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.

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