Friday, 11 September 2020

Lovesong: Paul Armfield: Domestic

I'm struggling, in search of a leading line.
Perhaps I'll let do Paul do the talking:

"My eyes are ringing and my eyes are sore
There's things out there that I can't ignore
So draw the curtains and lock the door
I've no appetite for more"

'Domestic' is clearly rooted in the idea of 'home'. Armfield apparently gave up on work and decided to hibernate. It seems that he'd been over stimulated by worldy affairs and was intent on retreat: 
"There's nothing being said that I want to hear. And if anybody wants me I'm not here."
His ambitions had become more wholly humble.
"January first. My new year's resolution is to learn the second verse of Auld Lang Syne'. 
I know, I know: comparisons are odious but I'm getting Jake and Jaques with a slight aftertaste of Leonard. Wait, there's a bit of Waits in there too. The ghosts of Thackery, Brel and Cohen are fine spirits to marinate your fledgling chanson in. Perhaps more than anyone, Armfield shares a muse of the mews with Essex folk singer Chris Wood, whose keen eye and dry wit similarly details the familial and the tribal. They occupy common ground as they focus on the solid state of things: the actual world rather than a virtual one. Paul ponders, but his touch is light, coherent, heartfelt and true. His treacley tenor has a calming timbre: perfectly pitched as he sings of the mundanities; toting and detailing the dots that join our everyday. He raises the drawbridge to consider the quotidian and occasionally peers out to squint at the connections outdoors. But how to truly retreat if you are genuinely compassionate and concerned? Paul's looking in to better look out: you can sense the curtains twitching. And in that refined worldview, beyond the sweet ennui, there's a worldly recognition of the bitter divisions that Brexit has elicited; particularly the platform afforded to those with concerns about national identity. Ironic then that Armfield lives on a tiny island anchored to a larger one. From his home on the Isle of Wight he questions the entitlement of belonging. In 'Flagbearers' his kindly gaze drifts from navel fluff to naval flags. 'Washed up on the shore, just a mongrel like yourself... Is that a medal of honour or just a badly drawn drawn bulldog tattoo? He wearily concludes "We are all just strangers." It is perhaps that disheartened sense of dislocation that has ushered him towards the sanctuary and protection of his own threshold. And there there is family. There there is love: "And for the briefest perfect moment I am absolutely yours and you are absolutely mine". Paul considers the empty nest of a newly child free home in 'Fledglings': "The roost is tidier, every room is cleaner, quieter, wider. Less housework yes but much less homely... I still leave the door unlocked." His attention ultimately settles on his life partner, his beloved wife whom he clearly and cleverly eulogises in 'You'. It's a lovesong so artfully, heartfully stuffed with love that you want to hug the both of them: "My heart's a purse that's full to bursting, but the only thing of any worth is a faded crumpled photograph of you." 

It is the rarest of things: a work of quiet, considered beauty: one that takes its own sweet time to reveal itself. With an album so lyrically rich it is easy to overlook the musical content. It's jazz, it's folk, it's lovely. Interestingly Paul chose to record these homely homilies abroad in Stuttgart with European musicians. At the core are Giulio Cantore on guitars and cavaquinho, drummer Johann Polzer and producer Max Braun on bass. Their gentle strums and sophisticated proddings provide the perfect patchwork for what could be the perfect 'duvet album'. And yet, although this album fits like a pair of well loved slippers, Paul's mischief keeps a pebble playfully placed, just in case you should get too comfortable. 

This is ultimately an album written by a man in love with words. His concept is nuanced with caution and care: if there's a more finessed, lyrically astute album released this year I'll eat my Thesaurus. Profound and scintillatingly droll, Paul Armfield is a master of the bon mot and the vinegary vagary. I could flick the artfully printed lyric cards at you and let you find faith in the familiarities. But I can only quote Paul so much, so will leave you with the last lines of the final song: a summation of Domestic's canny conceit: that, although home is where the heart is, we're all home alone. Armfield's search for a sense of home has no cozy conclusion. He settles for 'a lighter darkness'.  'Alone' recognizes the loves and losses that make this sweet, ordinary life such an extraordinary wonder. And appropriately enough, there, finally, is my leading line: This sweet, ordinary album is an extraordinary wonder. 

