Usually, if a friend of mine presented me with the opportunity to hear one of Conor Oberst’s closest influences before he got big, I try very hard to make an offensive bodily noise to ring throughout the room. That fails more often than not, which was alright in the case of Simon Joyner. Simon has been in the dogmatically independent small-town troubadour business for over a decade, carrying Leonard Cohen’s whiskey-and-melancholy torch to anyone lucky enough to get their hands on a local Nebraska compilation cassette. His unlikely, though deserved popularity across these states and Europe gives new faith to all those open mic veteran balladeers looking for a break, or just an audience.
Beautiful Losers is a collection of Simon’s best singles and rarer non-album cuts from those comps. For the most part, the sound of this album preserves the painfully lo-fi, live-like feel of recordings made in a time when the word “indie” didn’t just mean cute guitar-based pop on any label. Some tracks come through one side of the stereo, which can be pretty annoying on headphones.
Most tracks on this comp feature Mr. Joyner himself, unaccompanied. Accordions, strings, light snares and cymbals pop up every so often, and once, just once, he’s got a full band. There is something nakedly honest, haunting and awkward about his voice and strumming. The loneliness that his music speaks can’t be made any other way, and his traditional strumming and singing never gets tired as long as the lyrics are original, which happens to be Joyner’s strongest point. I can’t help but compare his sound and style to his later Omaha compatriot Bright Eyes, especially on tracks like “Last Night I had a Conversation with God.” The warbly, strained, whiny vocals are too familiar, though Joyner’s own guitar style is more traditional, sharing a lot in common with folk legend Woody Guthrie. The general melancholia that pervades his songwriting, however, strikes me as more mature, erring more on the side of genuine emotion than just “emo.” Not so much of the recently-dumped-white-guy blues here. Joyner’s lyrics are a long Nebraskan drive from cliché. Phrases like, “the angels go dive-bombing at night,” and, “Satan combs his hair with Vaseline” struck me in particular.
I would hesitate to call Beautiful Losers a depressing album; it’s just a little on the drab side. Writing music for a particular time and place, Joyner still deserves credit for making truly honest, unpretentious folk and living the dream of every indie troubadour. It is a crass injustice that Winona Ryder didn’t pick him instead.
Leonard Cohen – Songs From a Room
Bright Eyes – Lifted, or the Story is In the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground
Simon and Garfunkel – Wednesday Morning, 3AM