[5 August 2008]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
There’s a good chance you probably don’t know who Yanka Dyagileva is. Heck, you might not even know who Alina Simone is yet. And you might not be fluent in Russian. So, can you still enjoy an album where Alina Simone covers nine Yanka Dyagileva songs and sings them all in Russian? You sure as hell can. Everyone Is Crying Out to Me, Beware is a solid collection of songs with a heartfelt emotion behind it that translates no matter what the language.
The album comes on the heels of Simone’s debut disc, Placelessness, an album full of haunting songs with threadbare compositions. It was an album built on negative space, and one that was, in places, almost undone by its quiet. Not so with Beware, and it doesn’t take long to feel the difference. The first sound on the opening track “Half My Kingdom” is a shrieking electric guitar, buried in distortion, something you wouldn’t have heard on Placelessness. It signals a record that is much more lush than its predecessor, and a singer channeling her muse.
As always, Simone’s aching voice is front and center, and she shines when singing Yanka’s songs. You can hear on songs like “From Great Knowledge” that not only is she paying tribute to an artist she loves, but she’s tapping into the hurt and frustration in Dyagileva’s folk-punk compositions. She sounds as close to these songs as she does to her own, and the way she emotes through the whole album—an ebb and flow of restraint and clawing-at-the-chest outpouring—is beautiful and affecting. The album isn’t much louder for its fuller arrangements, but its quiet is very hard to ignore. This is not one of those albums that can just sit in the background. You may think so at first, but Simone’s voice fills the room, and even if you don’t speak Russian and don’t know what she’s singing, you won’t miss any of the emotion behind it.
And while some of the tracks here are stripped down to the essentials, none fall into the rut that Placelessness borders on. On Beware, Simone smartly recorded her vocals and guitar live in one take at the same time. That choice infuses each song with a great immediacy. No matter how slow the songs are, no matter how she stretches the words out, the songs never trudge. They always drive, deliberate and clear-eyed from one heartbreaking performance to the other.
The liner notes give us a translation of one song, “Beware”, from which the album’s title is taken. And with lines like, “I will have to swap the ritual / That I am sick and tired of / for a deadly missile”, we can see the stone-serious and poetic approach to songwriting Yanka had. And Alina Simone is the perfect performer to bring these songs to life, and hopefully bring Yanka Dyagileva to a new set of listeners. Like Nick Drake, Yanka’s life was short—she drowned mysteriously in 1991 at the age of 24—and her music was damaged and haunting. Simone’s renditions call to mind the space and cold of Siberia, where Yanka grew up. Each song echoes with the lonesome space that surrounds it, and when you get to the end of the album, you are drained. It takes energy to listen to this kind of sad beauty, and it takes a great performer to make it. Alina Simone has arrived now, and hopefully she isn’t going anywhere.