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.