"Rain flicks the leaves and the wind whips through the trees
And a lighter darkness spills out across the sky
The headlights of the cars lead us back to where we started from
We buckle up and drive ourselves back home
In silence, together but alone"


Friday, 4 September 2020

Lovesong: Sylvie Simmons: Blue on Blue

“I’d always thought of the uke as a toy … a little handful of happiness. But not anymore. From the moment I picked it up, I fell in love. A ukulele has a sad, fractured sweetness, like a broken harp. And a modesty. It doesn’t try to impress you, it almost apologizes for being there.”

So spoke Sylvie. 'Fractured sweetness' pretty much sums up the appeal of this delicate offering. It's quite an achievement that an album birthed in hurt is steeped in such serenity. The portents weren't good. Simmons had recorded her 2014 debut 'Sylvie' in Arizona with the grandaddy of Americana, Howe Gelb. She returned to Gelb's favoured Tucson studio WaveLab in 2017 to start work on the follow up. However, whilst out walking in the desert after the first day's recording, a stumble led to serious injury; particularly a badly broken left hand. That hurt not only halted the recordings and challenged Simmons' future uke skills, but actually threatened the loss of a limb. Sylvie retreated to her home in San Fransisco to recover and reconsider. Time told. Wounds eventually healed. With itching scars still smarting, she gamely returned to the source of the hurt. Hurt and recovery are major themes here. 'Blue on Blue' a perfect title then. You get the feeling that Sylvie's world is hurtful, hopeful and homely. That she managed to recreate that feeling so far from home is credit to the company she chose to keep for these recordings.

Producer Howe Gelb famously sees rehearsal as 'the enemy'. He gathered a trusty crew of Tucsonan musicians to come play his ruleless game: familiars who recognized the virtues of spontaneity. Gelb kept things suitably understated throughout: there's plenty of space left for nuance, finesse, and the wonder that is Sylvie's breathy delivery. Her ukulele, that 'broken harp', laconically leads, keyboards whisper, a bass occasionally wanders into the spartan room, guitars gently conspire to caress the silence. There are whistles and bells (yup) but they are playfully placed to unsettle any possibility of ennui. The lack of drums and percussion lend a faltering uncertainty which adds to the woozy, indolent charm. And charm is central to the success of this album. There is vulnerability in Sylvie's gentle voice: a quivering quaver that speaks of hard earned heartache.  And what of the songs? Given the preceding trauma, you anticipate bitter darkness: you are gifted sweetness and light. 

Her style is classic Laurel Canyon 70s song-smithery, and Sylvie references that influence with a calm, quiet confidence. It is clear that she has spent a lifetime marinating in music. Her journalistic career has required her to consider and critique the successes and failures of others. Gamekeeper turned poacher then? More like poacher turned sitting duck: a courageous step away from the relative comfort of disinterested editorials, towards the faltering uncertainties of a life as troubadour. And Sylvie surely leads with her chin. You feel the kindred influence of Nico in the loose limbed, quotidian appraisals. You sense the presence of Leonard Cohen in the lyrical conceits, in the way that Sylvie catches and caresses the mundanities with her poets' eye: “ladybugs climb up the blade of grass and balance on top of a dewdrop, swaying in the breeze like they were floating on a fish eye.” You hear Neil Young in most every fragile melody. This does not confer Simmons a copyist. How could a life in music not influence her creativity? What's fascinating is that, because she has left it so late in the day to write these songs, she's too worldly to play the ingénue. She presents herself as she is, not as what she wants to become. And yet this awareness is not a cocky strut. It's a gentle, breezy dance: a composed, rear mirror recognition of where her life has beached her. And that Sylvie chooses to keep dancing, with no shoes on, amid the broken glass and dog shit, renders her tender songs as mischievous, elegant courtship. It's that heady mix of knowing and naivety that makes 'Blue on Blue' simply irresistible.