Album Review: Smokey Hormel – Smokey’s Secret Family

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Gregory “Smokey” Hormel is Americana. His work can be found on just about every influential record in the world of folk/country inspired rock of the past two decades. From Beck to Johnny Cash even up to Leonard Cohen, Hormel’s sound is in high demand, and not just for other musicians, but for movies and TV shows as well. He’s made his way into our pop culture and it’s hard to avoid. As expected when Hormel makes a record, the folk/country/freak world stops and listens. On his latest cut, Smokey’s Secret Family, he ventures into the world of 60’s Congolese dance music. While his band holds down the traditional end, Hormel’s fretwork is anything but. Several listens later, it’s still stuck in my head.

Now, while most of his time is spent on bigger projects that leave his name on the credits page, he’s made it out on his own a couple of times before. However, as things seem to go with him, one has nothing to do with the next, making his creatively seeming endless.

Secret Family does two things. First it shows off how he can effortlessly blend his alternative style leanings with traditional music, and come out the other side. Second, and more importantly, it continues to prove that boundaries simply do not exist with Hormel. He can play on a Tom Waits record, and in the same breath help out PB&J, then go out and play western swing with his band Smokey’s Round Up at the end of the day.

As for his guitar work on the record, he keeps things low key. By doing so, he’s able to accentuate the music instead of turning it into background noise for his ego. In fact, there is no ego, just talent and vision. His guitar spins off the clarinet on opener “Cheri Akim Ngi” perfectly, going back and forth, matching then playing off one another. “So Solidao” brings in the Latin influence that was a big part of Congolese, during that era, for a romantic ballad. It’s the echoing slide that adds the perfect finish to the folk song.

One of the best off the record is the split personality “Acua”. Starting out with simple bass and picking, the track quickly funks up with deep horns and rattling percussions. The pattern continues, each time picking up the pace. For the big finish, a heavy jazz undertone surfaces with the distorted guitars and frenzied horns before blasting out.

Other tracks offer up moments that you can’t help but hear from his previous projects. You can almost instantly recognize the essence of Beck’s Guero, Midnight Vultures, and Sea Change all over the record. It’s also impossible to miss why someone like Tom Waits would seek him out. That one can be narrowed down to the heart-breaking album closer “Likambo Ya Ngna”.

Each song on Secret Family holds its own. The tracks vary in style keeping things insanely interesting, but more importantly, fun. It’s easy to see how a record of this style could have been mundane, but with a musician as diverse as Hormel behind the wheel, the music is only a canvas. It causes you to set aside the musicians resume and just listen to what is purely his. For him, on this record, it’s West Africa in the 60’s by way of Latin America, and he’s Marty McFly busting out his own “Johnny B. Goode”. Every time you listen, you discover more, and it grows on you. Secret Family is the record you never thought you’d love, but now that you do, you can’t put it down.

Check Out:
“Cheri Akimi Ngai”

Smokey’s Secret Family