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Album review – Kaz Simmons: Signs

8 Feb

For the Love of the Big L: Signs is a scintillating love letter to London

Signs: 'quirky' is inadequate for such an assured, eclectic mix of styles and techniques

Signs: ‘quirky’ is inadequate for such an assured, eclectic mix of styles and techniques

There are two stars of the show vying for top honours on Kaz Simmons’s new album Signs. The first is the singer/songwriter’s deceptively girlish voice, which weaves its way through this cycle of city tales with all the variety and flexibility of a seasoned jazz artist. The second is London itself, which emerges as an irresistible influence on her writing and is effectively the central character in a concept album that is far too mature in its themes and textures to be categorised with a glib ‘quirky’ label.

Simmons has raided the rich canyons of psychedelia for a sound that is also flecked with jazz, folk and show-tune references. The result is a constantly shifting musical landscape that evokes the sweeping pomp of symphonic prog rock one minute, a 1960s Marianne-Faithfull-Fitzrovia vibe the next. There’s even a hint of Sondheim when a slightly sinister organ undercuts a few bars of “London Loves” and briefly conjures Sweeney Todd.

This eclectic mixture might have overwhelmed the ambitions of a less assured musician. But Simmons has more than a decade’s experience as a session guitarist behind her, and this has clearly fuelled her dextrous ability to build unexpected bridges between different styles and techniques.

Take “I Know You”, which spreads like a pool of sunshine from its initial introspective folk idiom to an almost cinematic pan across the London skyline, encapsulating the frustratingly thin line between loneliness and a sense of belonging that will be familiar to anyone who has lived in the British capital.

Similar tropes weave their way through “Your Love” and “For the Love of the Big L”, in which Simmons could equally well be singing about her intrinsically flawed relationship with the city as about an unreliable lover.  “We’re friendly people, honestly…” she insists, as her poetic lyrics pick their way through the complicated litter of urban humanity.

Occasionally, as on “London Loves” or the title track, people emerge from the cityscape – a parade of paramours with varying eye colours, each one more feckless than the last, and out-of-sync couples.

She has surrounded herself with a vibrant and sympathetic band, including guitarist Martin Kolarides, Will Bartlett (who is responsible for that edgy organ), drummer Tim Giles and Riaan Vosloo on bass.

The only cover is a sweetly melancholy take on the Pee Wee King pop classic “You Belong to Me”, which is calming balm after the frenetic, always-rewarding drama of the previous eight songs.

Signs is an album to have ringing in your headphones next time you set out for a stroll around the big L. Any other city might do at a pinch, but it is essentially a scintillating love letter to a place that exasperates and enthrals this singular talent (and anyone else who knows it) in equal measure.

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A Song Revisited: “Dreams” by Grace Slick

31 Jul
“Dreams”: a video very much of its time, but what a great song

Dreams: Grace Slick's 1980 album, with a title track that's come hurtling back into my life

What makes a song come hurtling back up from the depths of the memory? Just occasionally, something that defined a time in your life – a few hours, a week, a month – but that you haven’t given a second thought to for years, decades, rears up from the past with all its old power. The response, the feelings, the connection you made with that particular piece of music, with its potent combination of voice, lyric, melody – above all, the ‘sound’ it made in your life – clout you with all of their original force. It’s extraordinary, like travelling in time.

I don’t know what made me search for Grace Slick’s “Dreams” on YouTube the other day. It was a random, almost unthinking act. A bit of displacement therapy to postpone some mundane task. But the great thing is that I did it. And ever since, the song has been playing on a continuous loop in my head. I was astonished and touched by its familiarity, the words returning effortlessly to mind after three decades, those epic cadences just as thrilling, and Slick’s fascinating, textured, contralto resonating through an apocolyptic yet compelling vision of the terrors of the night.

“Dreams” was the title track of Slick’s 1980 solo album. I remember the first time I heard it on BBC Radio 1 – how much more adventurous its playlist was in those days! – and how completely enthralled I was by its symphonic qualities, and by Slick’s blistering vocal attack. At that stage – and for a long time afterwards – I knew nothing about her, that pedigree steeped in the legendary psychedelia of Jefferson Airplane in its various guises. I just knew that this was a voice that commanded attention, that was hypnotic in the way it charged on with something that sounded like controlled rage, almost fighting with the majestic beauty of the song’s arrangement. At least, looking back, I think that’s what I thought. Only probably less specifically. I was only 18, after all. I just knew what I liked, and there wasn’t a lot of it about in those days.

Fortunately, “Dreams” got a plenty of airplay, none of which helped to make the song a hit, although it meant I got to hear it a lot. I suppose that gives it cult status today, because it obviously has a lot of fans out there. Sean Delaney’s lyrics paint a wonderfully lurid picture of the sinister parade that storms, tantalises, disturbs and ravages sleep. I now understand, of course, that the album was at heart a concept project that explored the AA 12-step programmes, Slick having recently emerged from a prolonged stay in rehab.

“To be honest, doing solo albums scared the shit out of me; making music was no longer fun, it was nerve-wracking pressure,” she wrote in her absorbing 1998 autobiography, Somebody to Love? “For someone who couldn’t handle a quarter cup of coffee without wondering where the quaaludes were, working solo was just a couple of steps short of flinging myself off a 150-foot diving board.”

The really odd thing is that I’ve only heard the rest of the album in the last few days. The song “Dreams” was always enough in the completeness of the story, the vision it rolled out. But when I found the video on YouTube (a word about that: it’s very much of its time! Slick looks hard and big-haired, her eyes demonic in a Myra Hindley-ish way, but she is still riveting, a performance artist through and through. The Dolly Parton wig is a stroke of genius) and found myself transported back – not to an actual experience but to a sense of my teenaged self – I wanted to know more about the album. A search for MP3 downloads was fruitless. So it was off to Amazon.

In her book, Slick points out that her solo albums didn’t sell. That she didn’t tour on the back of them, which was a mistake. Well, Grace, thanks to a Japanese import and a rather silly amount of money, Dreams just notched up another royalty and I hope you get it. Because it’s a marvellous album, an explosion of musical references that’s surely overdue for a release. It’s gone straight onto my smartphone and I’m just letting the stories it tells play out on the commute, building a complex picture around a song that’s come back into my life like an old friend.

I know that there was much more to Slick’s music than this, and I’ve since discovered the wonders of “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit”, and the unique contribution that arresting voice made to a seminal period in rock history. And even the commercial hits of Starship – Slick has since made no secret of her lack of interest in them –  have the ability to generate a nostalgia for the 1980s, powered by her unmistakable vocals.

Grace Slick at 70: a successful artist with the presence of a tribal elder

She stopped performing at 49, believing that rock stars over 50 should stop inflicting their ageing presence on an audience. That’s a shame because from the sound of it, she could still knock seven bells out of her iconic numbers – including “Dreams”. Today, she is a successful artist, renowned for her work in acrylic, particularly studies of her rock star contemporaries, many of whom didn’t have her resilience and instinct for self-preservation. In interviews she appears a wise elder of the global tribe: fiercely intelligent, plain-spoken, as uncompromising as ever, warm, compassionate and very funny, a mane of white hair pulled tightly back so that her interrogator gets the full benefit of that frank, experience-laden gaze. More power to her. And huge thanks for “Dreams”.