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Sylvie Lewis

Tangos & Tantrums

(Cheap Lullaby; US: 8 Feb 2005; UK: Available as import)

The cabaret's the thing

Right. Hands up, all of you who enjoy and appreciate the likes of Diana Krall and Norah Jones, but wish the former would get back to the amused appeal of demanding lovers to peel her grapes rather than going all angry adult à la her husband, and are just utterly sick of the latter’s pleasant earnestness and overwhelming media presence, cutieous bootieous though she undoubtedly is. I’m hoping for quite a fair showing of palms here, even discounting those of you sealed away in headphones, headbanging to some Fugazi in righteous disgust at all this overmarketed niceness. Okay, does anyone here reckon their sort-of-jazz subgenre is going anywhere fast? Didn’t think so; therefore, let us here assembled trace the smoky intimacy and perceptive melancholy that attract us back to their roots in… what’s that? Country? Get out, now. Not that there’s anything wrong with country *cough*. But no, I’m talking about turn-of-last-century Europe. We’re going to the cabaret, kids.


And there, taking her place nervously under the soft lights whilst layers of fragrant tobacco smoke waft along aged walls of Franco-Germanic wood and conjure for the briefest of moments the indelible outlines of Dietrich and Piaf, is potentially the Next Very Big Thing in the world of dulcet damsels who reign the radio: Sylvie Lewis. Like Krall and Jones, Lewis has an overtly appealing and feminine voice that she uses (reasonably) softly and with taste, but to their reference list of Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin she adds Kurt Weill, Noel Coward, Lotte Lenya, and Serge Gainsbourg. The famed former trio are, of course, European expatriates (like the London-raised, LA-residing Lewis, who was educated in Italy and Switzerland), but the important connotation with the latter group is not so much a wryness in the face of the fairground drama that is an irresistible part of the battle of the sexes, as their renown as songwriters.


For, and I don’t feel I can overstate this, Sylvie Lewis writes witty, touching, elegant, thoughtful, picturesque… wonderful songs. Moreover, her delivery (against a backdrop of lush strings, mournful piano, double bass, a little percussion, and some sozzled brass) shines with vulnerable affection whether saddened or bemused, with not a shred of affectation in sight. Though anyone penning a line as tongue-in-cheek charming as “you drove me to this place/and now someone’s calling me a cab” is obviously as much an observer of her own songs as the listener, the emotion she invests in her creations still rings true, and descriptions or accounts that, in a more modern populist mode, would probably be cynical and slightly mean, retain under her care a reflective quality that is, at most, in her own words, bittersweet.


Here, for example, are the opening lines to “All His Exes”: “All his exes gather round / they rub against my ankles / they’re warm and soft / they make nice sounds / they know their pleases and their thankyous… All his exes call him up / to talk about whatever / they want advice / on boys and life / he picks them up / when they’re under the weather…” There follows an evocation of the girlfriend’s party from hell, where champagne is supped (“I bring my own beer”) and reminiscences about the man in question exchanged (“I check my watch”). This slowly evolves into a quietly smiling exploration of the different ways in which we relate to those we used to love (“It occurred to me the other day / and I’ll just have to put this bluntly / the only exes that I’m friends with / are the two that still want me”). Elsewhere, she evokes a Paris pareil with old Deano’s bella Italia (“All the women there are beautiful / but the men can be quite rude / there’s magic floating in the air / and sex appeal in the food… Nowhere else comes close / though other cities try / it was hard to tell the promises of Paris from the lies”) only to have it become a symbol of all the romance promised by a man which never transpires.


Blurring the line between personal evocation and general musing with just as much aplomb is the Kipling-inspired “My Rival”, which plays on the despair of a 17-year-old girl faced with the gender politics that seem to give every advantage to her 35-year-old friend/opponent, although things end on a bright note: “But there’s a single ray of hope / sneaking through the blinds / for she’ll be almost 60 / by the time I’m 35”. Cabaret’s fascination with glamour and the silver screen is also addressed, on “The Movies”, where it’s contrasted with Lewis’s wishes to stay at home in a relationship that’s heartwarming if not glitzy. I haven’t really got the time to delve into her admittedly sentimental lyricism when describing New York as a metaphor for the memories of her past relationship (“New York”) or when waxing philosophic and life-affirming about an evening spent together (“Old Friends”), but it’s possessed of a startling poetic clarity.


And hell, should all that fail you’ll still be dazzled by fragile intensity of her softness. This album won’t be out until February of next year, so suffice it to say getting it this early has made being an unpaid music journalist seem fantastic once again (not that I’m bitching, boss). Hopefully my enthusiasm will stick with you until the record comes out, because I know there’s no justice in this world and it might just disappear. With any luck she’ll be immense and you’ll pick up the endearingly titled Tangos and Tantrums after having completely forgotten my review. C’est la vie; bonne chance, ma belle.

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