Sylvia Brooks – Signature

 Sylvia Brooks – Signature

Sylvia Brooks – Signature – Album Review

According to the details I’ve been readin’ on the ol’ internet from my Google machine over here – it sounds like solo artist Sylvia Brooks has challenged herself to add a bit more into this particular record, her fourth since she first started releasing music professionally, called Signature.  From what I gather, she’s spent a good deal of time covering the works of other musicians out there – and this time around, for the most part, her new album is stocked full of her own original tunes.  Cleverly bookended though – she’s got a cover tune at the beginning & end, with Melody Gardot’s “Your Heart Is As Black As Night” kicking things off, and Leonard Cohen/Sharon Robinson’s “Boogie Street” closing it off for the finale.

There are lots of great things happenin’ in between as well on Signature – so pull up a chair & lemme tell ya about my experience in listening to Sylvia’s latest record, and why you’d wanna be listening as well.

I could tell ya that she’s been working with some of the best players to come outta Southland too…but trust me, if you got functional ears, you can hear it.  You won’t get more than ten seconds into Sylvia’s take on “Your Heart Is As Black As Night” without hearing the stunning level of professionalism in the instrumentation to be found on this record, and of course it’ll get stronger from there.  In particular, the spectacular bass & piano on this opening number…that stellar guitar solo…the truly superb control of the percussion & drums…everything stacks up quickly to a win on this cover tune as Signature begins.  Of course, they’re all centered around the main star of the show…and Sylvia proudly holds her own with tremendous confidence and silky smooth tone sounding every bit as deadly as sultry, which reveals how much she’s sincerely connected with the lyricism in Gardot’s original song.  A solid choice as the opening song, Brooks & her crew full of studio-aces make this first impression count, yes – but I think it’s fair to say that the record gets better from here too, with major magic being revealed in Sylvia’s original tunes.

Because that’s the thing folks…we hear a song, we interpret that song, we sing it ourselves…but unless it’s YOU that wrote it, there’s almost always something about any given cover that’ll confirm it’s not the original.  I’m not at all saying that would make a variation not worth listening to – not whatsoever – I’m simply saying that if you listen to enough music, and I have in this one lifetime, there’s always an audible difference between an artist & their originals versus as artist singing someone else’s song.  Even if that’s just a result of really wanting your own songs to be noticed as opposed to getting lost behind the big names that we tend to cover, or it’s just the sound of pure desire, joy, and a genuine WANT to make music…I dunno…call me crazy, but you can hear the difference!  So as much as I personally enjoyed hearing Sylvia’s version of “Your Heart Is As Black As Night,” and I might argue the song itself is written with a bit more flair than the first original we hear in “Catch 22” – when it comes to HOW these songs are being sung, I felt like Brooks owned her original tune that much more.  You can hear the spark in her voice as it begins, you can hear the excitement if I’m being honest with ya…it’s like you know how much it means to her to get the opportunity to record her own material, and she really makes the magic happen.  Obviously it’ll appeal even more to the smooth Jazz crowd, or those that dig their traditional Lounge music, or the Adult Contemporary genre – but make no mistake y’all, she’s got the right level of personality to make these styles of music interesting & engaging and win people over with crossover potential that comes from being real damn good at what they do.  The professionalism to be found in Sylvia’s originals, and the precision they all play with, are every bit equal to the level you find in the covers on Signature.  That’s pretty much how you know these players and Sylvia are all as good as they really are – the originals sound 100% flawless, and just like music they’ve been playing for years & years.

It is a very different approach to songwriting than most of you tend to listen to, which isn’t just on Sylvia, it’s something that you find in the smooth Jazz/Lounge styles of music by many artists, where it can be a bit on the theatrical side of sound.  It sounds written at times…which obviously, it IS, but what I mean is that the words can often be choices that work on a stylistic level, and not ones you tend to find in our everyday speech, like you’d read in a book or see in a movie, or theater play – make sense?  You get a little bit of that fictional/fantasy-driven type of vibe on “Red Velvet Rope” – which will appeal to many fans of this type of music as well.  All I’m saying is that when we do that, and select a bunch of words that we wouldn’t normally say in our everyday exchanges with family, friends, or at work & such – it can tend to de-personalize things a little…snap us out of that suspension of disbelief a bit…and in general, it’s more like story-time than it is like music in this regard – the narration just sounds cooler.  Now…you’ll hear from all sorts of people that a ‘storyteller’s vibe’ is a great thing to have in music – and I’d be one of the people that would say that too!  It certainly CAN be…whether or not it works for everyone…maybe, maybe not…I think what matters is that there’s uniqueness in this type of tune, and songs like “Red Velvet Rope” display a real balance that merges Spoken Word asides with classic grace.  I think adding in the Latin flair worked wonders too – sound-wise, from the music to the microphone, Sylvia and the band she’s got supporting her continue to crush it with highly professional standards kept at all times.  All that being said, it really IS the actual story of “Red Velvet Rope” that really delivers the goods…sometimes I like the words, and in a few spots I’m not as sure – but when it comes right down to the story itself, that’s what really makes this song as deadly as it is.  Consider it a “cautionary tale” of sorts – I think for many in the entertainment circuit, “Red Velvet Rope” might hit a lot closer to home than you’d realize at first, and show real possibility that this tale is rooted in more fact than we thought.

