Late in 2011, Paul Simon celebrated his 70th birthday. Earlier that year, he celebrated the release of an album for which you could make a legitimate case as the best of his amazing career and not get laughed out of the room. So Beautiful Or So What is a stunningly assured collection of songs filled with Simon’s trademark humor and heart and melodies that alternately woo and wound. The arrangements are dialed back and simplified, leaving Paul front and center for what feels like the first time since the start of his solo career, and he more than rises to the occasion. Here is a song-by-song review.
10. “Amulet”- He has employed so many great guitarists over the years that it’s easy to forget how deft a guitarist that Simon is in his own right. This sweet little solo instrumental is a nice reminder.
9. “Love And Blessings”- The one novel production technique, relative to the rest of Simon’s career, on So Beautiful Or So What is the use of samples from early 20th-century recordings on three songs. Here a moody acoustic piece gets a jolt of energy from a “bop-bop-a-whoa” chant that comes from the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet in 1938. Simon and co-producer Phil Ramone do a really nice job of seamlessly integrating it into the finished recording.
8. “Dazzling Blue”- This one has a Graceland feel in the way that it meshes different elements that seem like they shouldn’t work together, but, by the end of the song, feel like they’re naturally complimentary. In this case, you’ve got Indian artists creating fascinating vocal percussion while bluegrass legends Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver provide lush harmonies behind Simon. The singer advises playing a “lonesome tune” when things get rough, but there’s no way he could be lonesome with musical friends like these.
7. “Love Is Eternal Sacred Light”- Simon makes a pretty good racket without losing his melodic flair on this one. God makes several appearances on the album; here he comes off as a prankster who doesn’t let his love for his children get in the way of a good road trip.
6. “Getting Ready For Christmas”- Ray Davies would be proud of the jaded view that Simon takes toward Christmas on this track. The main riff is a catchy one, even if it gets a bit repetitive after a while. One of Simon’s trademark stylistic shifts might have helped. It’s still a lively attention-grabber to open the album.
5. “Questions For The Angels”- Simon has been profiling forlorn outsiders as far back as “The Boxer,” so this story about a man who is literally and spiritually homeless searching for answers is right in his wheelhouse. The chamber-music instrumentation is deployed with just the right touch around Simon’s wandering melody. None of his questions are answered, not by God or Jay-Z, but this lonely pilgrim captures our hearts just the same.
4. “So Beautiful Or So What”- Who says that Dylan has cornered the market on state-of-the-world blues songs? Simon is the one who goes electric here and delivers a frenzied dissertation on history, squandered time and love, and chicken gumbo. The lyrics seesaw between playfulness and profundity without an ounce of strain, which makes it the perfect album-closing track, summing up all that has come before it.
3. “The Afterlife”- Heaven as a bureaucratic snafu? Albert Brooks would love it. Simon’s version of an eternal resting place, full of forms and lines and no sign of the Man Upstairs, is one of his cleverest creations in song. When he finally does get to speak to God to defend his life, all he can come up with are doo-wop lyrics. The agile lyrics prance all over the hip-swaying music conjured by the trio of Simon, Vincent Nguini, and Jim Oblon. Let’s hope the real afterlife has music that’s half as much fun as this.
2. “Love And Hard Times”- At times it sounds like Randy Newman; at others, it sounds like Frank Sinatra. Somehow those two disparate influences coalesce into something that is quintessentially Simon. Give credit to Gil Goldstein for arranging the strings with subtlety without sacrificing the impact. God and Jesus get out while the getting’s good in the first part of the song, unable to deal with the waywardness of their imperfect creations. The second part is a desperate love song, one man clinging to the buffer that his better half provides against those “hard times.” Every moment is captivating, while Simon’s performance is one of the most moving in his career.
1.”Rewrite”- It comes on like an unassuming character sketch of a slightly addled car wash attendant. The hypnotic music, which builds off the contrast between the low rumble of the guitar and the high trill of the glass harp, sounds soothing enough, with Simon’s whistling adding to the whole breezy feel. All of this only makes the surprises in the narrative more affecting, especially when we find out just how much this guy has lost. That’s when you realize that his unfinished script is more than just the unrealistic dream of a menial worker. He’s actually attempting to rewrite a life than has spiraled wildly out of his control.
(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. Online reviews of that material are much appreciated.)
