Ken Swartz & the Palace of Sin, “Smile the Blues Away” (Adelphi)

There may be no single person better in New Orleans at smiling away the blues than Ken Swartz; whether it be Piedmont, East Coast, or Country Blues, Ken likes to keep things whimsical and upbeat, dealing in a real folk blues so ancient it’s got jazz touches. Lots of Mississippi John Hurt, Sleepy John Estes, and Blind Lemon Jefferson. There’s more of it than ever on his third Palace of Sin album, and that’s part of the problem, because he’s also become the city’s finest hand at continuing the country-rock tradition of sober and sometimes bleak Americana done by the likes of Neil Young, Rick Danko, and Gram Parsons.  This town needed a sad and shaggy song called “Carrolton Station.” And now it’s got one. Sadly, originals make up exactly 3/16 of this album.

Being incredibly good at two necessary things is a pretty good curse to have, as is his simple direct honesty. And the other three residents of the Palace, especially Rick Weston and his amazing harmonica skills, augment his character: they’re that rare modern blues band that doesn’t care much about rocking out, despite the fact that they do a great job with two ancient blues classics grandfathered-in by Ry Cooder (Washington Phillips’ “Denomination Blues,” sadly more relevant now than ever, and the Leake County Revelers’ nearly forgotten “Crow Black Chicken”). Their combined sense of intimacy is so perfect that you almost expect to hear polite applause at the conclusion of Reverend Gary Davis’ “Sally Where Did You Get Your Liquor At?” or Memphis Minnie’s “Nothing in Rambling.” Swartz’ taste also remains exquisite: he steals “Milk Cow Blues” back from Elvis and makes Percy Mayfield’s “Send Me Someone to Love” not sound 20 years too late for the set-list. But you always get the feeling that he could be connecting the two sides of his persona to create something truly magical. As it is now, the silence and reverence are his only connective tissue.