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Sunny War: Simple Syrup
by George Graham
(Henhouse/ ORG Records as broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/21/2021)
With no shortage of singer-songwriters on the music scene, it often takes an interesting performer to strand out among emerging artists, with so many of them following the traditional path of acoustic guitar strumming or piano playing composers-vocalists. This week, we have an artist who in the context of playing acoustic guitar and singing, stands out notably with a distinctive sound. It’s Sunny War, and her new album is called Simple Syrup. She combines an intriguing guitar style that can evokes African folk and the kind of the ornamentation of the English folk scene, with a rich alto reminiscent of Tracy Chapman. She describers music on her website at punk folk.
Born Sydney Lyndella Ward to a single mother in Nashville, she moved around quite a bit as a child, spending time in the Detroit area as well as Nashville, and eventually moving to California, where she traveled between San Diego and San Francisco. She has been living in Venice Beach. She adopted the stage name Sunny War and played with Southern California punk bands, being one of the few African Americans on the LA punk scene.
After dealing with her own problems with substance abuse, Sunny War has also been activist, being involved with an organization called Food Not Bombs, which, she said, helped her out when she was living on the streets, and has been active in Black Lives Matter.
After being on the LA music scene and attracting attention since 2009, she released her debut album in 2014, called Worthless, and followed that in 2016 with Red White and Blue. After a couple of EPs, and an appearance on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series, Sunny War is now out with Simple Syrup. The album was largely written and recorded during the pandemic, and she says that it serves as the inspiration for some of the songs.
The accompaniment on the album is rather intimate, perhaps out of necessity, with Ms. War’s group mainly consisting of bassist Aroyn Davis and drummer/percussionist Paul Allen. Niall Taro Ferguson appears on three tracks, playing cello, and there are some other cameo appearances.
Sunny War’s guitar style is immediately notable. She uses an amplified acoustic instrument with had a kind of hybrid electric/acoustic sound, and she plays with a distinctive finger-picking technique that, as mentioned, hints as West African kora music, the little ornamentation that can hints at the English folk scene and people like Bert Jansch, and brings in hints of Delta blues. Sunny War says that the blues was an important early influence. Her rather low alto vocals also set her apart, with echoes of early blues.
The arrangements are generally sparse in terms of the instrumentation, but can sound like a larger group, with Sunny War’s guitar technique embodying bass lines, though there is a bassist who appears on several tracks. The compositions run from love songs to confessional to taking on issues of the day, such as PTSD still being suffered by Iraq war veterans.
Opening is a piece called Lucid Lucy with Sunny War’s amplified acoustic guitar being joined by a cello. <<>>
Mama’s Milk features a more electric sound with bass and drums. <<>>
One of the highlights of the album is piece called Like Nina, which is a tribute to African American women artists/ It features Sunny War’s distinctive guitar sound, hinting at both at both West African and deep blues. It’s really quite fascinating. <<>>
Kiss a Loser is a kind of self-effacing love song, referring to her past bad behavior and substance abuse, asking why someone would want her as a lover. <<>>
A little folkier sound is Losing Hand a kind of lament at bad fortune. It features another appearance by the cello. <<>>
Also a standout track is Love Is a Pest a love song from the standpoint of someone who thought she was not interested in love. <<>>
Deployed and Destroyed is the song about the veteran with PTSD, which is given a more intimate musical setting. <<>>
The track Eyes featured a guest appearance by Angelo Moore of the band Fishbone, playing a theremin and doing somewhat ghostly backing vocals. It’s a tangled love song with an appropriately spooky sound. <<>>
The album ends with a solo performance Big Baby, highlighting the distinctive aspects of both Sunny War’s guitar technique and vocals. <<>>
Simple Syrup, the new recording by Sunny War, stands out among the raft of singer-songwriter records. She combines an eclectic guitar style and sound, creatively combining folk, with hints of African and blues influence, with her distinctive vocal style and songs covering a rather wide range of topics. The result is an album that distinguishes itself quickly and a sound that will stick with you, especially given the sparse arrangements that nevertheless have a surprisingly rich sound.
Our grade for audio quality is an A-minus. While not fully at audiophile level, the sound is rather clean and un-gimmicky and add to the character of the music.
Sunny War has definitely established herself as a highly original performer in a crowded field with her often striking new album.
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