Perhaps realizing that he was getting diminishing returns from the forays into World music that began so spectacularly with Graceland, Paul Simon found a new path on 2006’s Surprise. That title couldn’t have been more appropriate, since listeners expecting the percussion-led workouts of his previous few albums were instead treated to guitars polished with gleaming sonics, beats that were at times robotically precise, and electronic effects that brought artificiality into Simon’s music like never before. And guess what? The album, sculpted with help from studio wizard Brian Eno, was consistently fine and occasionally splendid. Here is a song-by-song review.
11. “Sure Don’t Feel Like Love”- You can give credit to Eno and the sonics for the album’s success, but the fact is that Simon’s songwriting was much sharper as well. This may be the only example of a song where the focus falters, but the subtle funkiness and the breeziness of Paul’s performance still makes it a keeper.
10. “Beautiful”- An addled father watches his family get bigger practically by the moment in Simon’s loose narrative. Bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Steve Gadd have a loose chemistry as a rhythm section that sparks their songs together, including this one, while the falsetto chorus is a moment that evokes the song’s title.
9. “That’s Me”- As on You’re The One, Simon spends a good portion of Surprise pondering deep stuff like the nature of identity and the passage of time. The difference is that he laces songs like “That’s Me” with ample helpings of lived-in details and self-deprecating humor. When he does wax philosophic and poetic, as in the gorgeous middle section here, the beauty of it really pops from the earthier surroundings.
8. “Everything About It Is A Love Song”- There is a little bit of everything going on in this song, maybe too much at times, but it’s a thrilling collaboration of sounds. The stark opening gives way to a skittering beat that seems to constantly pick up pace. Guitar legend Bill Frisell adds some virtuosity to Eno’s inspired knob-twiddling. I’m not sure you can say about too may Simon songs that you’re breathless at the end of it, but this one qualifies.
7. “Wartime Prayer”- I personally think that this is one song where the ambition of it all gets a bit in the way. The quieter parts are heart-rending stuff, and Simon’s lyrics effortlessly shift from sympathetic pleas to pointed jibes (“People hungry for the voice of God/Hear lunatics and liars.”) Alas, the rock gospel section is a bit forced and overblown, keeping this song from reaching its full potential. Still, what works really sizzles.
6. “Father And Daughter”- Let’s face it: Rock songs written by fathers for children can be sticky sweet to the point of annoyance. Simon avoids that pitfall with music that’s accessible yet still interesting and lyrics that are hopeful without being naïve. Familiar childhood signposts like bed monsters and fishing trips mix with sober advice: “Try to help the human race/Struggling to survive its harshest night.” Paul’s jazzy main guitar riff is a great anchor as well.
5. “Outrageous”- One of Eno’s more famous projects was Achtung Baby by U2, which featured “The Fly.” Even though Eno didn’t have a hand in producing that particular song, the same vibe percolates through “Outrageous,” especially in the phrasing of Simon’s quasi-rapping in the verses. And, like those great U2 songs, this one really soars when it opens up from the chunky open sections into the more melodic portions. Paul’s concerns about social ills and personal frailties can be summed up in one frazzled line: “It’s outrageous I can’t stop thinking ‘bout the thing I’m thinking of.”
4. “How Can You Live In The Northeast?”- Upon hearing those power chords at the start of this album, you’d forgive some Simon fans if they thought the clerk had inserted the wrong disc into their slipcase. The evidence that it is prime Paul comes in the song’s chameleonic nature. It quickly shifts from the narrator’s wondrous visions of fireworks into a series of close-minded questions that Simon utilizes to drive home his point about how inane it is that religious and geographical differences can be blown up into impenetrable barriers. This has as much bite as anything Simon had released in decades.
3. “Once Upon A Time There Was An Ocean”- Again, the title suggests some kind of treatise on life that takes us back into the mists of time. In a way, it does, but you also get a very relatable modern story about a guy who shrugs off what he sees is a dead-end life only to find his original home exerts more of a pull on him that he ever could have expected. The final verse is a show-stopper, one that can make you misty-eyed. The jumpy music in the narrative parts steps back to let Simon’s melody flow through in the most important places.
2. “I Don’t Believe”- Simon is skilled enough to ask questions about trenchant topics like faith without coming off as hectoring or condescending. He shows that quality in spades here, a song with sadly pretty verses and rugged connecting sections that let drummers Steve Gadd and Robin DiMaggio release the thunder. Once again, Simon not only makes it look easy when he shifts gears in midstream, he makes it positively essential to the song’s success.
