(CK Note: I did this review a few months ago on the site before I started doing artist-specific series, so if you think you’re experiencing a bit of deja vu, don’t be alarmed. I’ve made only a few changes from the original.)
Paul Simon was headed for solo stardom and Art Garfunkel was headed for Hollywood, but they pulled together for one final album in 1970. Bridge Over Troubled Water topped charts all over the world, was named Album of the Year at the Grammys, and sent the duo out on a towering high note. Here is a song-by-song review.
11. “Baby Driver”- The one song on the album that feels a little like a throwaway, it’s a mix of Beach Boys and Everly Brothers moves musically. Lyrically, Simon’s come-ons to a girl in pigtails make for a nice contrast from the more somber offerings on the album, but it wouldn’t break your heart if you skipped this track.
10. “Bye Bye Love”- Well they couldn’t bow out without paying proper homage to Phil and Don, could they? Alas, this live recording from Ames, Iowa doesn’t really make too much magic, but, then again, it’s such a cool little song that it’s tough to resist even at less than its best.
9. “Keep The Customer Satisfied”- The horns are maybe too prominent by half, and Simon’s moaning about life on the road is nothing new in the rock and roll milieu. Nonetheless, the buoyancy of the melody keeps this thing afloat.
8. “Why Don’t You Write Me”- Paul Simon’s greatest competition in the world of melodic rock was clearly Paul McCartney, and this fun little lament from a guy separated from his beloved and doubting their connection has the same shuffling energy as Macca’s first few solo albums.
7. “Song For The Asking”- The closing track is little more than a fragment at under two minutes length, but Simon, going solo to close out the duo’s recording career, leaves quite an impression in that short time with his lovely little tune about the power of music.
6. “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright”- Considering that Wright died in 1959, it seems odd that the Simon & Garfunkel would wait so long to say goodbye. That’s when it dawns on you that the famous architect might be a metaphor for Paul and Artie’s musical partnership. It’s a wistful look back too, as Garfunkel sings in his most fragile voice: “All of the nights we harmonized till dawn/I never laughed so long.”
5. “El Condor Pasa”- One of the earliest examples of Simon’s musical wanderlust, this track uses an old Peruvian folk song as its basis and benefits from the accompaniment of Los Incas. Those pipes are mesmerizing, and the minimal lyrics do an efficient job of conveying the sorrow of someone whose dreams are beyond their reach.
4. “The Only Living Boy In New York”- Loneliness and one’s attempts to transcend it could be considered the overall theme for the album, and this song perpetrates that theme through the stunning cathedral-like vocals that seem to be beaming in from another dimension. Simon, Garfunkel, and Roy Halee deserve great credit for what is one of the best-produced albums of that or any era, and this song is one of the best examples of that acumen.
3. “Cecilia”- Never has a cuckolded lover sounded so jubilant as does the narrator of this vibrant song. The fact that he’s accompanied by an ingenious, homemade rhythm certainly helps. Simon has always credited his success to an obsession with how his recordings sound, and it’s hard to find anything that sounds much better than this.
2. “The Boxer”- Start with the recording, which features a little bit of everything in terms of instrumentation to embellish the interlocked fingerpicking of Simon and Fred Carter Jr. Studio pros like Pete Drake, who adds the chilling pedal steel solo, and Hal Blaine, who plays the cavernous drums, are everywhere on the track. Then there’s the song itself, one of Simon’s finest. His befuddled narrator identifies with the punch-drunk stupor of a boxer, but he also summons the resilience necessary to withstand the blows, making the song as stirring as it is moving.
1. “Bridge Over Troubled Water”- It’s on a par with “Hey Jude” in the battle for the most uplifting song to ever come out of the rock era. Much credit goes to the piano part, played by Larry Knechtel, which soldiers on heartily. The song also builds up beautifully from the spare opening verses to the thrilling crescendo at the end. Simon’s lyrics are understated and his melody lovely. Garfunkel, brought to the fore on this album more than at any other time in the duo’s history, provides one of the most indelible vocals ever recorded, gentle yet sturdy early on, powerful and soaring in the climax. It’s been covered often, but the original is still perfection, convincing enough to make you believe that nobody suffers alone.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For books and e-books based on material that originated on this site, check out the links below.)
Simon And Garfunkel’s 1968 album Bookends represents the duo at the height of their popularity, considering that it hit #1 by replacing the soundtrack to The Graduate, which was full of the duo’s songs as well. It was half-concept album, half-killer singles collection, and even when it goes astray, it is impossible to ignore the forward-thinking production and the deft handling of deep material. Here is a song-by-song review.