All-in-all, “Over And Done” definitely ain’t gonna be the happiest tune you’re gonna hear this year – this song is downright devastating.  A true tale of emotional loss and critical self-analysis, “Over And Done” examines the aftermath of love shared, where it was clearly abruptly ended by someone’s infidelity.  It’s pretty damn heartbreaking on a lyrical level…not so much for the content that examines how the situation unfolded, which admittedly, is sad stuff…but more for the way Sylvia’s song reflects internally, and wonders what she could have done better, or somehow avoided this collision with fate.  “Am I not enough?  Was I not the one?” – I think many of us ask ourselves these kind of questions when we reach the end of a relationship…and I felt like Sylvia really tapped into very real emotions, thoughts, and feelings on “Over And Done.”  It’s a bit more rigid in the structure & performance this time around, but still easily qualifies as really well-played & sung…it’s simply a bit more course than the smooth fluidity we’ve experienced on Signature so far.  In the end, I feel like that suits the storyline though…it’s not a comfortable subject for many folks…and to kind of feel that trepidation, that curiosity, that hollowness – I mean…ultimately, it makes sense to find sound that would somehow echo these traits.  Sylvia’s most key notes in the melody all come out really beautifully…the more she allows her voice to draw out a word, the better the results tend to be & the bigger the moment becomes…these are the real highlights.

In a sense, I think many of this album will experience it in the same way – like…you listen to these songs and feel like you can see a whole production of a play to come along with it, or like the songs on this album are the soundtrack to a whole other story with multiple characters we meet along the way.  For example – “The Boy That Lived There,” or again, just a couple tracks back on “Red Velvet Rope” – these are songs you can SEE…and credit where credit is due, Sylvia’s vivid detail in her words are what creates such compelling material that sends our brainwaves into overdrive trying to figure it out or follow along.  I will say this…I think it’s fairly apparent that when Brooks goes to write a song, she’s not really drawing from the happier side of the human existence to do so, you feel me?  “The Boy That Lived There” is a cut built on “a cup of pain full of despair” and a…well…let’s say broken family tale, to put it mildly – I could tell ya that it’s a brutal story of a father & his sons…the horrors of personal traits passed down the family line, the cold absence of empathy and humanity and LOVE…you might even know someone that has a story just like this one in their actual daily life.  Heartbreaking stuff for sure, but once again, very real at the same time…Sylvia’s seen a whole lot of things to be able to write with the details she does.

I mentioned that these players can play right?  I did?  Oh good – I’m glad!  They all deserve major credit in how these songs sound.  I love, love, love that piano/bass/percussion combo we hear on tracks like “Sixteen” – it’s an environment with a bit more space, and Sylvia really thrives when her voice carries more of the weight in the melody we hear.  There’s no doubt that she’s got a penchant for the dramatic side of sound in that theatrical sense I was referring to earlier, but she owns it…Brooks is doing what she loves, and she’ll get nothing but a high-five from me for pursuing her passions – I’m all about it.  She’s got a beautiful voice, she’s surrounded by remarkable talent – and much to her credit, sometimes we don’t even realize EITHER of those things right away…we’re busy absorbing the details of the songs she’s writing & the stories she’s weaving, like we do when we listen to a song like “Sixteen.”  It’s probably a case of when the tale is more interesting to you or more applicable to your own life, you might get lost in the lyrics more readily as a result…and every time you bounce outta that for a moment, you realize just how incredible the music & players involved truly are.  She does well with the details of “Sixteen” – it might not be as close to home to me as something like “Over And Done” is for example, which is likely what’s got me back onto praising the music and vocals instead.  “Sixteen” is an interesting observation on youth I suppose…how our emotions are “bursting at the seams” & whatnot…there’s spots where I felt like Sylvia nailed it, and then moments like the breakdown/bridge in this tune that seemed a little less focused in that regard, opting out of sticking to the script for a more stylistic departure.  I ain’t sayin’ it doesn’t work…I’m just saying that “Sixteen” felt more like it was trying to say everything all at once, and in the process, kind of gets lost a little in the pursuit of pinning down what she really wants to say.

