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‘Sylvain Sylvain’ Album Review

‘Sylvain Sylvain’ is a rock & roll statement about what matters, and it comes from the soul of a master

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This review was originally published in the April 17, 1980 issue of Rolling Stone.

The other four New York Dolls usually looked like they’d been sentenced to be in the world’s weirdest band, but Sylvain Sylvain always seemed as if he were there by choice. He might have been you or me, if we could imagine ourselves wearing high heels. Sylvain was what we used to call a regular guy, and as a result, his contribution to one of the half-dozen most influential groups of the Seventies remains terribly underestimated.

What Sylvain Sylvain does is place Sylvain solidly in the Tradition, by which I don’t mean Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry so much as Claudine Clark and Chuck Willis and the Kingsmen — artists who checked out after one or two or three incandescent moments, musicians who came up with strange sounds nd gimmicks that stood outside the mainstream yet helped define it. Never a great guitarist, Sylvain now reemerges as a guy who needs a band as an outlet for his street smarts and his heart. I haven’t heard anything lately that sounds like this record, but I’ve been hearing records like this all my life — if you know what I mean.

Yet unless you play this album at maximum volume, you probably never will. This kind of rock & roll is supposed to sound like it was cut on the dark side of the moon, but the mix here carries things a step too far. Maybe that’s appropriate. At his best (“14th Street Beat,” “Emily,” Tonight”), Sylvain Sylvain tosses terrific ideas over his shoulder and never looks back: stuttering vocal lines, deadly guitar fragments, Between the Buttons references, epigrams and marvelous street-corner dialogue (“Where’d you get that cah?/ I bought that cah with his guitah“). All of this is referential, some of it sounds ancient (one of the songs is based on a Chuck Willis melody — “Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes,” I think), but unlike Dave Edmunds and Robert Gordon, Sylvain never comes off like a record collector who’s heard everything. Instead, he sounds like the kid with a radio who’s never forgotten anything. Unlikely as it may seem, if this ex-Doll reminds me of anyone, it’s Bruce Springsteen, another guy who’s found that going against the trend has dragged him into the Tradition.

Sylvain Sylvain will never have David Johansen’s grand ambition, and he’s too smart to want Johnny Thunders’ glamour-in-distress. But what he has is more than sufficient. He’s a fantastic bandleader, a singer who delivers and, above all, someone who needs this stuff — and understands why. In the tune he borrows from Willis, Sylvain chronicles an utterly everyday list of domestic woes — taking out the trash, doing homework, raking leaves — then wails: I’ll do anything you say!” before asking, “What’s that got to do with rock & roll?”

The answer — for him and for me — is everything. Rock & roll was never good-time music. It was always about beating back bad times and hard luck, about rejecting despair. And when you do it right, you really can’t lose. “Where’d you get that walk?” The singer asks himself in “14th Street Beat.” “I got my walk where I got that talk,” he answers. Like any kid who knows what those lines mean, Sylvain Sylvain is so cool that he never has to demonstrate it. If that seems unbelievable, just wait until you hear him. Sylvain Sylvain is a rock & roll statement about what matters, and it comes from the soul of a master.

From Rolling Stone US