11. “Voices Of Old People”- The title pretty much says it all. While this audio verite stuff may have been avant-garde at the time, I’m still guessing that the most exercise that Simon and Garfunkel fans got that summer of ’68 was to get up when this song came on and flip the needle to another track. Plus, “Old Friends” gets the message across much more poignantly anyway.
10. “Punky’s Dilemma”- Paul and Artie supposedly struggled mightily to get the recording of this Side Two track just right, but the end result sounds like one of Paul McCartney’s early solo album tracks with the twee factor amped up to overload.
9. “At The Zoo”- To this listener, it was a mistake to end such a weighty album with a lightweight romp like this; you half-expect another song to come on when it’s over to really wrap things up. Simon has some fun with the anthropomorphic jokes but not enough to make this one too compelling.
8. “Overs”- This one covers the same territory as “The Dangling Conversation,” only without as memorable a melody or the previous song’s sense of melancholy grandeur. Still, as matter-of-fact dissections of crumbling romance go, “Overs” gets the job done without any being too showy about it.
7. “Bookends Theme/Bookends”- These two snippets serve their duty exceptionally well, but it’s hard to give them much more than this ranking when there isn’t that much to them. Still, those parting lines (“Preserve your memories;/They’re all that’s left you”) pack a mighty wallop.
6. “Fakin’ It”- The production tries a little bit of everything, from the bluesy main riff to the hand-clap-and-horns euphoria of the refrain to a weird little interlude that must have seemed like a good idea at the time but really only slows the momentum. Still, it all comes together when the duo belt out the chorus with abandon that suggests that there is a certain freedom to admitting that your life is just a counterfeit.
5. “Mrs. Robinson”- I’ve always thought that this song’s immense popularity was due more to its being in the right place at the right time than to its merit. Don’t get me wrong: It’s still impressively breezy and has infinite sing-along appeal, which is a great thing. And the lines about Joe DiMaggio can still send a chill, as Simon expertly suggests a longing for a simpler time that formed a fascinating crosscurrent with the prevalent cultural mood at the time. The rest of it hangs a bit uneasily together for me, which is why I can’t give it an elite ranking.
4. “Save The Life Of My Child”- It’s an energetic track, sparked by the aggressive synthesizer that kicks things off. Simon paints a scene of hysteria and chaos as an entire neighborhood assembles to watch what they assume will be a kid jumping off a ledge. They are strangely inconsiderate to what may have caused him to reach this point, which is only revealed when the songwriter grants him the power of flight and he finally voices his lament: “Oh, my Grace, I got no hiding place.” Nifty cultural commentary in a propulsive package.
3. “Hazy Shade Of Winter”- This is another example of how potent Simon & Garfunkel could be when they turned up the intensity. Driven by an indefatigable guitar riff and a taunting tambourine, the pair maintain a sense of urgency and import all the way. Note how the dreamy middle-eight only makes the breathless run to the finish even more frenzied, reflecting the narrator’s concerns about time sprinting by him at reckless speed.
2. “Old Friends”- Sure, it’s sentimental, but it’s also honest about the darker aspects of the latter stages of life. so the sentiment is in no way manipulative. The strings that hover over the song go from placid to threatening, just like the fortunes of our two park bench heroes. Garfunkel enters the scene in the bridge, his vocals at their most ethereal to voice the bewilderment of the youth trying to wrap their heads around a time when the world won’t belong to them anymore and they’ll be just quiet spectators. Simon wraps up with a couplet somehow comforting and harrowing at once: “Memory brushes the same years/Silently sharing the same fear.”
1. “America”- First of all, consider the fact that Simon and Garfunkel achieved with studio musicians a recording with every bit as much wonder and heart as anything The Beatles produced, a phenomenon which would foreshadow their triumph with Bridge Over Troubled Water two years down the road. That’s as big a part of the song’s success as Simon’s wistful travelogue. For every bit of natural awe that the narrator is able to muster during his bus trip, what really hits home is his admission toward the song’s end: “‘Kathy, I’m lost,’ I said, though I knew she was sleeping/’I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.'” Those lines sum up the timeless restlessness that lurks inside the hearts of so many in this country, and it’s why “America” is as much of a national anthem as “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me @JimBeviglia. Check out the links below for books and e-books based on material that originated on this site.)
Hello all. Those of you expecting the next installment of my Retro Review series on Paul Simon must wait a few more days. I’ve had a bout of kidney stones this past week which laid me up. The good news is it has finally cleared up, but I fell behind on research and things like that, so the Bookends review will be coming on Monday, at which point I should be able to roll again with my twice a week schedule. Sorry for the delay, and thanks for your patience.