Some of you regular readers know a few lines I tend to write on the regular – one of them being, “we’ve all gotta write about SOMETHING, right?”  It’s songs like “The Flea Markets Of Paris” that make me feel that way – you get it don’t ya?  I still think of things from a musician’s perspective, long before recording became something that was half as accessible to all as it is today…so to me, it’s like, we only really get a handful of opportunities to get in the studio & record something for ALL-TIME, you know what I mean?  And if you wanna spend that rare moment in time on writing about “The Flea Markets Of Paris,” who the heck would I be to stop ya?  I say right on folks…we’ve all gotta write about something, and hearing a topic this specific, and this new to me, is so much better than simply hearing another love-song in every conceivable way.  I mean…you could look at this as a love-song of sorts…there are clearly many things about “The Flea Markets Of Paris” that Sylvia loves about it…and the majority of that, seems to come shining through the characters that inhabit its aura.  So like…you know…it’s kind of like she’s a musical version of Wes Anderson here…but all-in-all, that works for me – I felt the detail & description come snapping back to life here, I got engaged in the storyline, and I STILL had time to notice the tiny details like the accordion-esque sound in the mix that gives the melody that much more of a European flavor to it.  I kind of feel the way I do about Sylvia as she describes the way she feels about “The Flea Markets Of Paris” – she’s “enchanting & strange” – and I truly believe, proudly so.  As so she should be!  Songs like this are genuine gems of real uniqueness…this was one of my favorites on the record for sure.

Loved the very beginning of “Holding Back Tears” immediately too…the keys in this song are exquisite, straight up…this is a melody with astounding depth.  As I’ve pointed out a few times in this review by now I’m sure…and as the title would imply of course – Sylvia is once again dwelling on a tougher set of emotions and found her way back into another pretty sad song.  This time around, there’s a bit more of an interpretive element to the writing, which I like…the reasons as to why someone is “no longer here” are a bit more vague, which allows our minds the opportunity to fill in those blanks.  And I suppose, while tough in almost every scenario you can think of – at the very least, it doesn’t have to be ALL bad, and to a degree, Brooks points this out through the fondness of memories and the strength in how we miss people.  As much as sometimes we want certain people to just go – the reality is, most of the time our memories never leave us…and even more to the point, most of the time, there’s something within those memories well worth remembering, no matter how things might have met their ending.  “Holding Back Tears” examines how people become a part of us in that sense…how we’re linked forevermore once we decide to make memories together…and how devastatingly hard it can be on the one that’s left behind when everything is all said & done.  I know I’ve had this or that to say along the way in my rants and observations – I mean, hey…this is what I do, and that’s what you expect from me – but sometimes, just sometimes, there’s not a thing I can say that’ll justify how much of a perfect moment you amazing artists can create, and I’d reckon this is one of those times.  I love the way it’s played, I love the melody at its core, I felt like Sylvia’s performance on “Holding Back Tears” is bar-none the very best on this whole record, the songwriting is vivid and brilliantly real in a way we can connect our hearts & minds to – this is essentially a flawless song by every standard & measure we know of – I wouldn’t change a thing.

So of course, I do indeed, have an objection to make about the final tune…though I don’t expect you ALL to feel the same as I do.  You see dear readers, dear friends…I have so very few rules that I truly abide by, and even fewer of my own that I wish everyone would heed…but if there’s one thing I’ve tried to put out into the world year after year that’s not my dislike of Christmas songs, it’d be that the word “Boogie” should be outlawed in music.  Don’t matter to me if you were Leonard Cohen or not in this lifetime…NO ONE gets a pass from me on the use of this word!  Obviously I’m kidding around…at least to a degree…I do feel it’s a word that’s like nails on a chalkboard to me, but I don’t really care all that much if someone wants to use it in a song…it ain’t gonna make it or break it for me.  Do I like “Boogie Street” at the end of Signature?  I mean…it IS a Leonard Cohen tune…ultimately those are pretty tough to resist on an artistic level…and I DO like the way that it’s played here…and I absolutely love the fact that the backing vocals come out so vibrantly…to the point where I really started to wonder why that might not have been explored more prevalently on the rest of these songs on Sylvia’s latest record considering they work out so well in this finale…so YES…yes I suppose I do like it.  If you’re asking me if I think the two songs right before this are stronger overall however…my answer would ALSO be YES…so congrats Sylvia – you out-wrote Cohen in this particular match-up!  The point is much like the one I was musing on as Signature first began though…a cover often comes out great as a result of the familiarity we have with the material & how many times we’ve probably heard it before we ever step into the studio to record a version – BUT…the actual connection between the songwriting, music, and microphone is rarely as strong as you’ll find it in an original tune by the original artist.  So for me, yes – I dig “Boogie Street” and it makes for a solid ending…but it’s the original material written by Brooks that I felt delivered on this album’s ultimate highlights without question.  She’s a highly skilled songwriter, a fantastic singer, and surrounded by talent that would easily rival the best studio-aces/musicians you’ve heard – and she should not only be proud of how these songs sound & how she’s written & performed them – but she should be equally jazzed about how each and every one of these players played their heart out to support her in this effort.  Signature’s a really well laid out album overall – if you like where it all starts, you’ll be there right to the very end, and chances are, the moment it’s done, you’ll reach for a repeat.

Find out more about Sylvia Brooks from her official website at:

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