Simone Schmidt the steel-wool-throated singer for One Hundred Dollars and Fiver once told me that reviewers never listened to her lyrics. Which is a shame because Schmidt is everything Saul Bellow should’ve been: She’s a rival literary talent (yeah I went there) but unlike Herzog Schmidt’s working-man characters suffer without an ounce of entitled conceit banal humour or ivory-tower smugness. OHD’s Forest of Tears felt authentic right down to its soiled mattresses; Songs of Man on the other hand was a gut-punch of realist writing. Her old-country songs are in effect Herzog for the poor the destitute the invalid. And they’re devastating.
Which brings us to Fiver Schmidt’s newest project. Backed by members of OHD and Tropics it’s a stripped-down affair — gone are Songs of Man ’s sweeping arrangements placing Schmidt’s ragged storytelling in the spotlight. Side A “Oh Sienna” describes the addict’s plight with a complexity few songwriters could muster: When her protagonist is left bruised battered loveless and paranoid Schmidt judges not. Rather it’s countered with empathy: “You torched my youth” she warbles then later “If I ain’t dreaming am I dead? Your poetry still runs my head.” No Schmidt doesn’t make addiction political but she certainly makes it feel very very real.
Side B “Calm and Collected” is the sunnier of the tracks but is no less grim in its content. The heartbreak here sounds familiar — it’s the story of a family torn apart. Boo fucking hoo right? Not quite. Schmidt’s tale grows darker with each passing lyric: Told from the perspective of a drug-addled incarcerated single mother listeners learn of an absentee husband. A vicious act of assault that leaves the man nearly dead. And between it all the empathy: We discover that these crimes are delivered lovingly to protect a daughter “with eyes like mine.” It’s true: easy-bake morality never came easy to Schmidt.
But her commitment to genuine suffering — and remarkably complex character-building — is what makes Schmidt one of Canada’s finest and fearless writers. And Fiver is a project every bit as worthy as OHD.