This piece started as a review of “Prayer for the Sane”. As I was writing that, an email from the promo company representing Danny in the UK came through, announcing another single that was being released immediately; two singles out at the same time – that’s pretty unusual. After listening to both singles, it was obvious that they had to be reviewed together; they look at the current situation in America through different lenses. “Prayer for the Sane” is the wide-angle view, looking at the state of the nation as a whole, and “2020 Vision” is the telephoto view, zooming in on the impact on individuals and small communities. Danny feels so strongly about these songs that he’s bypassed the whole planning and scheduling business to get the songs out there while fresh (and raw) and contemporary. Both songs were recorded in quarantine.

Danny Schmidt’s a strikingly good songwriter. His songs are witty, clever, original and most important, memorable. I can’t think of another writer who’s come up with a song about string theory. “A Prayer for the Sane”, however, is a bit of a departure; it has all the elements mentioned above, but it’s also a call to arms. Danny’s a very laid-back kind of guy, but the political situation in America today has pushed him down the protest singer route. He never actually uses the ‘T’ word but it’s obvious that he’s alluding to the orange one and the social impact of his term in the White House.

The arrangement for the song is a single guitar with a relatively simple finger-picked backing and some multi-tracked harmonies (The Dannettes, I guess). It’s as stripped-back as the lyrical theme is broad; this is a state of the nation song, a clarion call that highlights the schisms in America today (‘Fences make for consequences, we’re prisoners of our own defences’) and points the way to the solution – ‘It’s time to shake the voting booth, It’s time for us to scream the truth’. It’s a protest song that nails the problems of the States and the wider world today.

Here’s the video:

“2020 Vision” is a much more personal take on the current situation and an even more minimal production. The song structure is a very basic strummed I-IV-V chord progression (three chords and the truth) and the lyrics explore the way we’re dealing with the social changes springing from the pandemic, from social distancing to supermarket shelf clearances and comparisons to our forebears’ experiences in WWII. I won’t quote the lyrics because I’m going to recommend that you watch the video. Amid all the references to our transformed way of life, Danny even manages to fit in a reference to the late, lamented John Prine in the final line of the song.

And here’s the “2020 Vision” video:

These two songs, taken together, are a perfect musical summary of life in the USA in 2020. They convey anger and empathy and demonstrate why Danny Schmidt is so revered among songwriters worldwide.

“Prayer for the Sane” and “2020 Vision” are out now on Bandcamp to download free or pay what you want and will be available later on streaming platforms.

And there’s some late news just in. On Saturday May 9 at 8pm UK time, or 2pm CDT, you can watch Danny and his wife, the equally talented Carrie Elkin, do a free lockdown gig on this link.

One thing to say right from the start, Danny Schmidt is a superb songwriter; a songwriter’s songwriter if you like, practised in the alchemy of creating gold from, well, algebra, statistics and string theory for a start. Unlikely base metals maybe, but Danny Schmidt’s no ordinary singer-songwriter; he’s a poet, a physicist and a metaphysicist. Keith Richards might claim that you just have to pull songs out of the air, but Danny Schmidt is proof that great songs can be honed and crafted till they shimmer if you have the insight, the inspiration and the skill.

Danny Schmidt’s songs cover a wide range of subjects and styles; he’s convincing with the wordy, technical songs (the album’s title track, for instance) and also has complete mastery of the personal, confessional style that tops and tails “Standard Deviation”. The album has wonderful examples of both of those styles; the title track combines a slightly unconventional love story with an interest in various modern scientific concepts. Also, and Danny doesn’t labour this in the lyrics, he highlights the differences between the relationship between the statistical concept of the normal distribution and the day-to-day us of the word ‘normal’. The lyrical beauty of the song is enhanced by a gorgeous arrangement building up to the entrance of the celestial choir towards the end of the piece.

The song that tops the album, “Wait Til They See You” is exactly the kind of song that a doting father writes about his miraculous and beautiful baby daughter while the closer, “We Need Another Word” asks a serious question about whether the word ‘miscarriage’ is appropriate as a description of a harrowing personal ordeal faced my millions of women every year. I think he has a point. “Bones of Emotion” is an exploration of the of the turbulent undercurrents of a family gathering at Christmas, while “Newport ‘65” is a deceptively straightforward look at Dylan’s move away from conventional acoustic folk, which highlights the dangers of being seen as a prophet – acolytes crave certainty and react badly when that certainty is taken away.

