Prickly and haunting, “Beautiful Machine” depends for its potency, first, upon Simone’s unadorned, almost homely electric guitar, alternately picked and strummed, with a slightly fuzzy tone but without the slightest bit of fuss or drama. I realize as I listen how inherently histrionic so much rock’n’roll guitar playing is. This moodier, more shadowy sound is deep and enticing.
And then there’s Simone’s singing voice, the other clear source of the song’s power. She blends a breathy intimacy with an assertive upper range in a way that recalls Sinead O’Connor; like O’Connor, Simone has something of the force of nature about her. And yet still the operative word remains restraint. While there is a second guitar and a bass in the mix, they are in service of the primary guitar and the drums, in a setting that’s full enough to feel textured yet sparse enough to let us hear each instrument distinctly. Nothing feels automatic, not even the drumbeat, which rumbles and stutters, all tom and bass, no snare or cymbal. A cello arrives as if through the back door, finding its mournful place. The song feels at once primitive and elegant.
Simone is a Ukraine-born, Boston-bred musician now ensconced in Brooklyn. Her parents were political refugees, but Simone went back in 2004 to live in Siberia for six months. Her second full-length album, released in 2008, was in Russian, covering the songs of the underground punk-poet Yanka Dyagileva. “Beautiful Machine” is the lead track to her self-released third album, Make Your Own Danger, which came out at the end of May. Simone is now a published writer as well—her book of essays, You Must Go and Win, came out in June on Faber & Faber, and is in part about the travails of the indie musician in the 21st century. MP3 via Simone’s site.