After listening to Simple Syrup, you won’t be able to get the melodies of this one-of-a-kind songwriter/guitarist out of your head, either.
Big Baby is actually War’s nickname for her workhorse guitar, a 1989 Guild True American dreadnought that she’s played since her days busking on the boardwalk at Southern California’s Venice Beach. In “Big Baby” as in many of her songs, she treats the guitar more like a duet partner than a backup instrument, fingerpicking the melody along with her breathy voice and adding bluesy fills reminiscent of Malian guitar masters such as Ali Farka Toure. (The West African flavor of her playing is so strong that I was surprised to learn while interviewing War for AG a few years ago that she never heard that guitar tradition until fans pointed out the resemblance.)
War was musically productive during the pandemic shutdown; Simple Syrup follows two EPs and a single released in 2020, all recorded at Hen House Studios in Venice, California. On much of Simple Syrup, she’s joined by her regular bandmates Paul Allen on drums and Aroyn Davis on bass, who deepen the grooves without obscuring the core sound of her voice and guitar.
Aside from one track on Stratocaster (the soothing “Lucid Lucy”), War played acoustic throughout—though you may not guess that based on the mixes. Producer Harlan Steinberger recorded her Guilds (the True American plus, on one song, a 1969 jumbo) with three AKG condenser mics, plus he captured the pickup output both direct and through a Magnatone amp. Steinberger then created different blends of all these sources from track to track—sometimes dialing in a more acoustic sound, sometimes a rounded tone closer to a hollow-body electric, depending on the song and the other instrumentation.
Like her previous albums, Simple Syrup has a soft style overall, tinged with melancholy. War’s lyrics have a much harder edge, however, addressing broken relationships and the kinds of struggles she knew well from years as a street kid. “All my friends are dead,” she sings in “Lying on the Floor.” “The gangsters the punks . . . The junkies the drunks/ Halos over their heads.” She evokes the strange disconnection of the covid era in “Its Name is Fear,” and in “Deployed and Destroyed,” she tells the wrenching tale of a homeless vet in his 20s: “He only calls when he’s in jail/ Thinks I have money for his bail.”
Several standout tracks feature musical conversations. On “Mama’s Milk,” the band cues up a series of stop-time breaks in which War plays nimble cascading lines, ultimately trading bars with sax player Matt DeMerritt. And on “Like Nina,” War and frequent collaborator Milo Gonzalez engage in a spellbinding call and response on acoustic and electric guitar.
In the latter song, War connects to the image of Nina Simone, recognizing the “same sad look in my eyes,” and goes on to consider other iconic Black women artists. “Girls like us don’t dance like Tina/ Sing love songs like Aretha,” she sings. “Ain’t got no Beyhive.”
With all of her abundant gifts as a songwriter and guitarist, War clearly doesn’t need to do any of these things. On Simple Sugar, she sounds simply like herself.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.