Ambitious popular music was de rigueur in 1966, so it was no surprise when Simon & Garfunkel upped their game for Parsley, Sage, Rosemary And Thyme. It’s a bit of a bumpy ride at times, but what emerges in toto is Simon’s consistent attack on the facades that hide the dark sides of seemingly innocuous and even pleasurable parts of life: advertising, weather, folk songs, relationships, even Christmas carols. Here is a song-by-song review.
12. “Patterns”- This is one of those cases where the big ideas got a bit carried away. Simon, of course, would master the art of musical adventurousness as the years went by, but the beatnik bongos and pot-profound musings on the patterns that enslave us all seriously date this song.
11. “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)”- Was it a riff on The Beatles “Good Day Sunshine?” A precursor to R.E.M.’s “Shiny Happy People?” A parody of hippie silliness? I’ve never been sure, but I’ve always been immune to its unrelenting cheeriness and the Muzak vibe it emanates. To each their own.
10. “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night”- For me, the contrast of the angelic Christmas evergreen with the bad news of the day was a bit obvious. Then again, maybe that’s because that kind of thing has been done to death by television producers for the past forty years. Nonetheless, the song sneaks into three-star territory based on the beauty of Paul and Artie’s caroling.
9. “A Poem On The Underground Wall”- Simon’s lyrics are a bit inscrutable here, but the arrangement earns a lot of points, what with the ominous bass drum playing off the acoustic guitar in magnetic fashion. Very ahead of its time. It makes whatever Paul is on about sound more enthralling than it has a right to be.
8. “The Big Bright Queen Pleasure Machine”- Again, this kind of broad satire was to be expected at the time of its release, and the fact that the same points have been made a million times since then shouldn’t be held against Simon. This one could have used some of Ray Davies’ deadpan in the lyrics and Mick Jagger’s sass in the delivery to put it across a bit better. Still, enough of Simons’ one-liners hit home, and the big, brassy music sounds ready-made for an advertising jingle.
7. “Cloudy”- Co-written with The Seekers’ Bruce Woodley, “Cloudy” is a lovely paean to aimlessness. The little guitar fills keep pulling us into Simon’s ruminations. It’s an odd thing, because this song about unfavorable weather ends up leaving the listener with a warm feeling. That’s due to that indefinable magic that Simon & Garfunkel could achieve whenever their voices came together.
6. “For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her”- When in doubt, give Garfunkel a tender melody and get out of the way. He effortlessly handles Simon’s flowery lyrics (a tad too flowery for my taste) with unerring touch. In the end, he pours on the power when he gets to the simple declaration “Oh, I love you, girl,” and it gives this gentle love poem to a dream girl some needed blood and grit.
5. “Flowers Never Bend With The Rainfall”- This one has the same kind of rough-and-tumble, high-speed folk pace of The Beatles “I’ve Just Seen A Face,” only with a bit more lyrical ambition and depth. The parts are played to the hilt by the boys: Simon takes the verses and nails their frantic desire to find some meaning in life, before ceding to Garfunkel, who caresses the long syllables of the chorus and soothes all frayed spirits.
4. “A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Robert McNamara’d Into Submission)” – This skewering of Dylan’s mid-60’s lyrical persona is more loving than nasty, with Simon having a ball stepping into Bob’s hipster shoes and turning the names of pop-culture and political figures of the day into verbs. The organ is suitably Al Kooper-ific, and a little harmonica even slips into the mix. It’s one of the funnier songs to come out of that time period, early evidence that Simon, who, SNL skits aside, often gets painted as a somber fellow, has one of the best senses of humor among the great songwriters.
3. “Scarborough Fair (Canticle)”- I can’t give it five stars, only because the interweaving lyrics about the soldier, while lovely and piercing, can only really be heard in small snatches amidst the main melody, leaving basically an oft-sung folk song. You can get the gist of it though from the wounded nature of Garfunkel’s voice as he goes to town on the “Scarborough Fair” part. It’s one of those songs in which you can get hopelessly, wonderfully lost, until it ends and you’re jarred out of the reverie it has created.
2. “The Dangling Conversation”- It almost gets shanghaied by the heavy-handed strings, but the wonder of Simon’s melody is just too sturdy to shatter. As usual, Garfunkel’s harmonies are impeccable and emotionally on target all the way through, perfectly seconding Paul’s tale of a relationship deteriorating with a whimper instead of a bang. They say that the opposite of love is not hate but rather indifference, and “The Dangling Conversation” captures that via telling details that conjure a painful poignancy.
