Compass Records (Release date 8/14/20)
Reviewed by Dale Nickey
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.