Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Languages of Love

Sylvie Lewis - Translations

Can I really be in love with a woman I’ve not even seen in person let alone met? Not really of course, but there’s certainly something rather enchanting about Sylvie Lewis. Born in Britain but now living in Rome, Lewis has led a remarkably itinerant lifestyle, including four years at the prestigious Berklee School of Music. This college is famous for having produced a number of quality jazz musicians, but its considerably rarer to find singer-songwriters among its alumni (and they tend towards the intellectual end of the spectrum – Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen for example).

Lewis’ lovely second album ‘Translations’ is loosely themed around complexities of language and communication and it has a delicate, old-time feel evidencing her formal training. Whilst there are elements of folk and classic pop, there are also strong hints of the jazz tradition, cabaret and show-tunes thrown into a thoroughly beguiling mix. In its deft handling of a variety of old-fashioned styles, it’s not a million miles from the recent explorations of Erin McKeown or Jolie Holland but there’s such a lightness of touch here that Lewis stands in a class of her own. Her consummate delivery is relaxed, effortless and commendably understated. There’s no attempt whatsoever to admonish the listener with crass dexterity or virtuosity, but rather a completely natural command of both phrasing and melody.

The delicate, playful quality of these songs will no doubt mean that appreciation depends on the individual listener’s tolerance for whimsy. Personally, I find these songs whimsical in the most delightful way – charming, graceful, insightful and spellbinding. It’s not just a collection of great songs, but also packed full of captivating moments too, such as the coda to ‘Cheap Ain’t Free’, where the music suddenly veers away from jaunty barroom jazz to pure Burt Bacharach-meets-Karen Carpenter schmaltz. Alternatively, there’s also ‘Starsong’, which begins with a lushly romantic voice and guitar introduction before moving into a light-hearted ragtime bounce. There are also lovely touches in the instrumentation too, with the focus shifting between softly strummed acoustic guitar to subtle piano. Richard Swift provides entrancing swathes of mellotron on a handful of tracks, and there are some very canny arrangements for strings, brass and woodwind.

‘Translations’ is an apt title for this record in so many ways, not only dealing as it does with communication and the language of love, but also capturing shared experience between a variety of different situations. This is an open-minded collection of songs where a variety of narratives intertwine, with a handful of the songs seemingly written in character from a male perspective. Lewis’ lyrics are mostly direct and unpretentious, sometimes exploring a casual manipulation of language. The opening lines to ‘Say in Touch’ are particularly charming: ‘He’s got a lover in New York/Likes to mention her in casual talk/Whenever they meet, they don’t speak much/When they meet they say in touch.’ Throughout, there’s a strong sense of wisdom gained through experience, although it’s consistently delivered in an entertaining, playful spirit.

These songs conjure a plausible world where conventional impressions of beauty can be both inspiring and oppressive, and Lewis subtly manages to challenge these conventions in the process on songs such as ‘Cheap Ain’t Free’ and ‘Death By Beauty’. On ‘Happy Like That’ she perceptively observes the flirtations of married men in late night bars (‘You want to be wanted, just a taste/But you push it to the edge because you know that you’re safe’) and, by way of contrast, there’s also the wonderfully breezy settle-for-singledom charm of ‘If It Don’t Come Easy’, with its insistent handclaps and chiming guitars. ‘Old Queens, Monet and Me’ doesn’t just dare to rhyme ‘Dubonnet’ with ‘Monet’ but also comes with a healthy dose of irony (‘as for music, all the good songs are covers anyway!’).

The album’s centrepiece is a splendid piano-laden love ballad in waltz time called ‘Of Course, Isobel’ which comes with just enough ambiguity to withstand a number of possible interpretations. It starts off sounding like a heartfelt plea from father to daughter (‘you don’t write you don’t call….Three women in my life I have loved well/My mother, my wife and, of course, Isobel’), but it could even be a love song to an estranged lover (‘when I tell my side, you made a plaything of my heart/You make love entertainment when for me love is art!’). Either way, it’s an exquisite and beautiful song, satisfying in its conventional resolutions.

Whilst this album has a very pure and comforting sound, the fact that it ends on its most elusive and mysterious song (‘Your Voice Carries’, more reliant on atmosphere than melody) suggests that there are other directions in which Lewis could travel, should she opt to follow these paths. For now, though, ‘Translations’ is an invigorating breath of fresh air.

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