1.”Another Galaxy”- Simon has to be praised for taking a chance on this album and such a drastic change in sound. The synthesis for which he was striving is achieved to perfection here. Eno conjures a nifty electronic hook, Palladino and Gadd keep things percolating beneath the action, and Simon delivers his most direct hit of a melody on the album. He also tells a poignant miniature of a story and delivers the bigger picture, a resonant one for this album in that it’s about the righteousness of restlessness, in the chorus. There’s not a wasted moment.
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Considering that there was a decade-long hiatus between 1990’s The Rhythm Of The Saints and 2000’s You’re The One in the catalog of Paul Simon proper studio albums, one might have expected the latter to be a grand statement sort of album. Although it got the requisite Grammy love, You’re The One is, in truth, a muted, elusive affair, rhythmically complex and lyrically vague to the point of impenetrability. In other words, it’s a grower, although you’re forgiven if you give up on waiting for the payoff. Here is a song-by-song review.
11. “Senorita With A Necklace Of Tears”- Another samey-sounding rhythm, a repetitive melody, New Age musings on time and South American frogs: This one is a snooze, even with a nice verse toward the end about the intertwining of memory and music.
10. “Look At That”- Session man extraordinaire Larry Campbell provides a little bit of color in this one with his pedal steel work. Other than that, this meandering mid-tempo track is hard to remember once it’s over.
9. “Hurricane Eye”- There are what seems like two distinct songs going on here, with the banjo work of Mark Stewart distinguishing the first half before a more aggressive second half. You get the feeling, based on its placement as the penultimate song, that Simon thought he had an album-defining track. Instead, it’s much ado but little impact.
8. “You’re The One”- Simon can’t decide just what he wants this song to be (a problem that permeates many of the weaker tracks on the album.) Is it a jaunty, caustic send-up of the unrealistic expectations of love or a more probing meditation on its frailties? The music is similarly conflicted, partly jumpy and partly subdued. Maybe that was the intent, but the song is difficult to embrace.
7. “The Teacher”- While it musically sustains its mysterious mood, Simon’s weird narrative sounds a little like something at which he might have poked fun back in the day. When he sings, “I was a child of the city,” some might fight the urge to yell at him to get back there. I know I did.
6. “Pigs, Sheep And Wolves”- I’m not sure whether this is just a children’s lark, a goof on a fairy tale, or some deeper parable about the dangers of misperceiving appearance. What I can say for certain is that it’s one of the few times on the album that Simon seems to be legitimately having fun, and that fun is infectious.
5. “Quiet”- The lyrics about shunning the pursuit of material goods sound like they could have been penned by a 60’s spiritual healer (or at least George Harrison.) Still, the music is cinematically vivid and eerily pretty, like mist settling on a mountainside.
4. “Love”- For all of the intricate percussion and rhythmic complexity on the album, one of the highlights is hearing Simon’s vocals, at the forefront if only for a few moments, singing the word “love” here and reminding us how moving his vocals can be. This is one of the more focused songs on the record as a whole, although it rarely rises again to that aforementioned high.
3. “Old”- Holy Horn-rims, are those “Peggy Sue” guitars ever welcome. They bring a little grit and vigor into the otherwise bloodless proceedings. Simon’s lyrics are funny without trying too hard to be, nicely suiting the rocking rhythm. Mentioning the Stones and Holly next to Jesus and Buddha, Simon indulges his album-long obsession with the relativity of time in much more pleasurable fashion than he manages to do in some of the more ponderous tracks.
2. “That’s Where I Belong”- It’s too slight and sleepy to rise into four-star category. That said, it’s by far the best melody on the album, one which Paul sings in touching fashion. The lyrics also win points for their simple yet affecting nature, especially the lovely first verse, which pretty much tells the whole Simon story in a nutshell, doesn’t it?
1.”Darling Lorraine”- From “The Dangling Conversation” to “I Do It For Your Love” to “Hearts And Bones,” Simon has always been painfully honest in detailing the ebb and flow of a romantic relationship. He takes it to the extreme on the marvelous “Darling Lorraine.” From early infatuation to boredom to reconciliation to petty bickering, it’s all there. We end up rooting for this couple, which is why the song’s end is so potent. Some people might find it end morbid, but it is the absolute truth about how it all plays out, rather than the phony, prettified version that usually passes for a love song. Frank and Lorraine, in their flawed glory, feel startlingly real, making them stand out in an album full of cosmic intangibles.
