New Orleans Monday – Corwood Industries (0822) Audio CD (2016)
Originally reviewed in 2016
Jandek Revisits “Ghost Passing”
Jandek has just released his newest work “New Orleans Monday”. This is a recorded live performance on CD. It will also see release on DVD relatively soon.
Jandek breaks with tradition here and gives us a live rendering of music previously conceived in the studio. In this case, we have a piano fantasia with eerie electronic accompaniment. We get the same instrumentation and format as his last studio release (the 6 cd box set) “Ghost Passing”. On that record, we were treated to six separate hour long piano fantasias paired with the relentless electronic noodling that had all the charm of a dentist drill run through a studio sound processor. Imagine Eric Satie composing a score for a B-list horror flick.
On this record, (limited to one CD and one hour) the sonic experiment is far more sustainable and listenable. Without the benefit of artist credits or visual evidence, the identity of the electronic musician is open to conjecture. However, Sheila Smith would be the prime suspect; and her weapon of choice seems to be a theremin or ribbon controller of some sort.
Jandek’s skills as a pianist are modest. However, he delivers his walking basslines, filigree and note clusters with audacity and elan. The fantasia is a nineteenth century compositional form roughly analogous to what we would call New Age. Heavy on improvisation and imagination, light on orthodoxy. The form was a response to the mathematical precision and unforgiving strictures of the Classical/Romantic period as practiced by Beethovan and Brahms. In Jandek’s hands the fantasia has been bent and twisted into a barren Salvador Dali landscape, at other times both pianist and accompanist descend into a maelstrom of crashing bass notes set against an electronic squall. Ironically, these dissonant, chaotic moments are the most interesting and most faithful to the Jandek ethos.
Jandek’s piano performance is solid throughout. Missteps are few; and, all in all Jandek reveals himself on “New Orleans Monday” to be a far more confident, nuanced instrumentalist than he was on his magnum opus “Song of Morgan”. One wishes the relentless electronic nattering would lay out a few minutes here and there as a palette cleanser if nothing else. Less surely would have been more on this record, and that goes sixfold for the aforementioned “Ghost Passing”.
No way around it, “New Orleans Monday” is a makeweight release. No new ground is broken conceptually or musically. It’s hard to make a case for its existence except as an affordable alternative to “Ghost Passing”. If you are a Jandek completest and acolyte, “Ghost Passing” is a must own, as it gives you all the above described in gluttonous portions with a high-gloss studio finish. However, for the less committed, this Reader’s Digest version (New Orleans Monday) will do just fine thank you.
Gee, I wonder where The Beatles dreamed up all the weird and wonderful psychedelic ideas that gave us Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane? I guess it was just a coincidence that Pink Floyd was recording their first album just down the hall at the same time The Beatles were entering there most musically adventurous phase. I’m sure Paul McCartney’s visit to The Floyds session for a listen had no influence at all on what The Fabs were doing….yeah sure…..Pink Floyd entered EMI studios with LSD addled leader Syd Barrett and recorded an album of wacked-out yet tightly focused ditties and acid jams that changed music forever. Anything was possible after this paradigm shifting debut. Pink Floyd not only established its brand; but it created a whole new genre and gave us a Rock and Roll icon for the ages (Barrett) in one shot. Pretty good for a rookie combo.
“I Fought The Law” was originally a bracing but unthreatening rebel squawk by The Bobby Fuller Four (composed by Sonny Curtis). The Clash sunk their rotting teeth into it and made it belch flames. The guitars squalled, the drums thundered and Joe Strummer’s sandpaper n’ Drano rasp gave the song its soul and menace. Ultimately, The Clash became a haircut band of a different stripe; generating boatloads of record sales and MTV airplay. But, they always talked a good game (and yes) ‘The Law’ ultimately won.
Recorded Live at The Billiken Club St. Louis Missouri – (March 21, 2014)
Corwood Industries (0816)
Stamp Out Reality…..
In 2004 Jandek crawled out of his carefully maintained crypt of self-imposed obscurity. Gradually, like a racehorse revving up to full gallop, he has released a dizzying catalog of DVD’s documenting his live performances throughout Europe and North America. It is doubtful Jandek’s globetrotting is supported by his record sales. So we are left to wonder how The Representative of Corwood Industries underwrites his cacophonic crusades. Jandek peels off layers of mystery only to add others.
