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Music review: Niilo Smeds
Music review: Niilo Smeds
Album Title: Helicopter Circles
Released: October 2011
Coming back home can be a tough proposition. There’s comfort in familiar surroundings, but hidden in unseen corners there’s also decay that needs to be faced. Fresno musician Niilo Smeds, a Reedley native who has spent time living in the Bay Area and on the central coast, writes songs that speak to making a life in California’s paradoxical Central Valley. The ache and hum of his full-length solo debut record, Helicopter Circles, puts a melancholic sheen on Smeds’ stripped-down, lo-fi EP from this past spring, elevating his songs to poetic proportions.
Smeds is the best songwriter in Fresno right now – period. His words cut quickly to the bone on the leadoff track, “Summer Air.” The first two lines: “You’ve come back to your friends now that you’re alone. You need someone to see you cry.” Any boomerang kid can recognize the song’s banging and crashing as the feelings that come with leaving, coming back, and then making an uneasy peace with your choice. The song “I Don’t Need You” is a declaration of independence, a peek past the neat and tidy guts of a song to the profound flaws of relationships. Smeds sings: “You’ve heard this song a hundred ways. They could have the same name and the story would barely change.”
There are gorgeous musical textures here, too. The song “What” sounds like a nursery rhyme dressed up as a waltz, and it summons both the delicate finger-plucking guitar of Elliott Smith as well as the blank resignation of the early Beck song “Rowboat.” The freewheeling instrumental “High Winds” feels ready-made for a road trip to the mountains, trunk loaded with fishing poles and a cooler full of beer, your hand riding the air outside the window as the road gives up the straightness of Fresno and gets more and more winding.
The standout track on the record is “Dreaming,” full of the bittersweet pangs of the place you call home. It feels like Smeds is singing to Fresno itself when he delivers such lines as, “I feel so hated by the one I always thought would love me,” and “I’m like a dog trying to run away, not knowing that he’s home.” The song’s twangy, carefree guitar amplifies the contradiction of feeling safe in a town that might not ultimately be good for you at all.
It is ultimately significant that Helicopter Circles begins with a slow, steady drumbeat like a heartbeat, and it ends with a swelling, two-minute revelry of keys and cymbals. This is the sound of working-class rock gospel, steeped in Central Valley dust, shots of whiskey, and simmering blood. The spirit will sink in.