Graded on a Curve:
Sylvie Simmons, Sylvie

Sylvie Simmons has been a part of the scene for decades, but as a noted journalist and biographer, not as a musician. Sylvie changes that state of affairs; released this week through Light in the Attic, it offers a striking combination of Simmons’ voice and ukulele with additional instrumentation and production by the estimable Howe Gelb. It’s one of 2014’s most welcome debuts.

The Los Angeles correspondent for the UK weekly Sounds, chronicler of that city’s ‘80s metal explosion, and the subsequent LA source (under the pseudonym Laura Canyon) for the metallic rock mag Kerrang!; from just these informative tidbits one could jump to an inaccurate conclusion regarding Sylvie Simmons’ first LP.

Please throw these morsels of knowledge into the picture; interviewer of a wide range of musicians, upstart fictioneer, biographer of Neil Young, Serge Gainsbourg ,and Leonard Cohen, writer of liner notes for assorted high-profile projects and maybe most germane to Sylvie, longtime Americana columnist for Mojo Magazine.

With all these credits it’s no shock Simmons has gathered a few noteworthy connections. Along with acquiring the services of Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb as producer for Sylvie (except one track guided by the hand of Chris Schultz) Simmons’ inaugural effort has garnered positive words from Brian Wilson and Devendra Banhart, the praise indicating not only the strength of her tunes but also a savvy blend of timelessness and contemporary appeal.

Sylvie is unusually secure for a debut, though given her background, maturity and extensive private honing of her songwriting skills this is no surprise. The record is quite intelligent in its construction, revealing generous twists as the running-time unwinds and ultimately draws close to the aforementioned Americana realm. However, much of it is appropriately assessed as adventurous yet easygoing folk with a nod toward the indie scene, in part through the contribution of Gelb, who also lends guitar, synth, and piano alongside his Giant Sand cohort Thoger Lund’s upright bass.

But while Gelb and Lund accent Sylvie’s opener “Moon Over Chinatown,” it unfurls as nearly all ukulele and voice, her tone deceptively tender as a closely-recorded intimacy reinforces a fragility that’s not really there; that is, across the album Simmons acquits herself as a strong if contemplative singer, one occasionally flirting with the homespun but never falling into preciousness.

Quickly introducing a little sass to the proceedings is the bluesy/folky “My Lips Still Taste of You,” a track likely to please Hope Sandoval’s many fans as the nicotine-scented late-night lounge ambiance of electric keyboard interacts with the confidently unflashy guitar playing and Simmons’ equally assured vocals.

The uke returns with “Hard Act to Follow,” Simmons going it completely alone except for a bit of trad piano accompaniment, though her voice is smartly multi-tracked. It reengages the tenderness of “Moon Over Chinatown,” and if it emanated from an artist 20 years younger it might end up falling into the neighborhood of twee. But with age comes sincerity, and “Hard Act to Follow” resonates like a ditty pleasantly spun circa the mid-‘60s in the corner of a coffee and falafel joint on MacDougal St.

Not to be overly obvious, but “Lonely Cowgirl” sounds like the above scenario gone country-ish and even a tad cinematic (it’s not difficult to imagine the tune as belonging to the OST of some rugged ‘70s anti-Western starring Kris Kristofferson and the great Warren Oates). Less obviously, the instrumental portion of “Lonely Cowgirl” is so pretty it caused me to recall the work of dolceola-master Washington Phillips; for that, I am grateful.

Speaking of cinema, the title “Town Called Regret” can’t help but bring oaters to mind, though that’s basically where the comparison ends. Instead, it sports the aura of ‘80s femme neo-folk, though it thankfully avoids furrowing into any one individual’s style. A touch of tangled guitar racket and an unexpected pinch of airwave-unfriendly language assist “Town Called Regret” in attaining its own plateau.

And with the short and achingly sweet “The Rose You Left Me” it becomes clear how Simmons has acquired so many noteworthy supporters. Likewise her assistants for Sylvie; throughout the LP Gelb introduces nothing more than what’s required to enhance the songs as written and sung, and it’s especially evident here, as simple organ effectively amplifies Simmons’ sense of melancholy.

The starkness is employed particularly well on “Midnight Cowboy.” In far too many situations an environment comprised solely of ukulele and vocals has proven gimmicky or somehow trite. Here, it resonates as utterly natural, with nary another element needed. And then added instrumentation does arrive to present an alternate possibility.

Perhaps fitting to its title, “Life Goes Bad” initially registers as a demo never sent (there’s a hint of audible hiss amongst the brittle stings), but the cut gradually travels into unanticipated regions via Lund’s bass, Gelb’s synth residue, and Simmons’ slightly eerie self-backing; this is one for the Devendra brigade.

“Who Knows Where Time Goes” reestablishes the Greenwich Village air, though the bass playing assists in it seeming less reminiscent of a live performance and more remindful of a studio session pressed up by Verve/Forecast or even Vanguard. From there, the folk-popish near swagger of “You Are in My Arms” connects like it could’ve been waxed for Warner/Reprise anytime between ’68 and ’72, but in fact is also perfectly at home in the here and now.

“Rhythm of the Rain” is a cover of The Cascades’ 1963 John Claude Gummoe-penned chestnut, a swell number that deserves rescuing from the middle of the road. In this Simmons achieves success, again dropping in some exquisite cussing, as her vaguely harp-like string plucking kinda inspires visions of Joanna Newsom bumping her head, passing out and then waking up believing she’s Zooey Deschanel.

It’s the kind of gesture easily associated with a music journalist, or possibly better said someone who’s dedicated much of her life to listening to as well as writing songs. And then a final curveball; “Midnight Cowboy Reprise” is a wordless closer featuring synth, stately keyboard, and cheap drumbox all mingled to eclectic result. Some will consider it an anticlimax, but to these ears it sounds a lot like a hidden/bonus track from the ‘90s.

To have mastered one artistic discipline is an impressive enough feat, but to excel at two is a rare achievement. Those looking for a companion to Ruthann Friedman’s very strong Chinatown from a few months back (and the similarity of that title to this album’s opening song is an interesting coincidence) should step right up to Sylvie.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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