I was bestowed a review copy of “St. Louis Friday” recently. Jandek’s live performance DVD’s do not serve the same function that they would for a more conventional artist. His live performances do not document or codify his accumulated repertoire. They are simply field recordings of new (mostly improvised) music with the added stimuli of moving images of the man in holy communion with his muse.
On “St. Louis Friday” Jandek continues a methodology that I first witnessed at his live performance in Los Angeles a couple years back. Which is, assembling a cast of local musos to play improvised free music without a net. All under the watchful eye of free-radical poet/performance artist Sheila Smith.
Sheila Smith is now Jandek’s muse, collaborator and onstage foil. She can be found behind the drum kit, at the keyboard or in The Representative’s face; taunting, seducing and speechifying. For this writer, comparisons to Yoko Ono are probably as unfair as they are unavoidable.
The cinematic aspect of “St. Louis Friday” is puzzling at best. The video quality is a colorless wash of underdeveloped whites and grays. There are two explanations possible. The videographer pooched it by hitting a wrong button on the camera, and Jandek said “screw it, put it out anyway” or Jandek decided the music performed was best represented with snuff flick production values. Yet another unanswered mystery.
Our hero opens the proceedings parked in a wooden straight-backed chair with an acoustic guitar, fiddling around trying to find an open channel to that peculiar, inexhaustible muse that he mines so consistently. At the doorstep of his seventieth year, the subjects of mortality, aging and entropy are clearly front and center in his mind. Indeed, his lyrics right out of the starting gate declare, “My body is wasted”.
On the second song, “The Capsized Boat” Jandek is clearly more preoccupied with narrative as his guitar playing is far more absentmindedly percussive. Jandek seems entranced with the reverb effects produced by the partially plucked steel acoustic guitar string.
At the beginning of the third number, the woman we presume to be Sheila Smith takes her place behind the drum kit and contributes some off kilter fills in support of “Fishing Blues”. Jandek tosses out lines such as, “Throw your dead bait out again” and “this ain’t no pleasure cruise” which would seem an obvious allegory to the vicissitudes of everyday life, or (then again) the piece might be about a rough day at the ocean.
Smith switches to keyboards as a bassist and drummer take their respective places on stage. Jandek lays down his guitar, commands the microphone, and barks out verse in the manner of a circus ringmaster. What follows is a nuanced and involving improvisation, with Smith contributing some atmospheric noodling and note clusters set against an alternately hyperactive and meditative rhythm bed. Jandek bellows, moans and entreats nobody in particular for unconditional love while stating his determination to …”raise my head above it all”.
“Shadow life” sees The Representative strapping on an electric for one of his signature guitar, bass and drums freak-outs. After a couple minutes of dissonant improvisation, Sheila goads him on with some up close and in your face dirty dancing. Jandek turns in an impressive performance on guitar; letting his expert rhythm section do their share of heavy lifting while Jandek’s shifts his focus to single note work reminiscent of early 60’s garage/surf music run through a wood chipper. Sheila takes the mic and starts throwing down a spoken word rant against her man who has ‘no shadow’. The piece goes 10:33 but feels shorter and grinds down to a cogent and surprisingly coordinated conclusion.
“Where Were You Born” continues with the same instrumental format as “Shadow Life”. However, the improvisations have shifted from a solid rhythmic foundations to something more stuttering and abstract. Smith interrupts her verbalizing intermittently to slink across the stage and get up in The Reps face. Smith is either smitten with The Representative or she’s taunting and teasing him as one would a laboratory rat. Half way through, the rhythm straightens out and Smith’s inquisition continues. “Where were you born, Where are you from. Let’s get married.”
And so it goes….
It’s hard to predict or imagine where Jandek will land in the pantheon of artists that have strapped on a guitar and displayed their wares on stage, on record and film. As Jandek hurtles into his seventies, he is immune to the paralysis of perfectionism, and oblivious to the opinions and expectations of the listener. Jandek is an archetype; as such, he stands in rare and exclusive company. You can expect only pure undiluted art from Jandek; and like any concentrated mixture or potion, the taste is sometimes bitter and overpowering. But, that doesn’t mean it’s not good for you.