(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. And online reviews of that material are greatly appreciated.)
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.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For books and e-books on material that originated on this site, check out the links below. And, as always, online reviews of that material is welcome and much appreciated.)
After the overwhelming commercial and critical triumph of Graceland, Paul Simon doubled down on the follow-up, 1990’s The Rhythm Of The Saints. Once he again he enlisted foreign sounds to enliven his songs, only this time he broadened his scope even further to include a wide swath of South American musicians. I have a feeling that the end result is one of Simon’s most polarizing albums and I’m probably on the South end of that pole, since I consider it to be an album, for the most part, that’s easier to admire than enjoy. Here is a song-by-song review:
10. “The Rhythm Of The Saints”- New Age lyrics, no real melodic momentum, and an impenetrable production. As an album-closer, it doesn’t exactly leave you wanting more.
9. “The Cool, Cool River”- The quieter moments are actually quite lovely and the punch of the horns is a bit of pick-me-up toward the end of the song. Yet the feeling I get is of three disparate songs being jammed together. Simon’s lyrics have the same kind of schizophrenic quality, vague portents of doom interspersed with villainous images, counteracted by optimism for the future. All of the complexity and ambition feels like an end here rather than the means.
8. “The Coast”- This one ambles along nicely enough, although it could have stood a hook or two. For me, the main problem here is again with Paul’s lyrics, which veer off in almost stream-of-consciousness fashion and never cohere into anything tangible. Still, the musicianship is diverting enough that you can overlook it most of the way.
7. “Spirit Voices”- Feels a little like a Sting song, doesn’t it? That’s not a bad thing, I guess, but it’s hard to find Simon in a lot of these songs, almost like he’s a guest player on his own album. The back-and-forth with Milton Nascimento at song’s gives this one a little needed oomph.
6. “Proof”- It has a memorable, horn-drenched chorus. Plus, whereas all of the songs on The Rhythm Of The Saints have intricate rhythms, this one feels like it has a little bit of a groove as well. Simon’s sense of humor, also largely absent in this collection of songs, briefly pops up here. Pep and fun goes a long way.
5. “Further To Fly”- This meditative number pits Simon’s musings on life’s meaning against a typically knotty web of percussion. There is some disconnect going on between the lonely vocal and the all the congas and bongos, but that may have been the desired effect. It also boasts one of the stronger sets of lyrics on the disc, a series of nagging doubts and sober observations, problems that the “Great Deceiver” can’t solve. Yet a collective yearning for a better outcome never ceases, even when all evidence points to the contrary.
4. “Can’t Run But”- If you’re looking for The Rhythm Of The Saints in microcosm, look no further. On the one hand, the percussion is simply mesmerizing. Seriously, I could listen to that alone on a loop, a week would pass, and I’d be none the wiser. Yet the song itself is more impressive than affecting. The lyrics lurch from ecological concerns to a random dream to a complaint about the music business. As a matter of fact, Simon seems to be a superfluous part of the equation. But, again, that percussion: Wow.
3. “She Moves On”- This is more like it. First of all, the arrangement is solid, with the guitars of Ray Phiri and Vincent Nguini providing a nice counterpoint to the exotic percussion. The short punchy lyrical lines provide a vocal hook that works in tandem with the rhythmic thrust. In addition, those lyrics have a focus about them that is refreshing after all of the abstract stuff elsewhere on the disc, and they feature some really cool phrases, my favorite being “cold coffee eyes.” Even though the elusive girl who bewitches the guy is an oft-used song topic, the exotic touches make it feel new.
2. “The Obvious Child”- I went back and forth on this one between four and five stars. Those drums by Group Cultural Olodum are thrilling, propelling the entire song into the stratosphere. Simon’s tune, even when it shifts shape, always has drama and urgency. The song would have been a five-star choice had it elaborated on the tale of Sonny, because the verse describing his perusal of his high school yearbook is effortlessly moving. The focus wavers a bit though with some free association lyrics (“The cross is in the ballpark?”) which distract more than enhance. It’s nitpicking, I know, but I call ‘em like I hear ‘em.
