Simi describes her soulful sound as Mountain Motown, which just about hits the nail on the head. Her eponymous debut album springs up like a mountain stream or a cooling breeze in the heights of a sun-kissed day and is every bit as shimmering as the cover’s golden hues. It takes on Northern Soul floor-stompers and mixes in a little touch of the upstate New York Tendaberry vibes of Laura Nyro’s Stoned Soul Picnic, with an ear for the soulful side of James Taylor and Carole King. It’s perhaps an Upstate New York, northern take on that laid back southern vibe informed by the lush greens of the Catskills, rather than the languid bayous. Any which way you like, it’s truly gorgeous stuff and Simi has some astonishing musical talent along for the ride.
Simi’s website doesn’t offer much biographical details, so her story will have to wait for an interview we will be having with her very soon. In some ways the album feels so natural, it’s like the result of some sort of homecoming, but there’s perhaps a little more to it as Simi herself explains, “My inspiration comes from being cracked open. Being brought to my knees by the love and pain of life. It comes from the fire I have walked through, from the fire I have seen others walk, laugh, cry and sing through. I set out to make music for people – joyful, honest music.”
She’s toured with various artists including Connor Oberst, Dan Zanes, Elizabeth Mitchell, Natalie Merchant and Amy Helm, but Simi really came to people’s attention as part of The Duke & The King. Appearing on the second and final album, one enthusiastic reviewer on Amazon called her the best thing about the record, Long Live The Duke & The King. Unfortunately that band were beset by Simon Felice’s health problems and while he seems to have recovered fully, he seems to now favour a solo career trajectory.
Since her days with The Duke & The King she spent her time patiently building up a strong following on the New York live scene in many of the city’s leading clubs and theatres. Recently she’s toured with Natalie Merchant as both support act and as part of the former 10,000 Maniacs’ singer’s band. Having more recently been asked to support Simone Felice, but having no record of her own, Simi recorded an EP with producer David Baron. That project has now resulted in her self-titled debut full length album, with David again at the controls, funded in part by a pledge campaign.
In fact David is more than just producer, he’s band mate playing a multitude of keyboards and co-writer too. I’m assuming there are local connections, or perhaps previous friendships, but the pair have picked up one hell of a band. Most notable names are Gail Ann Dorsey who guests here and there, but is prominent on Simi’s website, while the crack rhythm section of drummer Zachary Alford and Sara Lee on bass is also pretty damn stellar. Guitarist Danny Blume seems to be part of the gigging line up, although there are several other guests including Ian Felice. Also featuring is saxophonist Tony Aiello, who seems to have been a long term sideman with Joe Jackson, but plays here solo and as part of the brass section deployed on three tracks. Other guests include Amy Helm who sings on one track and Roberto Juan Rodriguez who contributes percussion.
Over a steady beat Simi sings, “Climbing, climbing, climbing up the walls babe, Fighting, fighting, fighting for what’s left of you,” in the opening Pyramid. It’s probably the prominence of the piano, alongside the bass and drum that makes me think Laura Nyro. Simi it seems is done wasting time in the city and desperate to hang on to her lover. Good Friend expresses much the same sentiment, although this time Simi needs someone she can trust amidst a sea of cheaters and deceivers, including our old friends whiskey and wine, who prove no more reliable. The easy roll of the tune and the ache in Simi’s voice are classic soul, but even when she’s hurting or unsure of herself the arrangements give a blissful feel.
Natural Grace is all staccato stabs, with a chorus that sounds like it could be some sort of outtake from Off The Wall era Jacko, complete with squelchy synth bass and synthetic strings. Benny is an uptempo pop delight, but with a more acoustic flavour and Simi sings, “You used to be trouble, but you’ve changed, We all make mistakes, but there’s no shame, They only make you who you are.” It’s a simple declaration of love and one that is hard to sit still to and avoid the temptation to get up and groove to.
The double waltz time of All Of The People gives Simi a chance to use her violin, which is both plucked and bowed, as she sings, “All of the people all of the time, They’re working like crazy just to survive.” It seems Simi wants us all to slow down and talk, maybe enjoy our lives a little more.
On Missing You she finds herself torn between wanting to be, “…more like a regular girl,” with the knowledge that she really belongs to the mountains. She’s also torn between hurt and a lingering love, one that wishes the departing object of her affections well.
The classic sounds of Fender Rhodes and wah-wah guitar give a tight funky feel to the start of Season Of Change. It’s the first song to use the brass section and builds from the taut shuffling beat, through the bridge into an expansive coda, as Simi looks to embrace change however it falls. Natalie Merchant’s Don’t Come Back also swells up on layers of violin and backing vocals with big piano chords adding to the drama as Simi tries to free herself from a heartbreaker.
By contrast Got It All is built around Simi’s strummed acoustic guitar and a steady kick drum, which contrasts against the heavy reverb on her voice and an almost cavernous echo, as Simi sings, “I’ll hold you when life breaks, Your eyes are the sun on my face.” There’s a clever breakdown as just the piano and drum take over, before the songs soars away on a coda of, “We got it all, I love you so.”
There are hints of blues and gospel about Good Girl as Simi owns up to having changed her ways. If she may have been the kind of girl your mam wouldn’t like she’s defiant in singing, “But I know my heart is gold, no apologies.” Once again the brass section kicks in as Simi gets into sassy mood, although it’s questionable whether she’s trying to convince herself or everyone else that she’s, “…a good girl now.” She stays with the sassy strut for Bitches Fly as once again, the brass section punch through the track.
That’s Just The Way It Is, slows things down with a string laden piano ballad and Simi gets a mournful tone from her violin and the cello of Rachel Lee, as she sings, “I’d give it all up for another day, To sit with you and watch the world, What we’ve been got washed away, It’s just the way it is.”
She’s still got one card up her sleeve, however, with the floor filler, I Do, destined to be belting out on a ‘casino’ dance floor near you. It has the pounding back beat of a Northern Soul classic, a killer horn riff or two, with the deep parp of the baritone sax, a delightful breakdown and an epic arrangement as Simi can’t wait to stop playing house and make things official with a gold band. It’s an upbeat end to a great record.
Given that soul music has arguably largely been in the doldrums as the sounds have taken on an overly commercial, urban gloss, perhaps it all needs a kick start from a country girl with her lungs full of mountain air. Simi certainly has that winning combination of smouldering passions and heartache, pride, hurt and the good girl / bad girl dilemma to create something authentically soulful. In David Baron, she’s also found an excellent writing partner and arranger and between them they’ve cooked up an album of classic sounds and great songs. This New York Tendaberry is ripe for the picking.
Review by: Simon Holland
Got It All
Simi Stone is out on June 8th 2015 via Reveal Records
Order it via: Reveal Records (Album + Bonus Limited Edition 5 Track Good Friend CDEP) | Amazon | iTunes
Photo Credit: Kate Orne