Everyone Is Crying Out to Me, Beware
(54.40 or Fight; 2008)
By Conrad Amenta | 19 August 2008
Despite music often being treated with some de facto, universalistic benefit of the doubt that assumes an untouchable core of cosmic benevolence, let’s not. Let’s also not subscribe to the manifest notion that marketable products, including those of a musical variety, require an angle or backstory that somehow unlocks it to its audience. You know what I mean: such and such band are from here or there; those guys recorded this album in a haunted mineshaft; X and Y had to design their recording software themselves, so specific was their vision that they required a specialized toolkit; some girl was detoxing during recording; there was an earthquake; Daft Punk are robots or something.
I take issue here because it seems to me so unspoken that the listener is going to take the music and do whatever the hell they want with it anyway. As such, these details—to whatever degree they influenced the writing of a particular music over another—fall by the wayside, relegated to one sheets and bios, selling points and distraction by way of explication. Not every album has to be meta or accurately describe border policies in the Gaza Strip, but few seem to walk the walk of truly presenting it on their own ethnocentric terms, expecting the listener to expose themselves to something that seems, quite literally, foreign and uninterpretable.
The short answer to Alina Simone’s own backstory is her Ukranian-by-way-of-Boston background, the cosmopolitanism she brings to an otherwise Brooklyn sensibility that casts the sonorous isolation of her voice’s stark contrast against a solo guitar’s counter argument. Little of this was self-evident from her prior albums, but that backstory was used nonetheless; so essential is it as a tool distinguishing a talented enough singer-songwriter that they should require no such distinguishing efforts. Here, finally, is a gesture that gives credence to the notion that an album need not be treated as universal pabulum nor pigeonholed niche product to be enjoyable: an album of covers by Russian songstress Yanka Dyagileva, all the more demanding for its premise. Trying to make this about one’s dog is going to be difficult.
I’ve tried to assign cultural resonance to Simone’s phonetic representations of Dyagileva’s intentions but am ultimately left with as subjective a framework as is applied to a label’s best marketing strategies. Aesthetically, Everyone Is Crying Out to Me, Beware is true to its title’s prophetic trepidation, as well as Simone’s own affection for minor chords and environmental dimness. The appropriated voice serves—at least for those of us on the outside of a sense of communal, linguistic familiarity—to isolate her further, ramp up the dread, and sink coldness into her haloed vocal presence’s lonely spark. A trumpet acts out a partner’s role on “Half My Kingdom” and elsewhere, blatant in its eulogistic fanfare for Dyagileva’s and Simone’s conscious or unconscious segregation. “From Great Knowledge,” “My Sadness is Luminous,” and especially the gorgeous strum rolls of “Beware” beat back her opening track’s manifesto volume to a level reminiscent of Magnolia Electric Co.’s pervasive sadness. The underwater toms of “Up to the Knees” and moans on “Special Reasons” make me wish I understood better the reasons for what sound like desperation. I did my best, as we ultimately do with the innocuous as well as the arcane, to fill the gaps myself.
A record not unlike that marking Thalia Zedek’s recent resurgence, the context in which Simone is singing and that backstory that is so easy on first consideration to refer to is subsequent to what weighs with obvious dignity and poise. This album is at once exploratory and somehow more intensely personal than even Simone’s own work. Alien is too contentious a term given the cultural specificity at work, but tuning one’s ears to a purposefully aesthetic frequency levels murky prospects and unstated threats, a partially deciphered murmur in the listener’s direction. The feel is of an eavesdropped conversation.
As I wrote this review I was half-arguing with a good friend about what movement this fucked industry might take. Where it’s easy to lament what seems a swinging barometer for value, my impression is that what is being articulated is a frustration with contrapuntal paradigms; I wish we could get more local. Access to methods is increasing, and art as the bastion of the elite is fast becoming a laughable anachronism (as if it weren’t already these fifty-odd years past) of an over-stratified class system. How wonderful would it be to not give a good damn about whatever Radiohead is doing for the sake of the Radioheads operating out of our backyards? I’m enamored with the concept that music so insular and personal as this arrives in my mailbox. To grieve over self-satisfied senses of quality is to ignore the very human voices that are speaking truth to crumbled powers.