Review by Douglas Heselgrave
I didn’t see this coming. My defences were down. I was caught off guard. It had been so long since I’d been genuinely surprised and uplifted by a record and could tell that I would love it all the way through even before the first song had finished. And, truthfully, I’ve been totally surprised by how compelling and down right ripping ‘With The Sun’ is. Truthfully, surprised doesn’t really cut it as a description. It’d be more honest to admit that I’ve been sent reeling by Sunny War’s new album, and especially with ‘If It Wasn’t Broken,’ the song that opens it.
And even though hearing ‘With The Sun’ doesn’t really count as the first time I’ve been completely bowled over by the sound of a woman’s voice accompanied by the acoustic guitar, it’s been years since I’ve enjoyed listening to a record this much. Forgive the hyperbole, but the last few weeks spent listening to Sunny War has been a lot like falling in love again years after you thought such a thing was possible anymore. It’s kind of like I felt as a much younger person playing Phoebe Snow’s debut album over and over again or discovering Tracy Chapman by chance at a local record store. Listening to ‘With The Sun’ has reminded me of how great it feels to be floored by a voice, stopped in my tracks by a song, and to truly, passionately want to hear everything the singer has to share. The conviction in Sunny War’s voice has made me remember what it felt like to think that music was really important and worth shouting about and going out on a limb over. Hearing her sing and play has brought back a time when I could be swayed by a song’s naked power without analyzing its contents or checking to see who’s playing guitar or bass instead of surrendering and listening carefully. Sunny War restores the folk song to a place where it can take its rightful power, to a place where the rest of the world falls away and there is nothing to do but surrender.
Sunny War’s approach to a song is straight up and direct. There’s no pussyfooting, nothing coy or put on. She doesn’t up-sing, wail, shriek or put on airs when she sings. There’s an Odetta-like richness in her voice that is perfectly supported by her committed and passionate guitar playing. Lots of people will compare ‘With The Sun’ to Tracy Chapman’s debut album. Certainly, there are similarities. She employs the same minimal instrumentation and simple arrangements as Tracy Chapman favours – with discreetly applied keyboards, bass, strings and violin – but, as with Chapman, the focus always comes back to the voice and the song. And, as was true of Chapman’s debut, ‘With The Sun’ offers a flawless set of songs that cover a lot of territory, but are unified and cohesive in their tone and approach.
Sunny War is a 26 year old Venice, California native who began playing music on the street while still in her teens. As a young person, she was first influenced by the Beatles and punk rock before she started listening seriously to guitarists such as Chet Atkins and Mississippi John Hurt who have had an identifiable influence on her style. Like Hurt, whose loping guitar melodies she clearly admires, Sunny War is a musician who embodies the ‘three chords and the truth’ ethos. Raw and emotional, her music eschews pointless soloing and virtuoso playing, though everything she communicates on her guitar is solid, sympathetic and intuitively fits the songs she sings. To help flesh out the clean and pared down sound of ‘With The Sun,’ Sunny War enlisted some of her Venice Beach friends from the band ‘Insects and Robots’ including multi-instrumentalist Micah Nelson, fiddler Nikita Sorokin and guitarist Milo Gonzalez who play with reserve and discretion throughout. Hearing such restrained and sympathetic accompaniment confirms my belief that so often in music, less is more.
Lyrically, Sunny War’s songs could be described as political, though that hardly does these nuanced compositions much justice. Back when radio still mattered, ‘If It Wasn’t Broken’ could have been a hit single that comfortably fit into a pocket somewhere between Buffalo Springfield’s ‘For What it’s Worth’ and Tracy Chapman’s ‘Fast Car.’ ‘To Love You’ sounds like a lost Mississippi John hurt recording sung by Joan Armatrading, while ‘Come Back To Me’ could be the greatest song that Tracy Chapman never recorded. If you needed proof that the blues are still alive and just as hurting as they ever were, listen to ‘He Is My Cell.’ With lines like ‘love’s a thief and love’s a drug’ and ‘all that I knew, I now doubt,’ it’ll be a long time before another song gets under my skin like this one has. Similarly, it’s hard to think of a more direct and cogent expression of racism in America than ‘I’m Human’ expresses. Supported by tastefully down tempo bluesy guitar rhythms, its enjoinder ‘They killed another man who looks like me. I’m human. Don’t shoot’ is subtle, but the ripples it sends out are powerful and enduring. Though none of these comparisons are really more than guideposts that will necessarily fail to do justice to Sunny War’s artistry, consider them as touch points that give an idea of what it’s like to hear these songs.
It’s often been said that some artists embody the times in which they live while others stand outside of time. It’s tempting to think how if Sunny War had come on the music scene in the early sixties that she would have been a star. Her voice is stunning, her guitar playing is soulful and impressive and the songs are so darned real and sincere. Each one carries its heart on its sleeve, bearing with it an almost invisible, barely perceptible shimmering of scar tissue. One can imagine a 20 year old Bob Dylan falling head over heels for these songs. But, it isn’t 1962 and things have changed and like they say if Bob Dylan arrived in New York today, he wouldn’t even get an audition. It’s a scary thought, but somehow the very existence of artists like Sunny War is enough to give us hope. She is sticking around, and she’s got something going on that’s clearly built to last. You can hear it in her voice.
I don’t know if Sunny War can single-handedly save contemporary music from its downward spiralling crash course into mediocrity, irrelevance and oblivion. The jury’s still out, and I can’t speak for anyone else. But, thinking about all the other stuff I’ve listened to so far in 2018, I can say with confidence that she sure has saved music for me.
You need to listen to Sunny War. Now.
this review appears in a slightly different form at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com