(LOS ANGELES, CA – August 5, 2016) – Nestled in the outer frontier of Downtown L.A.’s ever expanding tent community is The Bootleg Theater – a funky but chic performance complex that houses both a first rate community playhouse and a concert hall. On Beverly near Alvarado; this was the chosen site of Jandek’s return to Los Angeles on Friday night.
Jandek’s current level of popularity means that he can pack out a 300 seater in any major city in the Western Hemisphere whenever he wishes. It’s a good place to be. The Representative of Corwood Industries and Poet/Spoken word artist Sheila Smith now comprise Jandek ‘the collective’. They’ve mind melded. They dance and writhe together, exchange verse as a married couple would morning chit-chat. Sheila appears to be everything to The Representative; muse, collaborator, manager, mother superior and daddy’s little girl all wrapped into one. Our Goth Princess of the pre-apocalypse wears angelic concern and adoration on her face every second she’s in the orbit of The Representative.
Arriving early, I grabbed an orphan set sheet that was amusing in its mis-information. Rap, Hip-Hop and Country Blues were listed as stylistic signposts though none of those styles were in evidence on this Los Angeles Friday. The list also indicated there would be some harmonica playing by both The Representative and Sheila, but that never transpired.
Jandek and his ensemble emerged from the backstage area and took the indigo blue-lit stage. Some discreet dry ice provided the requisite graveyard ambiance. The Representative of Corwood Industries sat in a strait backed wooden chair at stage right, facing stage left where Sheila Smith sat opposite and gazed back; swaying in thrall to the vibes, the beats and periodically swigged from a corked vial of some mysterious potion. Jandek had an identical bottle which resided in the briefcase at his side. Neither Sheila nor The Representative would be playing instruments this evening. And their positions on stage reminded me of two boxers eyeball wrestling each other from their neutral corners. However, tonight; instead of trading jabs, they would be exchanging love, verse, and sweat. Moreover, instead of throwing haymakers and round-house rights, The Rep would stand in the center of the ring and howl at the moon from the depths of his soul.
The set begins with The Representative seated. Eventually he would rise slowly and tentatively from his seat and unfurl his lanky frame in the manner of a 6 foot 2, black-clad Praying Mantis performing its morning yoga. The Representative was in a dancing mood as he stomped, stretched and shuffled all over the stage. Music stands with neatly typewritten text occupied prominent positions on the stage, but there was plenty of freestyling on offer. Being a nerdy Rock scribe, I dutifully took notes to document the concert. However, it soon became a moot exercise. I moved to the edge of the stage to open an unobstructed portal to the energy source, and that energy was pure and powerful. For the audience’s part, they stood, stared, swayed and were generally mesmerized the entire set. Sometimes the collective energy of the band would flag, but they would always rebound with a second wind and more inspired free playing. After a long and winding closing piece where The Representative tore open his soul with primal urgency, he calmly sat back down, then telepathically signaled to Sheila the set was over. The Jandek ensemble left the stage en mass to a lusty ovation.
Maybe it’s just the post-gig pheromones talking, but the band assembled for this show probably ranks as Jandek’s finest. Drums were absent and replaced by a beatmaster working knobs and faders at the back of the stage. Flanking the rhythm desk was a bassist and guitarist Will Toledo. Toledo deserves special mention in consideration of how much responsibility rested on him to provide harmonic structures and atmospheres consonant with the ethos of Jandek. Echo and delay were used liberally and effectively by both Toledo and the bassist. Moreover, the dynamics and tempo ebbed and flowed organically despite the metronomic strictures of the ever present beatbox.
Call it the ’emperor’s new clothes’ if you wish. Jandek will always sound like an incoherent din to the moral majority. But, for those willing to be hypnotized, A Jandek gig is a mega-decibel baptism of sound. Jandek prays out loud with guitars, bass and beats at full volume; and we get to evesdrop. Often he just clenches his entire body and howls in rapture. The Representative soaks up our adoration and then flings it into the heavens. But make no mistake, he’s not he’s not playing for us. It’s a ritual he would perform regardless. He was creating before the cellphone, CD and home computer. He played before you were born. He’s played sitting on a chair beside a window. Now he’s playing for time. He’ll be 71 in October. There’s no time left for anything else.
Cheesecake – Emerging sub-genre attracts vinyl collectors with an eye for the ladies.
