The Hardscrabble Ascendance of Sunny War Continues With Folk Punk Mix Of ‘Simple Syrup’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

It’s been a remarkable recent run for the punk-blues artist Sunny War who draws attention for her amazing fingerpicking acoustic guitar skills and her deceptively casual, quiet approach to songs, many of which are topical. While her early independent records cast her mostly in a blues vein, her music encompasses much more as folk, hints of jazz, and punk mesh together. While it is tempting to compare her to Tracy Chapman, it is neither fair nor accurate.  Sunny War is a more skilled and inventive guitarist, shuns pop aspects, and is more firmly immersed in Black culture, not to mention her beginnings as a vagabond, living on the streets.

While her 2017 With the Sun drew acclaim, her 2019 Shell of a Girl was a breakthrough that led to touring with popular Americana acts such as Mandolin Orange, festival slots, and a Tiny Desk performance at NPR. Simple Syrup is the follow-up, another vibrant, seemingly casual group of songs, this time more focused on group interplay with her artistic group of friends and touching not only on topical themes but on romance and relationships too.

The Nashville-born, long L.A. resident has been uncommonly busy through the pandemic, not just with music either. She founded a Los Angeles chapter of the nonprofit Food Not Bombs and put together a network of volunteers to distribute vegan food to the homeless. She marched for BLM in protest against police brutality and found time to cut this album at her favorite spot, Hen House Studios in Venice Beach. 

The opening track, “Lucid Lucy,” also a single with accompanying video which was released in early February. It bears the influence of both Nashville and L.A. but its minimalism – just vocal, her guitar, and cello, create a lushness that’s probably more in keeping with her current locale. If this is your first introduction to her, it’s a fine representation of her rather unique style. “Mama’s Milk” introduces male voices and her bluesy finger picking guitar set against a much broader sound palette with Matt DeMerrit on sax, as he is on just one other (“Love Is a Pest”).  She goes deep with mesmerizing guitar on “Like Nina,” speaking to the expectations for famous Black women (of which she is rapidly becoming one). She then retreats to a more self-conscious “Kiss a Loser,” decrying her own messed up self in relationships. On the other hand, in the enlivened groove of “Love So True” she sounds positively buoyant.

The title “Losing Hand” belies the brisk exuberance of the guitar-driven track while she introduces a sax and more vocal harmonies in the perky “Love Is a Pest,” giving it a jazzy tinge on a tune with the most, six musicians.  She changes the mood again with “Its Name Is Fear,” a more contemplative song where she plays both bass and does acoustic picking as the only accompanist. All these seem to set up the most powerful track, “Deployed and Destroyed,” about a friend that Sunny knew from the streets. She watched this veteran of the Iraq Wars fall apart from PTSD to the point where he is now homeless and suffering from severe mental trauma. In another way, she’s also speaking to those who have lost jobs and close ones due to the pandemic.

The mournful cello imbued “Eyes” brings us closer to the sound of the opening track but has War singing more emphatically with her friends in the chorus “Eyes in back of my head.” She closes, alone with her acoustic guitar on “Big Baby,” singing confidently and meshing her scintillating guitar so well with her gentle voice that symbolizes a spiritual healing as if to say, “If I can make it, you can too.”

Obviously hers is a stage name, but one that seems to perfectly sum up her dichotomies – charming but weary, spirited but vulnerable. Yet, she has an inexplicable way of coming across honestly without too much self-centered or depressing overtones. She has overcome and continues her amazing journey from some of the lowest depths anyone could experience. Born Sydney Ward, War’s young, bohemian mother lived a nomadic lifestyle, so War lived throughout the States, in places such as Colorado and Michigan, with the guitar being her only constant companion. At 13, she ran away from home, and has been in L.A. since. At that age she was drinking and doing drugs, attending punk shows with artists like Trash and Bad Brains with other Venice street kids.  She was often found drunk by the police and returned home to her mother. By 15, she was flunking out of school, and around the time of her mother’s divorce from her stepfather, she left home for good, plunging her into a series of awful situations that include heroin-induced seizures, jail time, and psych ward time.

Eventually she climbed out of this morass, and her mother found her a home with a sober friend. To fully understand how tragic her past was, consider her testimony, “I have a lot of friends who have died, who have died really young. Almost 40Set featured image people that I knew when I was a street kid that either died of liver failure or a heroin overdose. It happened so much that I think that I have a weird obsession with death -just sort of {as} a way to try and cope with it. I don’t think of anybody dead as dead; I just think of them as being in a different part of life.”

Now a bit beyond just merely self-sufficient, she is on a steep musical trajectory but remains humble, giving back – as true a Lazarus story as you’ll likely encounter.

 

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