Tuesday – an album launch at the 12 Bar Club. It might be a cliche, but this could be interesting. A woman known for her incisive prose in various big league music and culture magazines and a handful of well received biographies now finds the coin has landed tails up, and we’re writing about her. Sylvie Simmons eponymous debut was released through Light In The Attic on November 12, and tonight on Denmark Street she offers up the opportunity to see her windswept lo-fi Americana up close.
The Wanton Bishops are rocking the club’s foundations when I arrive, but they make way for Raevennan Husbandes, invited to perform at the launch. Husbandes is rapidly climbing the profile ladder due to regular gigs, including a slot at this year’s Cambridge Folk Festival – it’s immediately apparent why. Her blend of contemporary folk and singer – songwriter material is arresting for two reasons; she can coax a glorious sound from her mainly finger picked acoustic, and her voice is triple distilled, clear as a bell and invested with a gorgeous timbre that’s as natural as it is seemingly effortless. It’s rare to be able to listen to someone for the first time in a live setting and ‘get it’ – I got it.
The first two songs deal with the power of the written word and secrets. Husbandes has a knack for a clever couplet and both come with simple, clean melodies that act as palette cleansers following the rawk n’ roll that preceded her. Written for a friend, The Dancer allows her to stretch her voice a little, though I suspect she has many more gears she could refer to if needed. Wanderlust is a mid-tempo strum with dampened and arpeggiated chords that strut across the lyrics – ‘..home is everywhere / when you’ve got wanderlust’.
Husbandes has written and performed alongside such folk luminaries as The Unthanks and her music errs towards this genre, but I also caught flavours of early Beth Orton and the lit from within voice of The Innocence Mission’s Karen Peris. Take A Ride is another highlight, as is closer To The Sea, wistful, delicate and comforting in equal measure. Her mini-set is a delicious starter for ten.
In the flesh, Simmons is a slight figure that at first glance might be missed in a sweep of the room, which may have been advantageous in her writing career, but is neither true of her character nor indicative of the steel in her music. Produced by Howe Gelb in Tucson, her album is a fever dream of pain and defiance, scorched earth ballads lamenting sorry endings in short, blunt missives from the other side, where the wisdom of experience does nothing to cure the heavy heart. These are songs that persuade us to curl up with them then bite when we’re warm and cosy.
Her introduction is as understated as her music; a brief hello, a smile and thanks to Jason Mcniff who will accompany her throughout. Mcniff will provide a suitably warm slide into the late evening with some solo cuts from his albums, but the evening will belong to a journalist turned biographer turned album-toting musician. Moon Over Chinatown slips by, Simmons cradling her ukulele at 45 degrees, right hand brushing the strings in short rhythmic sweeps. My Lips Still Taste Of You is a brilliant, sand-blasted song with a dark sexual undertone. It highlights the dissonance in her voice, which constantly plays with the edges of her melodies. It’s a device she uses throughout, leaving the listener wondering if or when she will veer off in an unexpected direction, only for the song to pull back into line and resolve.
Halfway through her set, Simmons jokes with Mcniff about owning a ukulele tuner that has a ‘close enough’ setting. It’s an apt metaphor for her songs. They weave their way into your mind before you’ve had the chance to figure out their structure and meaning, then unfold within you, stretching and feeling their way towards your head and heart, yet there’s always the sense that something is missing, that there’s more here than meets the eye, or ear. This is all the more remarkable because on the surface they’re so simple; the majority of them are anchored by the steady rhythm of her ukulele, chords never roaming far from basic sets and barres. All the colour is in her voice and the carefully minimal accompaniment, on the record from Gelb and friends, tonight on stage from Mcniff’s fluid guitar. There’s a hazy under-the-influence feel to the delivery, as if she’s swallowed the worm as well as the tequila.
Lonely Cowgirl – ‘..there’s many sad things on this record’ – is back-porch drama with a whispered finale, the excellent Town Called Regret is introduced as ambient punk but for me recalls the psych Country of No Depression era Uncle Tupelo, and The Rose You Left Me is a tortured hybrid of vulnerable and obtuse, fuck you attitude. She covers Cohen’s Avalanche (she has more claim than most, having written what some are calling the ultimate biography of the Canadian master) and jokes that the subject matter of her own songs gets more destitute as the set continues. I’m not sure about destitute, but they’re not for the feint-hearted. Considering the gentle fragility of the performance, the 12 Bar is respectfully silent during the songs and vociferous in its applause when they finish.
Who Knows Where Time Goes appears to break the defiance in her words by looking back, and it’s followed by You Are In My Arms, which despite more languidly dangerous ukulele strumming is almost positive in its outlook. The Cascades Rhythm Of The Rain relieves some of the tension, Simmons noting it was recorded when they were messing around in the studio. She finishes with a personal request, Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat providing a pleasing symmetry to the set list.
Aside from the obvious links to Gelb, who had to persuade her to record in the first place, Cohen is a clear reference point for the spare, measured delivery of these songs. They are weighed down with real life stories for real gone kids, for a tumbleweed existence outside societies prescribed structures. Songs for loners, lovers and losers – what would we do without them?
Review by: Paul Woodgate