One of 2004's saddest moments for music freaks who surf the web came in the summer, when Glenn McDonald concluded the weekly run of his column The War Against Silence after publishing for 500 consecutive weeks. The irony of it all for me was discovering McDonald's brilliant writing a mere four or five weeks before he pulled the plug on one of the best-written journalistic columns-music or otherwise-I've had the privilege to read. Luckily, the archives are still up there for those who were late to the party. (And speaking of luck, it was surely that which allowed me to get there in time to win his contest.) In one of the column's last installments, McDonald makes a rather convincing argument that The Big Sigh, Smart Brown Handbag's eighth full-length, is 'the most underrated album on the planet,' and he's right. The strangest thing about it is that the music SBH leader David Steinhardt creates is ridiculously accessible for someone wallowing in such obscurity. McDonald writes: 'Thousands of artists with more-inherently limited appeals have attracted evangelical cult followings in a fraction of the time it has taken David to get, apparently, nowhere. It's beyond weird, it's suspicious, and we should have started doing something about it years ago.' While lacking an all-world 'single' a la previous Handbag classics like 'Ungrateful After All' and 'Greetings From The Longest Weekend (Of Trying So Hard To Stay Thankful),' Sigh may be the band's most consistently satisfying album yet. -Hoboken Rock City News As I begin writing, about two and a half months after the nominal release-date of the eighth Smart Brown Handbag album and David Steinhart's fifteenth in all configurations, The Big Sigh, Google can find only four mentions of the record anywhere on the web, all of which appear in copies of the same stock SBH band-bio. With human effort I can find one more reference in a Pop Art Related Projects discography, and unannotated mail-order listings at CD Baby and Amazon (the latter not actually offering to deliver CDs until the fall). For the moment, then, I believe that this is the most underrated album on the planet. Possibly Stonegarden Records also has the worst marketing department in the music business, as the label's own site is among those not yet mentioning the record, but I don't think that's an excuse. David has had a twenty-year recording career, and several of those fifteen records are spellbinding. A new SBH album should be an event, and I shouldn't be the only one celebrating it. So I'm conscripting you into the campaign to correct this inane state. Count off, all of you, starting here to my left. Anybody whose number is a multiple of five, please go at once to CD Baby, listen to the clips, and if you like them, purchase a copy of the album and find somewhere online to enthuse about it. Repeat with the back catalog, and keep at it until I give you this little chopping signal with my left hand, the first two fingers extended. You see what I mean about how strange it is, right? There are only three other songwriters I even have fifteen or more studio albums by, and they are all major international stars. The style in which Steinhart writes has been continuously popular since Murmur, if not Mr. Tambourine Man, and there's no shortage of bands making current active livings with it. Thousands of artists with more-inherently limited appeals have attracted evangelical cult followings in a fraction of the time it has taken David to get, apparently, nowhere. It's beyond weird, it's suspicious, and we should have started doing something about it years ago. Well, no matter. At least we'll be ready for the next fifteen. The Big Sigh is as solid a foundation for a David Steinhart appreciation program as anything he's been involved with. Stabs of guitar feedback oscillate and resolve into the spiky jangle of 'London to Amsterdam', and the album is underway. David's brother Jeff returns to join John Glogovac and Cindy Albon in the band, and they spin silvery threads of keyboard glimmer and drum-loop clatter into the generally bounding and happily traditional guitar-pop fabric. 'Big Sigh' snaps and shimmers and twitters, Glogovac's drums pattering like rain off the wings of passing hawks. 'Bulletproof' downshifts and hums pensively, warmly overdriven chorus guitars giving way neatly to just a drum fill as David sings the title. 'If I Hear' evokes Pop Art's minimalism, especially in the uninflected lead hooks and David's talky vocal delivery. The pealing 'The Middle of The' is as effusive as Let's Active or early Game Theory, and I could spend a pleasant evening cross-analyzing David, Mitch and Scott's singing tactics, starting from the simplistic base hypotheses that Mitch generally let his singing trail the arrangement, Scott usually preferred to run tight circles around it, and David generally swoops and dodges alongside. 'Baseball Season' is gauzy and becalmed, strings chirping through processed guitar blur in a sort of noisy lullaby. 'Courtship' traces a coy pastel-pop lineage back through the Cardigans towards Byrdsier origins in Translator and REM. 'Half Worth Having' blares and struts like a coherent GbV, but 'Pushing Around Pieces' steps back into strummy mid-tempo restraint and heatwave choruses. The awed 'This Impossible Mess' slows to a raptured stagger, but 'Better' revs back into Del Amitri-ish twang. And the reedy, headlong 'Stubborn Is Fine', at the end, may be as close as David has yet come to writing a direct successor to Pop Art's 'Mark Came Home'. Nothing here affects even a faint twinge of formal innovation, but too often innovation is a hedge against inadequate craftsmanship. Getting simplicity right is hard, and great. And after fifteen albums, not only is David still one of my nominations for best relationship lyricist, but he's become one of the rare ones to let adulthood and marriage inform songs that would previously have capitalized on failure and youth. 'London to Amsterdam' let's love and hope surge into the empty spaces of confusion and distance, making paths through the language barriers, which don't go away just because we know how to talk to each other. 'Big Sigh' weighs old expectations against slow understanding, and realizes that the truth can be ecstatic even when it isn't sudden. 'Bulletproof' is a mesmerizing study in what from different angles might be commitment or powerlessness, and maybe that's the point. 'If I Hear' is the song Justin Currie was never selfless enough to complete, the distraught lover's confidant retaining enough perspective to understand that she may need shelter and release less than a gentle push back. 'The Middle of The' bounces out of relationships for three minutes of cheerfully self-deprecatory career self-reference, and I'm happy to take the title as a promise that obscurity won't deter them. 'Baseball Season' overcompensates by plunging back into a relationship story too abruptly to salvage it, but 'Courtship' rebounds into sly seduction, or at least into the geekily self-aware kind of seduction that can only happen after the kids who take it seriously clear out. 'Half Worth Having' is a defiant anthem of romantic faith, or maybe stubbornness, if that's different. 'Pushing Around Pieces' is the flip-side, gnawing suspicion and obsessive reduction, but 'Impossible Mess' counters again immediately, basking in the wonder of the most mundane annoyances, crossed work schedules and dog hair and the perfect moment when she and their child get out of the car. 'Better' might be the most subtly brilliant song here, a sunny driving ode disguising a haunting revelation about how it feels to pull away a little and then let go and not know for an instant whether you're going to be snapped back. And 'Stubborn Is Fine' ends with ringing confidence in the power of a few good days to get you through the hard ones. And if nobody has heard this yet, that doesn't mean it isn't true.-Glenn McDonald, The War Against Silence.