CK Retro Review: Songs From The Capeman by Paul SimonPosted: September 27, 2013
Many rockers have felt the pull of Broadway, but most of them dip their foot in the water by licensing previously recorded hits for re-imagining on the stage. Paul Simon went all-in, creating, with the help of co-lyricist Derek Walcott, a musical play with all original music called The Capeman, based on the true story of teenage murderer Salvador Agron. A year before the show debuted, Simon released Songs From The Capeman, featuring 13 doo-wop and Latin-tinged tracks that contain undeniable melodic flair and lyrics which sometimes labor under the weight of exposition. Here is a song-by-song review.
13. “Time Is An Ocean”-Sung on the album by two of the show’s stars, Marc Anthony and Ruben Blades, this is the one melody here that meanders, making this song a bore.
12. “Virgil”- Since the title character is a bigoted prison guard, this song can’t help but being a little unlikable. Simon’s use of the Johnny Cash boom-chicka-boom sound comes off like a pale imitation.
11. “Sunday Afternoon”- Ednita Nazarion does a lovely job singing this meditation on homesickness. Still, Simon’s efforts for Latin authenticity are too rigid, draining any spontaneity out of the melody.
10. “Quality”- There’s not too much fancy going on here, but Simon sings it very well in conjunction with the energetic backing vocals. There’s also a fine, stuttering sax solo from Chris Eminizer which is very era-appropriate.
9. “Killer Wants To Go To College”- The bluesy first version of this song features Simon embodying the cynical responses to Agron’s jailhouse transformation. It even includes a quote of Agron’s infamous line: “Mama, you can watch me burn.”
8. “Killer Wants To Go To College II”- Simon cleverly takes the first version of this song but this time goes up an octave to portray Sal. The lower register comes back in at song’s end to tie everything together. It’s a subtle ploy, but effective enough.
7. “Born In Puerto Rico”- As was his style on his previous two traditional albums, Simon used a ton of musicians to bring this Latin lament to life. Those instruments are deployed delicately enough that the pretty melody and the detail-heavy lyrics have room to make their impact.
6. “Bernadette”- It has a little bit of a Buddy Holly vibe to it as well as the obvious doo-wop influence. While the lyrics by Simon and Walcott are well-crafted, nothing says teenage romance as well as “Dom dom dom zoom” and “Wop wop wop.”
5. “The Vampires”- Simon’s best evocation of a hip-swaying, Latin rhythm on the disc comes courtesy of the sinister yet seductive piano groove concocted by Oscar Hernandez. That musical combination of fear and allure mirrors the emotions that the character of Sal must feel meeting a Puerto Rican gang that offers him a chance to seize control of his fate in this foreign world.
4. “Adios Hermanos”- The combination of the irresistible doo-wop and the unsparing lyrics doesn’t always go down easy but it’s bracing and fresh. Simon acts the lyrics out as much as sings them, allowing his backing vocalists to provide the tunefulness. That final refrain of “Adios, hermanos, adios” is simple and powerful.
3. “Satin Summer Nights”- Again, doo-wop is the go-to sound on this one, with only a little bit of sax joining the voices bouncing off each other in the New York night. Simon is so at home in this milieu that he and Walcott effortlessly craft a three-pronged narrative and somehow manage to put each distinct character right at home in the vocal sea. It’s a high degree of difficulty that’s handled extremely well.
2. “Trailways Bus”- This is the one song on the album that shakes off any structural shackles imposed by musical theatre and sounds like something that could easily have appeared on a Simon album. Paul knows how to write travelogues, especially one that features a bus trip (“America,” anyone?) But The Capeman, no matter how far he travels in his post-prison life, is never quite free, either from the small-minded people whom he meets or from the ghosts of his horrible past mistakes.
1. “Can I Forgive Him”- Simon recorded this delicate ballad at home with just acoustic guitar as his accompaniment, and he wisely left it unadorned for Songs From The Capeman. It is a standout melody that weaves between one mother’s plea for understanding and forgiveness and two other mothers whose heartbreak won’t allow either of those two qualities into their hearts. Whereas other Broadway ballads try to stop the show with histrionics, Simon does the job with musical tenderness and emotional honesty.
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