By Dale Nickey:
We have all seen them at one time or another in a junk shop or in our parents (or grandparents) ancient record collection; a long lost vinyl LP with a purdy girl on the cover and insufferable easy listening music within.
Objectification or high art? Probably a little of both.
Context is everything. Imagine a time before cellphones, music videos or color television. Recorded music was an emerging power and the beast demanded product. Audiophiles had to make choices between mono, stereo or quadraphonic. We’re talking the 1950’s and pre-Beatles 60’s; a black and white world that grabbed it’s visceral thrills where it could. Enter The Cheesecake record cover.
In the main, the fledgling record industry was run by ugly white guys. Many of them on the wrong side of 30. Many of the pre-Beatles recording artists not named Elvis or Bobby were session men, film composers, TV composers, studio arrangers and producers. They all made music that was good, bad or indifferent. However, one reality was clear; sticking a bald, bespectacled studio mole with nicotine teeth and goatee on the cover was box-office suicide.
In a marketing move that presaged the MTV era’s obsession with female eye candy, record companies started contracting models for fashion shoots to create album covers that would stop any red blooded American male hot in his tracks and start him reaching for his wallet. Mary Tyler Moore paid the bills as a first call record cover model on at least half a dozen titles. Sometimes you got a twofer when the dish on the cover was also the main course on the vinyl platter (Julie London, Doris Day, Peggy Lee). Often the cover girl would have a tenuous connection with what was going on inside the cover. Other times, the outside cover would capture perfectly the atmosphere of the music on offer.
What follows are some classic examples of The Cheesecake cover during the genre’s heyday, and also some entrants from later decades that were faithful to the original spirit.
Esquivel – Other Worlds Other Sounds (1958)
Ten years prior to 1967’s psychedelic summer of love, artist’s minds were in expansion mode courtesy of the space race. Cowboys Vs. Indians were replaced by The Invaders from Mars vs. The U.S. Army. The Russians first entered space with the Sputnik satellite on October 4, 1957 and our heads were never the same. Everything seemed possible and the last unknown frontier seemed sexy as hell. This cover is a classic example of Cheesecake appeal crossed with otherworldly allure. Oh yes, the music inside stands the test of time as well.
Tabu by Ralph Font and His Orchestra (1958)
Musicians and artists have always had a bit more license to push the buttons of puritanical mainstream culture. In the 50’s inter-racial lust was beyond comprehension in straight white America. On this cover, its very easy to see the hot vibration between the two characters portrayed. However, musically speaking, Arthur Lyman owns the Taboo sub-genre.
Julie London – Julie (1960)
Here is an example of the Cheesecake in question being the artist in the grooves. Julie London was a top notch pop singer and a actress of some note. Here we have a big budget cover that is a perfect example of Cheesecake appeal provided by the artist herself.
Jackie Gleason was a huge (sic) talent and his mainstream success in the 50’s and 60’s allowed him to venture into music making. Not a trained musician, and only a passable singer, Gleason acted as executive producer and artistic Svengali on an avalanche of chill records that were mostly excellent and easy on the nervous system. His album Lonesome Echo was a chill masterpiece sporting the only record cover ever designed to order by Salvador Dali. Most times however, Gleason’s cover of choice was an expensively staged Cheesecake cover that illustrated whatever mood the rotund visionary wanted to convey.
The Cha Cha Covers
Sometimes Cheesecake cover art ventured into sexual exploitation (and many times) soft core pornography. The term “sex sells” started during the 50’s and early 60’s when it was discovered that discreet pheromone manipulation could flog anything from cigarettes to dish detergent. Cha Cha was a hugely popular form of Latin dance music that pushed forward spicy rhythms and smoldering sexuality. Most Latin flavored albums of the period relied on Cheesecake for subliminal outreach.
Whipped Cream and Other Delights by Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass (1965)
For the record, there was no Tijuana Brass, just Herb Alpert rattling around in A&M Studios Hollywood multi-tracking platinum selling light instrumentals for Radio, TV and the world. This album sold north of 5 million and was a common sighting in the used bins in every thrift shop and record store. Now it’s a rarity due to the recent interest in Cheesecake covers. This cover is considered classic. And in case you wondered, the model is covered in shaving cream. Fun fact, model Dolores Erickson was three months pregnant at the time of the cover shoot.
