Across a 2005 EP and last year's debut LP, Placelessness, Alina Simone's best work came when her voice—its delicate waver steeled by the furnace of experience—meant as much as her words. Placelessness' "Black Water," for instance, carried the wail of innocence lost and of enveloping troubles partially in its words but mostly in the flutters and moans that flanked the text.
A project like Everyone is Crying Out to Me, Beware, then, suits a singer such as Simone: Everyone gathers Simone's takes on nine of 29 tunes left behind by Yanka Dyagileva, a Siberian folk-punk singer who died in 1991 after only three years of recording. Those recordings, poorly made contraband in Communist Russia, were difficult to find even upon release. Her songs deal with personal and political repression, from the feeling that those refusing to fight as soldiers would die as fools ("Special Reason") to the premonition that time is always running out ("Sold").
The Ukrainian-born, Massachusetts-raised Simone has said the record serves both as a way for her to reconnect with her heritage and to increase American awareness of Yanka and similar Russian artists. Her voice forces the issue here: Extremely conscious of her pronunciation (she left Russia at age one) and the connotations of her sounds (most of these words will mean nothing for the intended audience), Simone's delivery conveys sentiment and nuance. During "Up to the Knees," she seems to fight for the air to sing, returning whatever she can find in dark, arched imprecations. Over unaccompanied acoustic guitar for "Flocks are Flying," she seems exasperated but hopeful, even if desperately so. Fitting, as the song wends through references to gulps in throats and trembling veins before arriving (in translation) at the aspirant conclusion, "Carried under arm into the steppe/ Flocks are flying/ Maybe they will forgive."
These arrangements are spare without being stripped, smart enough to paint Yanka's songs and underline Simone's singing without getting in the way: A piercing guitar and sighing trumpet dart over the muted acoustic guitar of opener "Half My Kingdom," and light percussion and a repetitive electric melody reaffirm the near jangle of "Sold." On "Up to the Knees," something as simple as a shaker gradually rising above Simone in the mix illustrates the social suffocation she's condemning.
All of these aspects—Yanka's trenchant lyrics, Simone's brazen recastings and the band's spartan treatments—coalesce on the intriguingly named "My Sadness is Luminous," the record's brilliant, cheery left turn. The slight guitar lick recalls Serge Gainsbourg, and a fluttering cello suggests strange victory. "This verse is sad, so sad that again I repeat/ How fucking rotten I feel," Simone sings in Russian. But above the song's magnetic pop wink, the sadness feels determined to survive. Thanks to Simone's own spirit and this special project, Yanka's words, which carry it, will.
Alina Simone, who now splits her time between North Carolina and New York, plays Local 506 Tuesday, Aug. 5, at 8 p.m. Admission is free. In lieu of an opening act, Josh Knobe, a UNC philosophy professor and Simone's husband, delivers a participatory workshop on his field, Experimental Philosophy.