Tree Tops, Cory Smith’s ever-rotating “progressive groove-rock” project, has been at the center of Knoxville’s expanding prog scene for the past four years. But only now—after running the treadmill of endless local gigs, small-scale tours, raw early recordings, and inevitable lineup shifts—has the band leapfrogged toward the top of that class. The quartet’s debut album, Ghosts Don’t Dance With Shoes, improves on the 2015 EP Eclipse in every sense imaginable: tighter arrangements, beefier production values, and a surprising amount of soulful hooks wrapped around those signature space-funk guitar solos.
“Towers” hinges on the nimble, psychedelic guitar interplay of Smith and new recruit/former Maps Need Reading axe-man David Webb, but the song’s breezy backing vocals flaunt an accessibility that many A-list jam bands would snub their noses at. “Fly Like Pigeons” is almost psychotic in its sweep, with profanity-laden, Gov’t Mule-style funk grooves, heady jazz interludes, and pummeling hard-rock riffs.
The name-dropping feels necessary. There are nods to Warren Haynes, Umphrey’s McGee, Santana, even Frank Zappa (“Stonefacin’” is built around a bluesy riff that alludes to “I’m the Slime” and includes a shout-out to the avant-garde master’s classic “Cosmik Debris”). But Tree Tops rise above hero worship throughout Ghosts, thriving at a compelling sweet spot of pop songcraft and prog expansiveness.
Ryan Reed is a freelance music/culture writer-editor. In addition to Knoxville Mercury, he contributes to publications like Rolling Stone, Billboard Magazine, Paste, Relix Magazine, Stereogum, Ultimate Classic Rock, Esquire, and Rhapsody. On the increasingly rare occasion he isn't slumped behind a laptop, he's probably teaching adjunct college classes, record shopping, or unsuccessfully attempting to master "The Purdie Shuffle."
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