Roxy Music (The Kari-Ann Cover 1972)
As we moved into the seventies, music became heavier and more serious; consequently artists assiduously avoided any marketing strategy that was arch, crassly capitalistic or that carried the odor of “sellout”. Roxy Music didn’t care. They were cutting edge glam-prog musos of the first order, but also worshiped high fashion and 50’s kitch. Hence, this homage to the golden age of Cheesecake. They would continue to display Cheesecake on their covers for the first five albums. Most notably, Siren – featuring a future Mrs. Jagger – Jerry Hall.
Deborah Harry – KooKoo (1981)
Generally, the idea of Cheesecake was to glorify the beauty imbedded in womanhood. To make something attractive and alluring. Blondie bombshell Deborah Harry took a different tact. The New York punker decided to enlist modern artist Giger to desicrate the form and add some shock and awe. That he did. This cover served to puncture the idea that Cheesecake only existed for the hollow pleasure of the purchaser, and the objectification of the woman.
Bjork – Vulnicura (2016)
We come full circle with latest record from this century’s Cheesecake mutation. Forget Lady GaGa, it was Bjork that shattered the kaleidoscopic ceiling of Cheesecake. She appears on each of her records in different incarnations of herself, but always shielded by a character and a concept that seeks to express the mood inside the record: the epitome of the Cheesecake ethos. However here, Bjork morphs womanhood into an existential hybrid who wears her vulnerability courtesy the gaping wound in her chest, but protected by spikes emanating from brain and embrace. Moreover, with her extraterrestrial, Icelandic aspect, Bjork closes the Cheesecake circle with 1957’s Other Sounds Other Worlds.
Jandek has just released two works back to back that indicates an uptrending third act positioned to crash head-on into civilization’s accelerated, downward trajectory. In case you haven’t noticed, humanity is walking around in a Zombie state of ennui, fear and loathing. But we all stagger onward, grabbing fistfuls of joy and comfort like unattended fruit on a street cart. Nothing means anything and what’s the point of art anyway? Is Jandek the voice of this generation?
Austin Tuesday is the most recent work to hit the Desk of The Hollywood Times. It predates his most recent work Dallas Thursday. Like Dallas…, Austin Tuesday documents a fairly recent performance.
“I feel strangely serene, the sun feels so nice this time of day.”
Austin Tuesday is a live performance DVD shot with one camera. The optics are up close and bare ass naked. The facilities at this venue did not include stage lighting, so utilitarian floor lamps were employed. The effect of this overabundance of light is a prosaic clarity that seems a driving force in the performance. One camera scans the stage searching for close ups of band members, instruments, ceiling tiles and other inanimate objects. However the majority of face time belongs to The Representative of Corwood Industries. The backdrop is a brick wall that is home to the building’s shielded electric wiring, a fire alarm, and a hanging, unused projection screen that people my age remember as standard equipment in grammar school.
“To be a cadaver in the midst of a party is what no one wants”
When you strip away the atmospherics, all that remains is Jandek. Black clad, intense and old. His younger self intermittantly lights up the bones of his face, but it soon returns to its ghostly aspect; noticing and cataloguing trivial daily events and elemental feelings because the ghost Jandek (in waiting) is already starting to miss the sensations associated with life.
“The light is dimming so early today, there were some things I didn’t want to see.”
The band is top notch and assembled with an eclectic hand of a casting director. Concert Harp, Clarinet and Bass Drum. Jandek and Sheila Smith take turns artfully scraping the open strings of a violin. Sheila and The Rep also play some very attractive “happy accident” piano as well. Music casts an odd spell when performed by interesting musicians unencumbered by the concept of right or wrong notes.
“… brown leaves walking in the air, brown gray houses, white trim windows, I can see everything I want to see…”
The musicians skillfully shadow both The Representative and Sheila and their verse. Too often spoken word is merely words scatted over the top of a rhythm bed. On Austin Tuesday we get both extrapolated free verse as well as more conventional poetry reading. Gluing it all together is the intensity of Jandek. Body tensed for every syllable. Very little was thrown away on this Austin Tuesday.
