’ve run the wrong way.” From the moment I heard it featured on Gerard Bonner‘s Bonnerfide Radio internet show, it set itself apart from typical gospel. The charming single doesn’t try so hard to be contemporary or easily accessible to a convenient market. It simply is and lets its message stand on its own two feet. “Monster” gets a boost of pleasantness when, at its emotional climax, Smith calls to mind a less-abrasive but no less effective Alicia Keys.
“I asked my mother, she said, ‘sorry to say, but in 40 years plus, I’ve realized there’s no getting away. Sure you can try, but no, you can’t hide when the thing you’re often runnin’ from is living on the inside.’” – Leah Smith, “Monster”
If it’s still sketchy to the saints of God which monster Leah is running from, it becomes clearer as she breathlessly pants out her ad-libs toward the end of the song. “I need your help. Save me from myself. I’ve been runnin’ from me all along. I don’t know what I will make of my life if you don’t right all my wrongs.” If that doesn’t suffice, watch a clip of Leah Smith explaining “Monster” in her own words below:
It’s hard to ignore her impressive vocal chops that can resonate sweetly one moment and morph to a catty growl in the next without a flutter in pitch. Leah Smith has one of those voices that depending on what mode she’s in can evoke comparisons to Beyoncé or Mariah Carey. Make no mistake though. She’s no copycat artist, although, in the future you’re likely to be hearing about her over… and over… and over.
For more information on Leah Smith, follow @LeahSmithMusic on Twitter or visit www.MySpace.com/LeahSmithMusic1. The full EP is available for download at CD Baby, iTunes, and other digital music retailers.
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