Jason Smith, the singer/songwriter/composer known as Night's Bright Colors (NBC), released the fourth and final installment in his Hospital Quartet on Sunday, May 2. The album — like its predecessors — is available online only, by free download. The drop date was significant: It was Smith's birthday. He begins a new year as his current project comes to a conclusion, though this isn't really the end for NBC. Smith tells Xpress that Canadian label RCat Records is going to re-release some of his material and, though the prolific musician claims he has no future plans for public releases, it seems unlikely that NBC bids its final farewell with the release of Patient Notes and its companion album, Absinthe Mourning.
There is a story behind the Hospital Quartet. Smith describes it as "a series of four interrelated albums revolving around two fictional patients in a mental hospital." The debut, Love in the Asylum, was released in 2006, followed by First Set Fire to the Stars, in 2008, and Late Night By Lamplight, in 2009.
Patient Notes is lush, stratified and intentional. It's almost as if, when Smith composes music, he pieces sounds like images on a storyboard. Despite the institution theme, Notes is far from cloistered or restrictive. "Sky Blue Day" builds on vocalized rhythms and crescendos; "Amphetamine" is a happy, Beach Boys-esque confection with the sweetest hint of background strings.
What makes Notes so instantly recognizable as an NBC album is Smith's close-to-the-mic vocals. His warm tenor is always quietly welcoming, as if he's singing, only for the listener, a mood-lifting nursery rhyme. And, while his lyrics and aesthetic share nothing with Cat Stevens, there's a keen, heartfelt quality to Smith's singing and an affectionate simplicity to NBC's music that recalls the "Moonshadow" folk singer.
But, unlike Stevens, Smith's subject matter encompasses some darkness. Maybe even a closeted ghost or two. Track titles like "Last Stitches" and "The Next Cut" suggest uncomfortable topics. The latter, in fact, leads off with an insistent marching beat and a savage electric guitar riff — but that song is immediately followed by a wash of bird song.
Absinthe Mourning follows a previous companion album, Absinthe Twilight. Despite its darkly evocative title, Mourning is largely underscored by hushed pop, a thread of light, delicate, sun-dappled instrumentation so floaty and aloft, it's as if the musician barely fretted his guitar. The opening track, "V," is a soft, ambling instrumental that leads easily into the sweetly catchy "A Cradle Song" on which Smith sings, "I woke up falling down without a bed, autumn twigs and leaves around my head."
Where Mourning departs from Notes is that it's more experimental. "Twilight" opens with chiming xylophone; "VI" is a low-pitched, slightly "Arabian Nights" number that would be equally at home as background in a piano bar or as an intense pas de deux in a modern ballet. "VIII," a deliberate track, is so minimal and spare — one piano key pressed at a time — that it's as disturbing as it is meditative.
Final track "When You Wish" ends with a shimmery sample of the melody line from "When You Wish Upon a Star." That light, wistful tune lends a strangely open-ended feel to the album, as if Smith left the building before his audience realized he was gone. But, hopefully, that unclosed door suggests a possibility of more NBC in the future. Smith writes, "I've got about three albums worth of NBC material that just didn't fit with the overall four disc project and that ambient/instrumental Isolation Studies project that I will try to refrain from forcing on a patient public."
Let's hope that's not the case. And, in the meantime, free downloads of Smith's catalog should get us through.
Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.