This ten-song collection is a solo effort by Steep Ravine’s Simon Linsteadt – a prolific musician who always has some interesting music in his repertoire. This time out, the first track “Hold On,” (a song title that should be retired since there are a million songs with this title) — nevertheless, in Simon’s capable hands it’s a dramatic, guitar driven – both acoustic and electric – tune which makes for quite a unique sound. A unique sound, something Simon has always had in his showcase. Amazing how so many musicians can use the exact same instruments and still manage to squeeze out an entirely different ambush on the ears.
Simon sings in an angst-ridden charge – yet, despite its frayed edges lends itself to a well-conceived sophisticated urgency.
The guitars ring and chime cleanly, a nice solid steady drum beat is all that’s needed to keep the tune on track and compelling. There’s lots of guitar but it’s not played with a showboating display. It’s desperate, it’s also a dazzler and well-recorded. Simon’s voice is wound as tight as a vintage wrist watch can be. Toward the conclusion, his voice slips into a good amount of sincerity. Nice concept.
The album: “Fixing My Head,” is a ten-song CD. I am guessing it’s a collection of personal songs he didn’t feel suited Steep Ravine. “No Hangovers in Heaven,” has some exquisite picking on acoustic guitar and some, uh…whistling – yes, whistling that becomes as the song progresses quite dark and gripping. It works. Simon chooses to sing most of the song in a falsetto voice near a whisper. Hey, it worked for Prince why not Simon? There is an audience that likes this kind of approach and if done well, as it is here, it can have a potency that full-throated singing doesn’t always possess.
This is Simon’s second solo album which leans into a California folk-rock vibe and where Simon plays all the instruments ala Paul McCartney (“McCartney”) and Emitt Rhodes (two brilliant solo albums) — they were the artists who led the way in the singer-songwriter who played all the instruments attraction back in the early 70’s.
Track 3 features lots of performances, but it’s the regularity of the guitars that is the signature in “Western Dive,” that is equally well-recorded and has presence. On this track, Simon seems to walk a tight rope of originality, but if he falls to the left he’s in the late Nick Drake’s (“Northern Sky”) territory, and if he falls to the right he’s in the late Duncan Browne’s (“Streets of Fire” “The Wild Places”) arena.
Yet, and most importantly, he keeps the balance and maintains an interesting approach to his originals without sounding too much like anyone before him. He also has a penchant for touching the edges of the late John Martyn. Which, to my ears makes for interesting music that Simon would be capable of exploring. Lots of great, influential dead people mentioned in the last few sentences.
The guitar work is has lots of inertia. While “Country Girl,” doesn’t grip me lyrically, it is a fun song to listen to as Simon sings through it. But, it’s his acoustic guitar playing that interests me most on this track. It’s a short tune — has lots of good ingredients.
The title track – “Fixing My Head” — is a little too falsetto for my taste yet, does have nice Nick Drake type passages on the acoustic guitar. Simon would have been a great friend to Nick had they known each other. Simon has moments of mystery in his falsetto but, Nick would have shown Simon how to wind his lyrics around more serious and percolating subject matter. The song has so much potential, but I am not certain I understand why he needs to fix his head. There’s room for more development here and the song would go from merely decent to wonderful.
What’s beginning to happen here to my ears is the same thing that happened to Terry Reid’s mostly acoustic album “River,” back in the 70’s. It starts strong with some lovely melodies and strong guitar playing. But, as the album progresses the songs, while still good on the surface, are beginning to show the reasons they are second-tier to the composer’s best. “Or the Highway,” has nice passages, but the song doesn’t have enough glue to hold interest or repeated listens. It sounds like a good idea that just isn’t fully developed. It’s not an easy tune to stick in the listener’s head. Maybe it just needs to be played a little more live and shape itself as time goes by. Dylan says many of his songs are developed in that manner prior to actually recording. They need to be marinated, they need to age a little.
“Rock n Roll,” has that Nick Drake-Terry Reid fuel, but it’s subdued, regular instead of high octane. Simon’s vocal is more forward, engaging. These are transitory tunes – good between slow songs and fast songs. This solo effort sounds more like Simon’s little career distraction the same way “Nebraska” was a little side road for Bruce Springsteen. There are songs here that could eventually develop into full blown masterpieces. But they do sound like they are still on the planning board. I like this one though, it has substance.
Track 8 is “Nostalgia,” and though Simon’s voice is still in a falsetto mode this is one of his finest vocals on a song that has lots of sand.
There’s a sincerity to Simon’s voice not heard in the others – or at least not as strong. This is an outstanding ballad with beautiful guitar performances. This is a song I would definitely like to see get the full band treatment. It has power, even in this stripped version. The potential is driving. This is the type of song that sets just a good musician apart from a great singer-songwriter. There are many musicians who can play brilliantly but, they can’t write an original song to save their lives. Simon proves his mettle here and maintains the ability he has always displayed.
“Bicycle Man,” — as nice as it is sounds is like a polite hat tip to Syd Barrett (Pink Floyd) who wrote similar, simple cosmic little tunes during his solo days. This is actually fairly good despite it’s penchant to repeat many times. I still think it has an interesting melody and Simon’s voice is in that progressive rock – singer/songwriter 70’s mode in a very welcoming way. There are moments where the Emitt Rhodes’ melodies and solo / vocal Paul McCartney resonate in my head. The style of Simon’s infection and use of high notes — very close to the best of Emitt. It also recollects the qualities of of Robyn Hitchock and Julian Cope as it progresses. This is meant to be a compliment. Job well done. A real nice soothing tune to listen to with headphones and a good direction for Simon.
The final track “Sugar Sand,” continues in the acoustic progressive manner with beautifully recorded guitar. Simon’s voice is not as falsetto as earlier — it’s now closer to a deeper, engaging vocal. It’s not an in your face type song. It has a fanciful sincerity to it and it has lots of reminiscing in its sadness. A song that would probably be a good cover for someone like Emmylou Harris or even Allison Krauss.
The collection was produced by Simon and Nikolas Streiff. All songs written and played by Simon and engineered by him except for tracks 6 & 10. The limited-edition CD is available in hard disk, but will be available thereafter in a digital format.
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 / Written in February 2017