1.”Homeward Bound”- It doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of some of the other songs on the album, which makes it stick out a bit as an outlier as you’re listening. (It was recorded much earlier than the rest, which explains it.) And yet it’s sheer perfection. The melody starts so downcast yet tries to break free from it with cathartic choruses. The words somehow transcend the specific lyrical references to a traveling performer and remain relevant to anyone in any walk of life missing home. I’m not sure anyone else in the 60’s rivaled The Beatles in terms of singles that combined pop catchiness and depth as well as Simon & Garfunkel, and “Homeward Bound” is one of their finest examples.
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Thanks to producer Tom Wilson’s addition of drums and electric guitar to the year-old “The Sounds Of Silence,” Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, who had essentially gone their separate ways, were suddenly a hit. So they hurriedly put together an album consisting of some leftover songs, some new ones, and several that were recorded by Simon for a ’65 solo album. Despite the bizarre way it came into existence, 1966’s Sounds Of Silence is a wonderful collection of insightful, stirring tracks performed with delicacy and feeling. Here is a song-by-song review.
11. “We’ve Got A Groovy Thing Going On”- “Just for fun” reads the liner notes to Sounds Of Silence concerning this up-tempo romp. Maybe the performers have fun, but listeners probably won’t get the joke on this dated-sounding track.
10. “Anji”- An instrumental that Simon presumable learned during his stint in England, it closes out Side One of the album in unassuming fashion.
9. “Somewhere They Can’t Find Me”- Simon was working on the rewrite apparently, taking “Wednesday Morning, 3 AM” and trading its contemplative mood for a more frantic, suspenseful approach. It’s all right, but the earlier version is ultimately more affecting.
8. “Richard Cory”- When in doubt, look to your poetry anthology for inspiration. “Richard Cory” makes a relatively cliched point about the rich having as many problems as the poor. Luckily, the chorus has enough feistiness to atone for that flaw.
7. “Leaves That Are Green”- With a chirping harpsichord providing the musical flavor, this track is reminiscent of a Beatles album cut with its light melodic touch and catchy arrangement. All songwriters find out they’re getting old at some point; Simon reached that realization pretty early in the game but at least doesn’t get too heavy-handed with his lyrics about it here.
6. “A Most Peculiar Man”- Again, this was common subject matter in the 60’s, since most musicians identified with society’s outsiders anyway. It’s has a dreamy melody that could have only emanated from the 60’s, and it has Art Garfunkel’s brilliant harmonies, which lend the lyrics profundity that might not be located from reading them on a page.
5. “Blessed”- Early Simon & Garfunkel often gets labeled as being a bit twee, but you’d be hard-pressed to find any of their contemporaries coming up with something quite as heavy musically as this underrated track. It’s a good fit for Simon’s tale of a guy who somehow falls in between all the different categories of woeful creatures on whom God shines his light.
4. “April Come She Will”- Parks & Recreation fans recognize it is April and Andy’s wedding song. Simon took a nursery rhyme and retrofitted it to evoke a love that runs its course. This is Garfunkel’s one solo vocal on the album, and he delivers it in gorgeously heartbreaking fashion, but what else would you expect?
3. “Kathy’s Song”- One of the most obvious factors that make Sounds Of Silence such an improvement on the duo’s debut is the leap that Simon had already made as a songwriter. These are the kind of lyrics that seem to speak for the hearts of all those who’ve got it real bad for someone else, as Paul touches on the way that all life’s other pursuits become meaningless in the wake of a truly powerful love. There is also darkness in the song, for such a love becomes a hindrance when the two people are separated. “There but for the grace of you go I,” the narrator sings as he contemplates how easily he could have missed out on the redemption this relationship has bestowed upon him.
2. “I Am A Rock”- While the merits of adding the drums and electric guitars can be debated when discussing the title track, there is no doubt that this song could have flown off the rails into maudlin territory had not the fuller musical approach been applied. It allows Simon to capture the defiance of the narrator, who could have come off seeming like a guy in denial, in which case the song becomes too pathetic. This guy seems at peace with his choice of solitude, making it convincing enough as an alternative lifestyle that anyone whose heart has been broken badly enough would have to consider it.
1. “The Sounds Of Silence”- The words are often taught this as poetry, but, to me, that denies the fact that lyric-writing is an art in itself. Simon’s words need to have the music, hushed and reserved at first, increasingly more intense and urgent as the song progresses, for their true meaning to be gleaned. It’s a pretty prescient song as well, since the difficulty inherent in truly communicating with another person has only increased with time. Just an amazing feat to take subject matter so harrowing and make it so prettily palatable to the masses.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more of my writing, check out the links below to my book and e-books currently available.)