“Standard Deviation” is a great example of the songwriter’s art; songs covering a wide variety of styles and topics set in arrangements that make them sparkle and shine.

The album is released in the UK on Friday March 29th on Live Once Records (LOR CD 10) and Danny will be touring the UK in May.

Meanwhile, just bury yourself in this:

Carrie Elkin ScrollerEvery once in a while a gig comes along that restores your faith in London audiences; this was one of those gigs. The basement of The Slaughtered Lamb was packed to bursting with music fans and every single one of them wanted to listen and pay attention to two superb and engaging performers, Carrie Elkin and Danny Schmidt. Both were on stage throughout the two sets, but the opening set featured Danny Schmidt’s songs with Carrie supplying harmonies while the second set was mainly songs from Carrie’s outstanding new album, “The Penny Collector”. Throughout both sets, Carrie and Danny, singly and as a double act, kept the audience entertained with jokes, anecdotes and outright weirdness as a counterpoint to the beauty of the songs.

Danny’s opening set demonstrated the huge range of his writing and performance, from the barnstorming opener with about half a dozen false endings to the intensely personal song “We Need another Word” and the very wordy closer “Stained Glass”. As a songwriter, he can do the simple, moving songs but also has the more unusual ability to create songs that are packed with witty ideas without sounding self-consciously clever.

For the second set, the emphasis shifted to Carrie and the new album while Danny played guitar and added some gorgeous harmonies to a set of songs written at a pivotal and emotional point in their lives. The context of the album is made fairly clear by the narrative, but in the live setting Carrie and Danny added observations and anecdotes to flesh out the picture; some are poignant, some are just hilarious. Their set featured a couple of covers, Paul Simon’s “American Tune” (featured on the album) and Richard Thompson’s “Dimming of the Day” with the remainder of the set coming mainly from the new album, including “New Mexico”, “Always on the Run”, the hauntingly beautiful “And Then the Birds Came”, and “Live Wire” and “Tilt-a-Whirl” which explore different eras in the process of growing up. Carrie’s energy and good humour would pull you in to her orbit even if the songs were average (they’re not), and the fun between songs acts as a a counterpoint to the seriousness of the material.

Carrie Elkin and Danny Schmidt poured heart and soul into creating a performance that kept the audience transfixed and lifted the spirits of everyone in the room. They even dispelled the gloom of public transport in London late at night. Good work Green Note for promoting the show, and you can still see Carrie and Danny around the UK until Sunday June 11.

Who?It might seem like a really obvious statement but this album is all about the songs. What it isn’t about is overblown production techniques, flashy solos or drums like cannons. It’s a group of musicians playing live in the studio, trying to get to the heart of eleven songs without bludgeoning the songs into submission. Danny Schmidt is a songwriter from Austin, Texas who fits perfectly into the seventies singer-songwriter mould (often used as a lazy comparison, but this time it’s absolutely spot on) with hints of Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and perhaps even Jackson Browne. On “Owls” (his seventh studio album), his band of Mike Meadows (drums), Andrew Pressman (bass), David Goodrich (electric guitars), Lloyd Maines (lap steel) and Carrie Elkins and Daniel Thomas Phipps (backing vocals) provide a backdrop that ranges from the ethereal, Mexican-accented “Girl with Lantern Eyes” through the Dylan-era Band of “The Guns and the Crazy Ones” to the moody, foreboding and doom-laden “Paper Cranes”. There’s even a bit of a rock ‘n’ roll flavour to the environmental anthem “Soon the Earth Shall Swallow”.

Lyrically, “Owls” is an album that’s worth digging into because not everything reveals itself at the first listen; Danny Schmidt makes extensive use of parable, metaphor and intricate rhyming schemes in his quest to convey his insights, which range from the political concerns of “The Guns and the Crazy Ones” and “Soon the Earth will Swallow” to the very personal “Girl with Lantern Eyes” and “Cry on the Flowers”. These songs will make you sad and make you angry; they might even make you think.

And this is where we get to the really subjective bit. While Danny’s fragile tenor works really well most of the time, conveying emotion and fragility, there are times when the vibrato becomes a distraction from rather than an enhancement to the song. I know some of you might like this, and I’m not saying you’re wrong, but  it’s a bit overdone for my taste. Otherwise it’s a bunch of great songs on interesting lyrical themes played tastefully by a great band providing frameworks which enhance the power of the songs.

Out Monday May 18 on Live Once Records (LORCD09).