“I succumb to it all, just like you…”
Unlike some of the previous Jandek works, Sheila Smith does not dominate with her presence on Austin Tuesday. Now, after watching her perform unadorned by atmospherics on Austin Tuesday, it can be said, Smith is one of the most unique front women in Rock with no obvious point of reference. Sheila’s polar opposite and namesake Patti Smith was passionate and poetic, but sold us a bill of goods thinking that poetry mattered. Conversely, Sheila seems to know it’s game over for Western Civilization, and all that is really matters is the next mundane experience, or the simple miracle of a quiet walk.
“I found a hollow, empty space and I called it home…”
One time on a business trip I found myself on a shuttle bus to the Oklahoma City airport. I remembered that J.J. Cale was a native Oklahoman. I grabbed my IPOD and earbuds and immersed myself in J.J.’s muse. As the dry, earth toned landscape swept by, the epiphany was swift and immediate. Elemental art isn’t about technique or intention, it’s a reflection of where you came from. And (many times) it suggests a certain topography. I’m not sure we can condemn Jandek to any fixed location; however, Jandek’s muse evokes something Antarctic; cold, foreboding, occasionally beautiful, yet barren and melting away at an undermined but relentless speed. And like Antarctica, Jandekland is a place most normal people will never go.
“I caused a ruckus, disoriented everyone…that was my plan.”
I had the privilege of being the first journalist to review Blue on Blue for The Hollywood Times in advance of its release. I decided to repost the article on The Muse Patrol after the album’s release and include an interview with Sylvie for added content. However, Simmons’ backstory and insights were so compelling, I felt the interview should be published as a standalone piece in two parts. Eight months into to this year of living dangerously, Blue on Blue is starting to make the type of noise that could result in a “Album of The Year” pick in many music publications. Here is Part One of my interview with Sylvie Simmons.
The Muse Patrol: You are one of the preeminent Rock Journalists of our time and have written biographies on Neal Young, Serge Gainsbourg and of course Leonard Cohen, which has been published in over 20 languages:
SS: It’s over 25 now. It makes me so happy, I’m just grinning like a child every time the agent says they’re going to buy it in Russia or something.
TMP: Well “Blue on Blue” is your second album. You must be relieved to get it out there and are now able to bask in the glow of these great reviews you’ve been getting. How do you feel about it now that it’s out?
SS: That feeling of being able to say, ‘I’ve got another album out, guys!, is really just overwhelming. That it’s finally out there. I hadn’t planned to take six years to make a follow up to my debut album Sylvie. I kind of felt on a roll, I was writing a lot of songs, getting amazing reviews that I had not expected at all because the great laws of music journalism are ‘you don’t make an album’ and ‘you certainly don’t play ukulele’ and I broke them both. I was going on the road having a great time; and then…life has a way of spoiling your plans sometimes. It did in this case. I was working on a book in collaboration with somebody which took a lot longer than we’d originally thought; and also, I had the accident that put my hand out of action for a long long time.
TMP: I don’t think effect of that event (your accident) can be overstated, you began recording songs for your second album in 2017…
SS: In the studio that first day, it was just going so wonderfully, you know…everything was going well. And then that same night I had an accident (sighs) and it kind of got complicated afterwards, and so all I was doing really was fighting to get my hand back.
TMP: Yes, without putting you through it, you had every guitarists nightmare, an injury to your left hand. You had to go through rehab before you could return to writing and playing?
SS: If it was just rehab, I wouldn’t have minded, but it was a whole series of surgeries and procedures and rehabs. It really was madness. I could not move my hand. It was the size of a baseball mitt and the fingers didn’t move. This was my strange horror story of a life. Everything went on hold for a while. It was like suddenly somebody snatched everything away from you. Almost to the point where I could hardly bear to listen to music – and I had to do it for my living (as a journalist) – which was only because I couldn’t play it. I had also broken my knee in half, so I was stuck at home in a top floor apartment. Friends would come over and musician friends would sometimes bring an instrument that they thought I could play with one hand, like a dulcimer or a jews harp, or suggest “you could put your Uke in an open tuning.” And all I would think was, ‘I don’t like this, I want to go home, let me go back to my old life’. But it was lovely they were thinking of things to help. Other friends were bringing food and trying to keep me clean! My life was being taken care of by lovely people, because for the first time couldn’t take care of myself.
TMP: You mentioned Ukulele. When people think of a songwriter accompanying themselves on Ukulele, you tend to think you’re going to get a Ukulele album. Blue and Blue is not that at all. However, the Uke seems to be a connective thread that runs through the album.