As most of you can probably tell, I’ve chosen Paul Simon for my next series of Retro Reviews. I’ll be going in chronological order from his work with Garfunkel through his solo studio albums. I’ll be posting twice a week, most likely Monday and Friday.
Hope you enjoy it. I’ll be promoting it to try and bring Simon fans to the site. I hope to get a nice back-and-forth in the comments like we had for Dylan.
One more reminder to anyone who has read my Dylan book and has a moment or two, that a review on Amazon, good or bad, would really go a long way toward getting the book in front of more eyes. Or you can review it on B&N, GoodReads, or wherever. Much appreciated, and have a good one.
Like many other artists who would go on to great music success, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel didn’t quite come out of the gate fully-formed legends. Their 1964 debut album, Wednesday Morning, 3AM, was a bit tentative, overly earnest, and too polished. Yet there were moments of brilliance, and all of the elements that would make them great, from Simon’s introspective songwriting and rhythmic ingenuity to, of course, the pair’s stunning harmonies, were there; they just hadn’t quite coalesced. Here is a song-by-song review.
12. “Go Tell It On The Mountain”- Their take in the spiritual is well-intentioned and well-performed, but it doesn’t find anything in the song that congregations for hundreds of years have already located.
11. “Peggy-O”- Any folk artist who debuted in 1964 was bound to be compared to Bob Dylan, but Simon & Garfunkel had a connection stronger than most in that they shared a producer (Tom Wilson.) Here they take on a song that Dylan performed with impish recklessness early in his career and ladle on a tad too much reverence.
10. “Benedictus”- Even though it’s essentially filler, the vocal arrangement is cleverly done, anticipating future gems like “Scarborough Fair (Canticle).”
9. “The Times They Are A-Changin'”- I suppose we have to forgive them for rushing things a bit on this Dylan evergreen. He would return the favor a few years down the road by mumbling his way through “The Boxer.” In both cases, the songs are so good that even a bit of a misfire on the interpretation still scores a minor hit with listeners.
8. “Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream”- The song is certainly of the times, yet it gives a chance for the boys to flash their harmonies on a rangy melody. Garfunkel is especially fine here, soaring over the proceedings with a beguiling combination of grace and passion.
7. “He Was My Brother”- Garfunkel, with typical candor, says it best about this song in the liner notes to Wednesday Morning, 3 AM: “Cast in the Bob Dylan mold of the time, there was no subtlety in the song, no sophistication in the lyric.” True, but Art doesn’t account for how well he and Paul’s voice would blend on those elongated notes, solving a lot of the song’s problems in the process.
6. “The Sun Is Burning”- The finger-picked guitar and the hushed vocals do their jobs so effectively that it’s possible to hear the song and never notice the lyrics, which, written by Ian Campbell, concern themselves with the threat of nuclear annihilation. Proof that the duo could cast a spell even in their earliest efforts.
5. “Sparrow”- Maybe Simon’s metaphors are a bit blunt, but the melody is engaging and sung beautifully. Paul imbues each of the characters with feisty attitude while Garfunkel high parts ache with sympathy for the sad fate of the title bird.
4. “You Can Tell The World”- The debt to the Everly Brothers is clear right off the bat in the opening song of the album, a gospel-folk number that’s rendered with, as the lyrics say, “joy, joy, joy.” It’s a blast to hear Paul cut loose with his vocals in the verses. Fun from start to finish.
3. “Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.”- The title track seems like Simon’s attempt to modernize the murder ballad. Oddly enough, the parts of the song that recount the crime are the least convincing. What does hit home are the thoughts and emotions of a man about to leave his love never to return, his waning moments with her depicted with heartbreaking tenderness.
2. “Bleecker Street”- Freed from worrying about current events for once on the album, Simon creates a captivating snapshot of the titular avenue and the people on it. His imagery is haunting (“I saw a shadow touch a shadow’s hand”) and the tune is unassumingly pretty. For those who want to write this album off as “The Sounds Of Silence” and nothing else, play this for them and you’ll win the argument.
1. “The Sounds Of Silence”- Tom Wilson often gets the credit for adding the backbeat that transformed this song into the hit that it became. Yet a close listen to this version, sans drums, reveals that Simon always had the rhythmic thrust of the song in mind, and that’s what gives it much of its power. Listen to how the momentum almost imperceptibly picks up from the sparse opening. Also note how the vocals seem to ratchet up in intensity until the pair practically bellows out “The words of the prophets” line. It’s that sense of drama that powers the song’s success as much as Paul’s deeply felt lyrics about apathy and lack of communication, and that was all there before the whole “folk-rock” feel was added.
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