Disclaimer: the author has recorded for Emperor Jones in the past and will do so again. Anybody who honestly believes that I'd give a favorable review to a labelmate just to make nice with the boss can stop reading now.
Understatement is so damned cool. Tableland's cover is all black, except for the artist's name in the upper left-hand corner and the record's title over on the right. The back cover lists its five songs in the same dignified serif font down the middle of an identical black field. The music, meanwhile instrumental stuff of the dreamy-guitar-floating-above-the-surface-of-the-earth variety gently reprimands those of us who, like me, hate most instrumental rock stuff so much that we're deeply suspicious of almost all of it. Unlike that hipster dreck that makes me wanna retch, though, this isn't wanky or pretentious or high-minded; it's unassuming, even when it's grand (as on the 20-minute-long title track). Smith doesn't require many effects outside of some chorus and reverb to coax dreamlike sounds from his guitar: the pieces on Tableland develop slowly and organically, like root vegetables forming underground, most of the action taking place somewhere out of view. A couple of them begin with indistinct sounds that could be field recordings of ships in a harbor; one of these, "Blood Partridges," sets sail from there into an icy world of electric piano and Jon Hassel-like synthetic horn. The sounds Smith gets are carefully and lovingly crafted, and the end results gleam like polished stones. What he does is very subtle (though there's a moment in the title track, when a keyboard floats in, that's as brash as Earth, Wind and Fire's horn section), and won't be generating a lot of buzz. But it's a lot better than its gaudier, spotlight-hungry contemporaries, and its self-assured, leisurely pace is almost unnervingly cool.