by Matt Saldaña
The ArtsCenter, Carrboro
Jan. 24, 2009
The homecoming show of Alina Simone, a Ukraine-born songwriter who lived in Carrboro before moving to Brooklyn last year, often felt like a performance intended more for her living room than The ArtsCenter’s mostly empty mid-sized theater: She joked with friends and family members in the audience and dedicated each song in her Russian and English double-set to one person or another. By the end of the night, it felt as if everyone had gotten the nod. “This song is dedicated to the two nice young men—you know who you are. One has glasses; one doesn’t,” Simone, who I’ve never met, said to me and a friend before playing “Velvet Painting,” the spooky opening track of her debut album, Placelessness.
But the empty seats didn’t seem to phase Simone, who instead took the opportunity to debut four songs from her forthcoming third album and re-work Britney Spears’ “Oops! ... I Did It Again” into a melancholy reflection of innocence lost, dedicated to the dude in front with a digital camera fixed on her. “There’s always one of you at every show,” she said before launching into her troubling version.
It’s a shame the intimacy of Simone’s minor-key ballads and between-song banter didn’t actually take place in her living room (or anyone’s, really) or that more people didn’t fill the theater. Sure, it was a big night for live music in the Triangle, with The Rosebuds, Megafaun and The Love Language playing next door at the Cat’s Cradle and David Karsten Daniels down the street at Local 506. But the Triangle mostly left its ex-pat stranded. The good news is that Simone’s next LP, tentatively titled Make Your Own Danger, sounds great so far—if more poppy than her usual fare. Following the experiment of recording an entire album of Russian covers by the underground Soviet punk-folk legend Yanka (Everyone Is Crying Out to Me, Beware), Simone has returned to the lingua franca of Dylan and Strummer. Her alternately caterwauling and brooding voice and PJ Harvey dynamics came out more fully during her English set. These were, after all, her songs. No matter how much Simone inhabited Yanka’s work, the passion of her own lyrics—which she delivered while shaking her head and grabbing for the sky—was evident even from the dim stands.
That’s not to say the Russian set wasn’t fun and that her performance wasn’t equally arresting. But of the 30-odd people there, only one raised his hand when Simone asked if anyone spoke the language. Of course, Simone’s translations and commentary afterward helped: “On a parallel track, a black satellite flies. It’ll come and save us, and bring us peace,” she recited, after playing “Great Knowledge,” a Yanka track. Simone said she related to the song, written during the Cold War, as a Russian-American who was nevertheless afraid the U.S.S.R. would bomb the U.S.
The sentiment was her own, but Simone—like all good folk singers—brought us into the fold.