I can't remember when or where I first heard Jen Sygit sing. We were sharing a stage somewhere, I think. But I remember, quite clearly, my response the second she opened her mouth. It was one word — "whoa" — and I sincerely hope that I didn't say it out loud. If I did, I apologize.
A firm, grinning fixture in Michigan's youngster-style country/folk/bluegrass movement, Sygit writes and sings gritty, gutsy, interesting songs in which cleverness never outshines wisdom. Her 2006 debut album, Leaving Marshall St., is a beyond-impressive collection. There's exuberance, thoughtfulness, grief, and sauciness by turn, but the songs — all penned in a one-bedroom apartment in Lansing in the summer of 2005 — are tinged with a subtle sadness that Sygit explains this way: "Out the window lay Marshall Street, then home to Lansing's Marshall Street Armory, where for endless weeks busloads of young men were being shipped overseas to fight."
That said, Sygit (her name rhymes, quite appropriately, with "dig it") kicks off the album with "The Rub," a good-natured, innocent take on relationships: "Everybody wanna piece of that pie/Nobody wanna do the dishes. . . ." Its wandering form keeps you guessing; stacking chorus upon chorus, it's undeniably sing-alongable.
In "Pay for What You Get," cowritten with Rachael Davis, Sygit shows her best hand — a penchant for sneaky, Depression-era-sounding musical short stories. This one's grim but funny, kind of like a Tim Burton movie about ill-fated gamblers and loose bakers. Drew "Captain Midnight" Howard delivers a beautiful guitar solo. It's nearly six minutes long, but rather fascinating. The penultimate track is an a cappella stunner: a duet with Davis on Steve Goodman's scathing antiwar "Ballad of Penny Evans."
I could easily go and on about Leaving Marshall St., but guess what I got in the mail? A CD of tracks from Sygit's new, as-yet-unreleased record, which I assume is not called Rough Mixes. It promises not even a hint of sophomore slump from this gifted young artist. You can check out my favorite, the bawdy, tough-as-nails "Rocking Chair Blues," on Sygit's MySpace page. And you might even hear it when Sygit comes to the Ark on Tuesday, July 22, for a free show on a triple bill with Breathe Owl Breathe and Luke Winslow-King.
[Review published July 2008]