Upon first listen I was intrigued by the fact that much of what I was listening to sounds as if Simon Linsteadt was inspired by, or was reading what I was reading. And that was Jack Kerouac’s novel “Desolation Angels.” A true account of when Kerouac kept a journal while he was a fire lookout in the mountains at Desolation Peak in Washington state. It detailed the psychological struggle which the novel’s protagonist undergoes and reflected Kerouac’s own increasing disenchantment.
So I wondered, is this new solo album by Steep Ravine’s Simon Linsteadt a peek at a similar mood and state of mind? Perhaps. But, I am only suggesting the similarities in this spare solo album that is actually filled with some marvelous explorations of the soul, mind and spirit. The album packs twelve solid stories, confessions, reminisces, and contemplations into gentle, diversified story songs. Maybe Simon took a similar journey to a desolation peak to cultivate these tunes, alone and with his fine flat-picked guitar playing. Coincidence that Kerouac’s tale and Simon both come from Northern West Coast areas? While Simon’s songs don’t border on loneliness, madness and isolation the songs do have a Nick Drake-type of solitude at times.
The songs on his solo album are differentiated from the band Steep Ravine’s. They’re a little subtler, personal and haunting. Would they fit on a Steep Ravine album? Not sure. But the opening track “Half Moonlit Mood,” is hitched up to an old fashioned ballad style. The exquisite guitar interplay between the vocal and soloing flows beautifully. “You get hung up on the things that ain’t so….” This is a compelling lyric and it sticks out as a strong statement. This is a listening album and done with headphones, late at night or early in the morning before any extraneous noise intrudes. Simon’s vocal is soft and endearing the way Nick Drake’s was. It’s not a depressing song either, it has a positive side in the lilting whistling, da-de-dums, and overall melody. Fortunately, it doesn’t skim the surface of James Taylor in this regards.
“You Have Grown,” is more a reminiscing tune, and sounds as if it’s a father recalling the early years of his children, or it could be a man who has realized his immature wife may have finally become a woman. It has a little of John Denver in it, and it has the hard sad recollection of Jim Webb’s old “My Boy,” which was a hit for both Richard Harris (“MacArthur Park”) and Elvis Presley. Lots of twists and turns in this for the heart. All the while, fine, gently played and tender acoustic guitar allows the song to cruise through your ears with ease.
“If Music Isn’t Real,” is a more mystical and contains haunting imagery much the same as solo albums by The Waterboys’ Mike Scott. “Sunny Days,” is more poetic than lyrical. If Jack Kerouac wrote a lyric for a singer it would probably be something similar to this. “…. I wrote another sitting here/ another poem I found there foaming at the bottom of my second beer….” – yes, I think Jack’s been to this place. “Sunny days are getting colder….” Jack may have known that feeling well.
Watch this video on YouTube.
“The Sentinel,” lyrically comes off with the cleverness of Cole Porter. Four syllable words in a song is a challenge for some. The jazz intricate vocalese songwriting team of Hendriks, Lambert and Ross (“Twisted” a 1952 tune covered also years later by Joni Mitchell) also wrote in this manner. The tune is basic and has no real bombastic drive except for the Hoagy Carmichael, toothpick stuck between your lips, melodic creativity. Don’t know what I am talking about? Check Hoagy’s “Hong Kong Blues,” (covered by George Harrison) or “Baltimore Oriole.” These songs are a testament to that style and it’s short and sweet. A definite example of the songwriting finesse and talent that Simon Linsteadt possesses on this collection. I am sure Porter and Carmichael would approve.
“Soulajule,” has some excellent, if not stunningly recorded guitar decorating it and “Time & Again,” actually dates the song to 1942 and the Americana guitar playing and retro vocalizing in the distinguished lyrics makes this a little jewel. It’s about an old Martin D-28 guitar and the bluegrass roots in this song are authentic. This exemplifies also, how the song could be sung as a duo, a Lowen & Navarro, Everly Brothers rich harmony vocalizing. This is the most upbeat of the tunes thus far and it has a nice roots-rich, folky drive that’s sweet and tasty. Simon sings it with enthusiasm and gusto. It could even be covered by Willie Nelson and if Emmylou Harris or Shawn Colvin joined him it would be easily a classic.
“Trampin’ On,” is a re-recorded, revamped version of the title track on Steep Ravine’s debut album. Probably how Simon originally heard it in his head before it became a band effort. Despite the stripped down effort of a man alone with his guitar the album adheres to a wonderful musical breadth. Its traditional authenticity is solid and Simon’s effective guitar playing fills out the entire scope of the song. Only a guitarist who is adept in both song craft and guitar can accomplish this without treading into boring territory. Simon does not.
The closer is “Pine Hill Road,” and just as it should it’s a strong melody in the Mike Scott tradition (The Waterboys). The song would be elevated if — eventually — a melancholy fiddle were added, or a mandolin. Again, Simon chooses words most lyricists wouldn’t use. Three syllable words and the like but they are effective, they work and are supported by his equally intricate guitar work. In some respects, Simon is in that songwriting club that is occupied by the likes of Strawbs’ Dave Cousins (whose band was once known as the Strawberry Hill Boys, and featured folk singer Sandy Denny). There is a little of the eccentric songwriting style of Tom Rapp (leader of the band Pearls Before Swine) who recorded several albums for Warner-Reprise.
Some songs may even be worthy of a full performance by Steep Ravine. Is there a top ten hit amongst the twelve? Probably not. But there is an audience for fine songwriting and wonderful guitar playing. This type of album was experimented even by the likes of Bruce Springsteen (“Nebraska”), Peter Hammill (“And Close As This”) and Laura Nyro on her early trio of albums. Spare, bare-bones, personal songs. The collection is relaxing, and there isn’t a mis-step in the bunch.
Watch this video on YouTube.
The album was produced by Simon Linsteadt and Jacob Winik and all songs were recorded live in the studio in SF.
Simon has released a new album recently — prolific as he can be — since this one was issued and it’s called: “Fixin’ My Head,” and I am sure it will be worth checking out as well. The CD art for his first solo album is a subdued, full color, die cut fold out six panel with lyrics included (if you have good eyesight).
Bandcamp Samples: https://simonlinsteadt.bandcamp.com/
No Depression Steep Ravine Review: http://nodepression.com/performer/simon-lindsteadt
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this review / commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of No Depression. All photography is owned by the respective photographers and is their copyrighted image; credited where photographer’s name was known & being used here solely as reference and will be removed on request. YouTube images are standard YouTube license.
John Apice / No Depression / May 2016