Music

Alina Simone: Make Your Own Danger

Photo: Matthew Spencer

With this third record, Alina Simone seems to have hit her stride by setting off on a new musical path.


Alina Simone

Make Your Own Danger

US Release: 2011-05-31
Label: Virtual Label
Artist Website
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In hindsight, Alina Simone's first full-length album, Placelessness, was perfectly titled. Its wandering, threadbare folk highlighted her rangy voice, but it wasn't until her second record, Everyone Is Crying Out to Me, Beware, that she actually found a place of her own to fully realize her strengths as a singer and performer. There's more than a little irony to that idea, since her second record was a Russian-sung covers record celebrating the songs of Yanka Dyagileva, but in some ways it may have set up what she's done on Make Your Own Danger.

If her second record was still hushed in its own right, it also stretched out and held more layers than its predecessors. Make Your Own Danger, though, is a full-fledged band record. The players here are many, and Simone employs them well, crafting dark landscapes on which her voice can roam. With the beautiful black and white artwork, and persistent shadowy tones -- Simone's voice is often placed starkly above the fray, making the other instruments distant and haunting -- there's a real noir feel to the record that works in its favor throughout.

Considering Simone has, to this point, been placed in a deathly folk ghetto with the likes of early Cat Power, her new record is at its best and most exciting when she breaks that mold. The title track shows her new directing perfectly, with a buzzing guitar slicing through the track. The drums charge, cymbals crash and ride, and that guitar dents the song over and over with its sharp angles, offering a tense contrast to Simone's expansive singing. "Beautiful Machine" uses more muted guitar tones, but they weave thick and moody layers that churn through the song. For her part, Simone breaks the dreamy sway of her voice to shout in the chorus, "I want to feel love, get caught in the echo chamber!" It'll catch you off-guard, but it's the kind of quick shift that shows her growth as a songwriter here. Elsewhere, "Day Glow Avenue", with its languid chords, could have been another spare crooner in Simone's catalog, but instead the steady drums build up and strings swirl around her and the song becomes huge as it moves along. It's a new tact for a singer who often used negative space for effect in past work, and she proves just as adroit at filling up space with instruments as she is with the echoing edges of her voice.

"You Fade Away" is the most up-tempo number on the record, and perhaps its biggest revelation. It starts on a Dexy's Midnight Runner-type horn riff, but under its brightness a cello runs off a persistent, sinister hum. Percussion clangs away and the guitar offers an up-stroked surf rock hook. None of the parts seem like they should fit, but they come together seamlessly, and Simone recognizes the power of that mix, and lowers her loud voice to a restrained whisper. It's a complete departure from anything she's ever done, and manages to feature her singing by not featuring it. Instead, her voice shines because the music behind it is so strong. The song is restless, tangles on itself, but never loses its momentum.

Those energetic moments are so striking that it's clear Simone has, for the most part, left the folk-singer thing behind. So when the record drifts back to that hushed approach, it doesn't feel like it fits her anymore. Despite groans of feedback playing against spare acoustic notes, "My Love is a Mountain" trudges along a bit too slowly to fit next to stuff like "You Fade Away". Closer "Apocalyptic Lullaby" suffers from a similar problem. Both are haunting, and the wandering flute on "Apocalyptic Lullaby" is a surprise, but while they aim to change the tempo they actually bring the record to a halt. The record deals enough in shadow and intrigue -- people are on the run, gunshots ring out in the night, voices are heard through walls -- that the mood doesn't need the kind of drastic shift these songs offer.

The exception to this dynamic on the record, though, is the beautiful "Just Here to Watch the Show". It's as spare as anything Simone has written, but her vocal performance is stunning. She hits highs you don't hear on the rest of the record, and the way her voice spins down from those into melancholy lows is downright impressive. Make Your Own Danger shows us that Alina Simone has far more to offer us than the shadowy folk-singer fare. She's a dynamic singer-songwriter, with some great players around her -- drummer John Lynch, with his spare rumble, deserves a lot of credit here -- and with this third record, she seems to have hit her stride by setting off on a new musical path.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

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Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

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10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

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8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

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7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

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