SS: It made me smile when a couple of people reviewing Blue on Blue thought that someone was picking a guitar when actually me on my little Uke! I understand there are prejudices with the Ukulele. I had those prejudices too, I had always thought of the Uke as a toy. And of course Tiny Tim, although he was a great musicologist who knew more about early American music than just about anybody you could imagine – was always considered a bit of a joke. When I got my first Ukulele six years ago, it was given to me as a gift, and I took it with a slight raise of one eyebrow. At the same time, I didn’t have any of my other instruments with me. All my instruments were still In England after I moved out to San Francisco. So, when I first picked up the Ukulele I tried to treat it like it was some sort of four string guitar, but it’s something much more than that. It’s special. And so much more intimate. And the way that you play it, holding it very close, sitting down clutching it close to your heart… There’s something about the Ukulele, for me, that seems to translate emotion so much better than a guitar did. The guitar seems like an instrument where you have to impress someone with your playing. With a Uke, somehow, it’s much more modest and intimate.
TMP: Yes, I fell in love with the Ukulele myself, when I found it to be the most practical instrument for sitting on the couch and watching the telly:
SS: That’s exactly my life now in lock down! A bottle of wine on the floor and a glass I invariably kick over – so now I’m drinking white wine just to save the floor. What I didn’t really particularly take to with the Ukulele was the jumping flea aspect of it, the bounciness. You kind of keep up that perpetual rhythm because it doesn’t have a huge amount of sustain. You play a note and it disappears before you’ve even heard it, like a snowflake on a hot day. I liked that it had this little… kind of broken guitar or broken harp feel to it. But as someone who listens to music all the time, I knew it needed more, you need arrangements. To listen to an album of solo Ukulele – unless it’s someone like Jake Shimabukuro – could be a bit much, so the arrangements were very, very important. Howe (producer Howe Gelb) had a huge part in that on both of my albums. This album’s got more musicians on it than last time. We started off with one extra musician which was Gabriel Sullivan (Giant Sand; XIXA), and Gabriel added most of that sort of Spanish guitar, sort of lacey and intricate. Howe played several different guitars, including a lower toned guitar. But he’d be doing that while the guitar was on his lap and he’d be playing keyboards; and being a very tall man with long arms he could play two keyboards. So, I had a sort of one-man band playing with me plus the other members, including Brian Lopez (Giant Sand; XIXA) who played the solos on two songs. But Howe somehow … I don’t know how it happened, but his musical instincts in general were so sympathetic to my own that when he came in with whatever he was his playing, it often tended to be exactly what I wanted and what I was hearing in my head.
TMP: Sometimes producers get so invested in a project they sometimes start trying to make their own album using their artists songs. But it sounds like (with Howe) you didn’t have to reign him in, he knew exactly what you wanted:
SS: A lot of the time he absolutely did. There were times when I stepped in and asked for more or less of something, or decided on something different. But Howe was working with me, to an extent, before I ever started recording. He encouraged my songwriting and kept talking about us making an album together, sending me emails now and then with ideas of what we should do and how it should be.
TMP: What started you recording your own stuff and putting out records to begin with?
SS: It came down to two people: Howe and Leonard Cohen. My biography I’m Your Man: the Life of Leonard Cohen had taken a long, long time to write. When it came out in the U.S. in 2012, I’d been staring at my four walls for so long – even longer than lock down – and I wanted to get out of here, you know? The publisher set up a few book shops to talk in. But I wanted to go on the road. So, I got in touch with a few musician friends and they’d say ‘hey, come out to this record store or this bookshop and we’ll do something’. I thought it would be a nice idea if I took my Uke on the road as well as my book and sing a few Leonard Cohen songs. Because I’m a bit of a Leonard Cohen juke box – I’ve loved his music my entire existence just about – and nobody’s ever nasty to someone with a Ukulele.
Sylvie and Leonard Cohen
TMP: Yes, the Ukulele is a very friendly instrument:
SS: Yes, so this began to take on a life of its own and by the end of it I thought…Yeah! I’m ready to do that album. Howe had been asking me to do an album of my songs for the longest time, so when I got back home I called him and said I would do it. He booked a studio in Tucson. Howe, bass player Thoger Lund and I recorded the whole thing in less than two days live to tape – which I might add was terrifying for someone making their first album.
