Fifty years ago this past weekend on the Isle of Wight a crowd variously estimated at between 600,000 and 700,000 were entertained by a 38-year-old ukulele player from New York called Herbert Khaury. A tall man with long straggly hair and a penchant for loud jackets and kipper ties, his professional name was Tiny Tim and his repertoire consisted largely of show tunes from the early 20th Century, most especially ‘Tiptoe Through The Tulips’, his only hit, which he sang in a piercing falsetto voice.
Preceded on stage by Joni Mitchell and followed by Miles Davis, Tiny Tim’s fleeting popularity is one of those inexplicable phenomena that erupts every so often in the world of music, but I‘ll wager next month’s milk bill that his appearance at the 1970 IOW Festival did little for the sale of ukuleles, those four-stringed mini guitars beloved of Elvis in Blue Hawaii and the Georges Formby and Harrison. I own one myself and taught myself to play a few chords on it, then promptly forgot them.
I now know that I was wrong to consign my ukulele to the wilderness beneath the bed. In the right hands it is a soft and seductive instrument, capable of expressing a wealth of tender emotions in a light, airy manner, easily a match for nylon-stringed acoustic guitars. The right hands that concern me today belong to Sylvie Simmons, perhaps best known as an accomplished music writer, a regular contributor to Mojo magazine and Leonard Cohen’s finest biographer. Gradually, however, Sylvie is becoming as well known for her music and ukulele playing, for her second album – a follow up to her 2014 début Sylvie – is garnering rave reviews everywhere I look.
Blue On Blue, much delayed following an accident left Sylvie temporarily without the use of her left hand, is a quiet, reflective work, its songs slightly mannered in a way that suggests she’s taken a dash of Cohen’s velvety poetic traits and blended them with her own take on the mysteries of soured love, all stirred into a wafting wash of melancholia that drifts lightly from track to track and gives the record a pleasing consistency. Top flight production, by Howe Gelb, with whom Sylvie duets on one song, guarantees absolute clarity, enhanced by an absence of drums, minimal bass and prudent restraint.
Like her softly strummed uke, Sylvie’s voice is a gentle instrument, her slight huskiness adding depth to the 11 songs. The first single, ‘Sweet California’, is a homage to her adopted home delivered with a touch of homesickness – Sylvie is British transported to the Bay Area – which prompted her to tell an interviewer: “There’s this thing about coming home to California, realising, ‘Yeah, it’s home.’ In a way, I was coming home from the accident.” Another song chosen for a single, ‘The Things They Don’t Tell You About Girls’, is a wry observation on female loquaciousness that suggests inflexibility is more a male than female trait, for which Sylvie has commissioned an amusingly retro video that can be found on YouTube.
(A portrait of the artist, by her friend Andy Lesco)
For the most part, though, Sylvie chronicles affairs of the heart that left her, if not bereft, then at least hoping for something better over the next horizon. In ‘Not In Love’ she’s left with her romantic dreams; in ‘Carey’s Song’ – on which Gelb plays a delicate, tinkling piano – she is fearlessly striking out on her own; and in ‘Creation Day’, on which I detected a hint of Gillian Welch at her most serene, she still wants him whose photograph she keeps. ‘Waiting For The Shadows To Fall’, another tearjerker, is effortlessly lovely, taken at a stately pace, gentler than anything else here, but there’s a sense of hope amidst the wreckage of her abandoned relationship. “On the broken pieces of my heart… try to make a new start,” she sings, a shade optimistically perhaps. By the time we reach ‘Stay Awhile’, an undisguised plea, I wanted to give her a great big hug.
The closing song, ‘1,000 Years Before I Met You’, the duet with Gelb, shifts the tempo – if not the sentiments – towards country and western in a song quite unlike anything else on Blue On Blue. “Help me say goodbye to these blues,” sings Sylvie in the manner of those C&W ladies who believed that the higher their backcombed hair, the closer they were to God. Such is the Nashville mood, I was reminded of Merle Haggard’s ‘Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down’.
The journey from music writer to musician is littered with the kind of broken dreams that Sylvie Simmons sings about but in Blue On Blue she has produced a gem of a record, a tribute to the ukulele’s potential that Tiny Tim could never have imagined.