Carl Simmons
Honeysuckle Tendrals
Sacred Bones

If ever there was an award for most charming release of 2009, Carl Simmons’ Honeysuckle Tendrals would surely rank high amongst my picks. But it wouldn’t be due to it’s lovingly handmade sleeve or that it’s a skeletal psychedelic blues recording originally released in the late ’90s—on cassette, in an edition of 100—repackaged here by a Brooklyn label mostly known for it’s dark post-punk selections. And it’s definitely not the sort of charm you find in a Kinks record; this is more like the time that weird kid from down the street revealed his incredible insect collection. Honeysuckle Tendrals charms because the sound of it is just so achingly strange.

Hailing from New Bedford, Massachusetts (currently living 30 miles west in Providence, Rhode Island), Carl Simmons was one of the many musicians who prolifically recorded and released his songs to the smallest fanbases imaginable. Honeysuckle Tendrals, originally a 90-minute cassette unveiled in 1999, could very well be his only great recordings, or they could just be the tip of the iceberg. The LP presented by Sacred Bones is a distilled and resequenced version, now half as long and likely more palatable than the ’99 version. The songs on Honeysuckle Tendrals are incredibly complex for such stripped-down, sparsely accompanied pieces, and fans of everything from Delta Blues to the Elephant 6 Collective to Syd Barrett should take note.

I’m reluctant to use the word “gimmick,” because Simmons executes his so well, but the technique of speeding up the pitch of your recordings is exactly that. Though sped not quite to Chipmunks level, the vocals here do resemble a helium-aided folksinger preaching the gospel. Accompanied only by a detuned acoustic guitar and campfire drum beats, along with the occasional background conversation or field-recording, the songs are forced to stand on their own, even compensate for the ever-present recording gimmick. But you wouldn’t be reading this review if they didn’t.

Simmons reveals a true gift at composing lullabies appropriate for any age. Imagining Washington Phillips with a guitar instead of a piano, recording into a four-track at the turn of this past century, and you might get the picture. Much like Jeff Mangum did on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Carl uses vintage folk and spiritual music as a blueprint, filling in bits from his unique world to create an original, timeless sound. While not as lyrically adept as Mangum, declarations like, “We’d watch the Muppet Show,” become statements inside Simmons’ bizarre universe.

In addition to the album’s eight tracks, Sacred Bones includes an extended play 7-inch with two exclusive tracks and alternate versions of “The Child Delivers the Stone” (this time with organ) and “If I, Honeysuckle Tendrals,” which both times sound like something pulled from an avant-garde beat cinema clip. Sacred Bones includes a booklet with each 7-inch, complete with lyrics and esoteric drawings, while the LP sleeve features carefully screened ink on top of heavy stock paper, folded over to resemble the old Folkways releases.

I keep thinking Honeysuckle Tendrals will begin to wear thin with multiple listens, but this just isn’t the case. In many ways, it reminds me of those days right before the internet and cell phones and social networking took away a piece of the music scene we will never get back. Had things gone differently for Simmons, perhaps Harmony Korine uses “Kaspar Hauser” in one of his films, or a label like Merge realizes his genius and pushes his songs into thousands of dorm rooms. But it’s probably for the best that we’ve had a decade without knowledge of Simmons to work up a thirst for the sort of bizarre honesty he brings to each composition.
Doug Elliott