TMP: A nice thing I appreciated when I was listening to “Blue on Blue”, is I felt like I was listening to an “album”, if you know what I mean?
SS: I know exactly.
TMP: Was that on your mind when you were recording, that you were doing a large-scale work and it all had to fit together in some way?
SS: Kind of… I knew that the songs on Blue on Blue were taking a slightly different direction. It was while sequencing the album – and I had a different idea to Howe on the order in which the songs should appear – that I really understood the story the album told and how it had to fit together. The first album was a bit different. Because it was my first time in the studio I was a little nervous, so I initially I played the songs in the order of which ones I felt most confident about playing – which was the easiest song? “Moon Over Chinatown.” And having done it, it felt like it ought to be the opening song of the album (Sylvie). I knew, for different reasons, what the opening song for this album would be – and that was also the first thing we recorded – “Keep Dancing”. So that song became a big part of the story, which was about love and loss, and staying and moving on, and those little moments between the love and loss and leaving or staying – or just looking back at a memory of someone happily dancing alone. It’s really interesting to me that just hours after cutting that song live on the first day in the studio, the accident threw me into a world where I was forced to stay in one place on my own and could only dream of leaving; and months after completing the album, much of the world went into lockdown, borderlines were closed and tours were cancelled, and now many of us are stuck in one place, looking back on memories.
Stay tuned (or subscribe) for Part 2 of my Sylvie Simmons interview
Los Angeles, CA (8/16/20) – Singer songwriter Sylvie Simmons has completed her second album Blue on Blue; a set of all original material that has survived a harrowing gestation period of physical injury and emotional trauma. Clearly, much of the blood has made it onto the tracks of the new album.
Sylvie Simmons is a byline any discerning rock music fan has seen often. She is frequent contributor to the mighty rock rag Mojo Magazine. Additionally, she has also gifted the world with her critically acclaimed (up close and personal) biography of Leonard Cohen; a work which stands as the definitive profile of the man. Her biographies on Neil Young and Serge Gainsboroug are no less revelatory.
Fairly or unfairly, red flags go up when any artist known for one thing explores other mediums. You know, like actors who try their hand at music. Yes Bruce Willis and Eddie Murphy, I’m looking at you.
None of that baggage applies here. Blue on Blue is a precise, uncluttered gem. Front and center is Simmons’ ageless vocals and nuanced wordplay. The musical foundation is a soft, gauzy bed of ukulele provided by Simmons. The songs are pastel sketches of dark matter framed by the mood appropriate production of Howe Gelb. However make no mistake, on this record the songs call the shots and all decorative elements defer accordingly.
Simmons’ voice is a girlish, world-weary instrument of persuasion that punches above its weight; the perfect salted-caramel blend that goes down easy, but leaves you wanting more.
Simmons is an unapologetic Cohen acolyte, and like Cohen, her narratives examine the intricacies of romantic entanglement and the imperfect soul. Moreover, (like Cohen) her narratives carry the deep background hum of mortality.
Here are a few remarkable highlights:
Second track “Nothing” finds the artist sourcing her British Folk roots for this rear-view look at childhood. A view that could only come from the distance of age.
“The Things They Don’t Tell You About Girls” is a perfect light refreshment that girlsplains the idiosyncrasies of womankind. Hiding in the weeds of this affable ditty is the astringent couplet, “Since you’re gone, I keep away from bridges, trains and razorblades”.
“Sweet California” is an immigrant’s love letter to home that brought to mind (Canadian tunesmith) Joni Mitchell’s similarly themed cut from her album Blue. Key line “Want to feel your warm breath on my skin, Let the ocean wash away my sin”.
“The Man Who Painted The Sea Blue” is the one cut where lyrics take a back seat to the music. Specifically, the cinematic sweep of keyboards and electric whammy bar guitar.
The album closes with “1000 Years Before I Met You”, a playful send-up of country music’s guy/gal duet sub-genre; which employs the familiar tropes of hard drinkin’ and good lust gone bad.
Blue on Blue turns the neat trick of being both downbeat and uplifting in equal measure. It’s perfect nighttime listening for a COVID world going mad from isolation and angst. Simmons has given us a mature and comforting work that reminds us pain and pathos are still the brick and mortar for great art.