SoCal’s Sunny War presents the fruits of a productive lockdown; Simple Syrup is a delectable record.
Release Date: 26th March 2021
Label: Org Music
Formats: CD / Vinyl / Digital
I’m ashamed to admit that Sunny War is a new name to me. If the quality of her songwriting, her vocal delivery, her arrangements and, most of all, her phenomenal guitar playing on her new album, Simple Syrup, is any guide (and I’m sure that it is) then I’ve really been missing something special. I make no bones about it – Simple Syrup is a delectable album, packed full of superb music and astounding musicianship and it’s a collection that will become part of my life for a long time to come.
Sunny War was born Sydney Lyndella Ward to a single mother in Nashville, Tennessee. As a child, she and her mother moved around the USA, encountering poverty and deprivation along the way, before pitching up in Southern California and settling, eventually, in Venice Beach. Her first steps into performing were with punk band Anus Kings, but, in parallel, she developed her signature folk/blues repertoire and has released four previous official albums: Worthless (2014), Red White and Blue (2016), With the Sun (2018) and Shell of a Girl (2019).
And let’s be absolutely clear – we’re dealing a major talent here. Michael Simmonds in LA Weekly summarized her banjo-derived clawhammer guitar-picking technique thus: “… The walking bass line sounds like a hammer striking piano keys in perfect meter, while the fills are dynamic flurries – like cluster bombs. I haven’t heard a young guitarist this dexterous and ass-kicking in eons.” Furthermore, Paste Magazine paid perhaps the ultimate tribute to Sunny’s guitar style in its description: “…tricky acoustic guitar parts that sound more than a little like such British pickers as Richard Thompson and Bert Jansch.” Wow! And what’s more – it’s true!
But Simple Syrup isn’t just about that amazing guitar playing. This is a collection of sophisticated, well-structured songs, peppered with flavourings of jazz, folk and soul. The instrumentation, even that incredible guitar, is arranged tastefully and subtly, to give room for the lyrics, that deal with a huge range of subjects from romance to politics – and just about everything in between – and Sunny’s voice is simply delightful; light and tuneful, bursting with commitment and carrying more than a hint of Joan Armatrading. And the songs have a lot to them. They invite careful scrutiny to fully understand the messages in the lyrics and to get the full appreciation of the instrumental parts. That means that this album conceals a real scope for long-lasting pleasure.
Sunny War has spent the time forced upon her by COVID lockdown productively. The impact of the COVID pressures that she witnessed upon certain of her friends inspired her to establish a Los Angeles Chapter of Food Not Bombs, distributing vegan food to the homeless, she’s also participated in BLM protests against police brutality AND found time to ensconce herself in Hen House Studios, Venice Beach with Producer Harlan Steinberger to record Simple Syrup.
Opening track Lucid Lucy gets things off to a great start – a jazzy number with an unusual stop/start structure, it provides the first taste of that guitar and is topped off with some wonderful cello from Niall Taro Ferguson, and Mama’s Milk is an upbeat, jazzy Subterranean Homesick Blues-type rant with more great guitar picking and a lush saxophone solo from Matt DeMerritt. Like Nina, a thoughtful song that considers the expectations placed upon Black women in American art is absolutely stunning, with acoustic, classical and electric guitars intertwining in a complex, dreamy soundscape.
Sunny delivers an ode to the way er own drunken self deals with relationships in Kiss a Loser. Slow and ponderous and set against an excellently understated bass/drum backing, it’s a powerful song, as exemplified by lyrics like “I tell you that I love you, whilst I’m wishing you were dead.” In contrast, Love So True is a more conventional love song – uncomplicated, intimate and contemplative with a backing that combines laid-back jazz with a smattering of soul. It’s delicious!
Brushed drums, discrete guitar and subtle strings set the scene for the lighthearted, poppy Losing Hand before a full band, including more of that wonderful sax from Matt DeMerritt, chip in for the instantly likeable Love Is A Pest. Next comes another of the album’s real highlights, the light, folky Its Name is Fear. This is quite possibly the best song I’ve heard yet about the COVID ordeal. References to empty school yards and the like pique the listener’s interest, which is duly served by lyrics like “Stay inside and hide your faces, if you must leave, put on a mask” and “Ready or not, the change is here.” And, unlike the politicians in the US, here and elsewhere, it doesn’t offer false and over-optimistic promises of any decisive end to the ordeal…
Perhaps the album’s centrepiece track is Deployed and Destroyed, a song that Sunny wrote about a friend – a veteran of the Iraq Wars – that she knew from her time on the streets. The song tells the story of how he fell apart from PTSD, was unable to get the care he needed and is now homeless. It’s a harrowing tale that pulls no punches, all set against a simple backing of Sunny’s guitar and Aroyn Davis’s bass.
Eyes is a bluesy, baroque piece, given real depth by more wonderful cello from Niall Taro Ferguson, and the album is brought to a fitting close with Big Baby, another bluesy number that features just Sunny, with her voice and her acoustic guitar. And WHAT guitar!! It’s a marvelous ending to a brilliant album. If the prospect of an album that combines the voice of an angel, Richard Thompson-like guitar dexterity, wonderfully crafted songs and top class production standards is appealing to you, than I recommend that you give Simple Syrup a listen. Now.
Watch the Official video to Mama’s Milk from Sunny War.