It’s hard to know exactly what to make of Lee Baby Simms. Somewhat like Jandek, that mysterious man of random morbid home-releases, Simms almost seems like a media creation, having purportedly existed in the great American “somewhere” doing who knows what for who knows how long with no one really knowing that much about him. And as much as I’d like to claim otherwise, I’d never heard of him until the release of The Escapist, despite his reported collaborations with Bill Laswell, Ginger Baker, and Dizzy Gillespie, as well as the fact that Tom Waits seems to recognize him as a rather eccentric fellow. But that’s all conjecture, and our masked man will be revealed when the disc starts spinning. Or at least that’s what you’d expect.
The reality of the matter is made slightly more confusing, then, as the creator of The Escapist (Simms’ only release to date) is seen only in vague ambient textures and meandering melodies, never appearing as a distinctly verifiable personality over the album’s 14 instrumental tracks. Even stranger, especially for the pedigreed avant-garde crowd that he apparently runs with, the album is really quite modern, employing as many electronic as organic textures and coming across as more DJ Shadow than John Zorn.
Sure, it’s not IDM or any of the floating variants of glitch-centric experimentation, but it has just as little in common with the jazz cacophonies and drone symphonies of those who would expectedly be his peers. Maybe most surprisingly, for someone presented as such an unconventional character, the album is overwhelmingly reserved, focusing on coolly snaking melodies and vaguely serene textures. To a certain extent, that spirit of disembodied flow keeps a serenely dreamlike haze hanging over the cyclic arrangements, as the tracks blend together a bit too much as they unwind and pour into infinite space.
Simms’ sound sculptures come in a couple varieties. Certain tracks, like the picturesque “Creamsicle” and the eerily pristine “Shhhh,” evoke pensive, slightly tropical, peace. Others, like the distant “Cluseau” and the slithery “Curtom,” come across as blue-toned lounge jazz, a bit like the atmosphere created by Tom Waits but without the growl (which I suppose is not much like Tom Waits at all). Yet others melt together bluesy guitar licks and sputtering synth tones, like Clapton draping reverberating leads over Eno’s early ’70s noodling. No doubt, there is a man behind the music, but the listener doesn’t really know any more about him, aside from that fact that he likes mid-tempo arrangements and impersonal tones, than they did before they pressed “Play.”
Ultimately, the lack of personality, when the persona is almost presupposed, is the album’s ultimate flaw. The music is effective in creating pleasantly impressionistic moods, but it seems like there should be more. Especially given Simms’ purportedly compelling biographical vitae, one would expect something a little more grandiose or extravagant.
Still, the craft displayed throughout The Escapist’s 14 tracks is successful in as much as you enjoy the nature of the moods created. And that shouldn’t be too much to ask, as the textures are generally unobtrusive enough to be suitable background listening for just about any occasion. It’s just hard to see how a listener would be actively engaged with the sounds of The Escapist. Whoever he is, the verdict on his music is inconclusive at this point.
Written by Matt Fink.