1.“Born At The Right Time”- There’s that old adage that says that a song that’s truly great should be great in its simplest form. The acoustic demo of Simon alone with acoustic guitar that’s included on the extended version of this album is utterly charming, so that big hurdle is easily cleared. The accents added here are just right, from the hip-shifting percussion to the nimble guitar work of J.J. Cale, Vincent Nguini, and Simon, to the lovely backing vocals. Yet it all goes back to that original song, one of the sweetest in Paul’s oeuvre. He cataloged a lot of ills on the rest of the album, yet here he captures that moment when everything is possible, before the world gets a chance to screw it up. Beguilingly simple and poignant enough to mist up your eyes, “Born At The Right Time” is the bell cow for this accomplished yet elusive album.
(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. Online reviews of those works would be greatly appreciated.)
Like many other artists of his generation, Paul Simon floundered a bit trying to find his way in the early years of his MTV era. It took a little globetrotting to truly get his footing, but once he did, the results were stunning. Graceland, recorded in part in South Africa and released in 1986, was the culmination of his lifelong musical wanderlust, thrillingly melding musical styles from around the world while still sounding quintessentially Simon. Here is a song-by-song review.
11. “Under African Skies”- The World music angle gets the most publicity when it comes to Graceland, but what sometimes gets lost in the shuffle is the lineup of guest stars that Simon trotted out to help him. On this track, for instance, Linda Ronstadt sings backup. Alas, her efforts come in service of one of the few songs when the production (too glossy, overbaked drum sounds) overwhelms the core of the track.
10. “All Around The World Or The Myth Of Fingerprints”- The lyrics are actually quite fine, as are the quieter sections of the music, but the boogie-rock main section is very routine compared to all of the ingenious tracks around it. Considering that the track led to a dust-up between Simon and collaborators Los Lobos concerning writing credits, this closing song wasn’t worth the trouble.
9. “Crazy Love, Vol. II”- I think if Simon had to do it all over again, he would have eased off on the booming drum sounds that sometimes stick out among the more natural sounds around them. This is one of the songs that sounds a bit dated because of that production choice. On the plus side, the chorus is a catchy one here. Plus, somewhere Bruce Springsteen is seething that he didn’t come up with the character name Fat Charlie The Archangel first.
8. “Gumboots”- It was a tape of this song by the Boyoyo Boys that was the genesis for the whole Graceland project. The instrumental part of the song is fascinating, sounding like a cross between ska and polka. Yet Simon manages to work in a fast-talking lyric that seems of a piece with the spirit evoked by the music.
7. “I Know What I Know”- Another one of the songs that was recorded at first in South Africa, this one features the Gaza sisters providing liberating backing vocals all around Simon’s more tempered take. What makes this song a winner is the beguiling contrast between the music’s loose vibrancy and the stilted small talk between the narrator and his potential one-night stand. That conversation sounds way too detailed to have just come from Paul’s imagination. Methinks he might have lived through this one.
6. “Diamonds On The Soles Of My Shoes”- That beautiful opening by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which bridges the gap between South African music and the doo-wop that enthralled Paul as a child, is the perfect table-setter to this open-hearted offering. Simon’s lyrics just sound good against that sprightly melody, no matter what they’re going on about. The horns are another nice touch. All told, it’s as sound a construction as you could imagine, and it effortlessly coaxes involuntary smiles from its listeners.
5. “Homeless”- Joseph Shabalala and Ladysmith Black Mambazo take center stage on this gorgeous a cappella song. It’s mesmerizing the way the singers can go from practically grunting out a rhythm to melodic and tender heights in a half-instant. When they sing, “And we are homeless,” it is impossible not to think of the political situation in South Africa at the time.
4. “That Was Your Mother”- Simon did his job of assimilating the foreign sounds into his music so well that one might be fooled into thinking that this song came courtesy of South African musicians. Instead, it’s New Orleans’ Good Rockin’ Dopsie and the Twisters who bring the frenzied zydeco flavor to the track. Of course, this being Paul, you can’t have only good times in the song, so he includes that hilarious commentary by the father to his son (“You are the burden of my generation.”) And this was the same cat who wrote “St. Judy’s Comet” and “Father And Daughter?” Ouch.
3. “You Can Call Me Al”- Simon probably knew that he needed a single that would sound familiar enough to Western ears to introduce the album. Buoyed by that indefatigable horn riff, the ridiculously limber bass work of Bakiti Kumalo, and, let’s face it, Chevy Chase, he got just what he needed. Quietly tucked away behind the jokey chorus is a poignant tale of a man without a figurative country who finally finds God in the details at song’s end.
2. “The Boy In The Bubble”- Graceland largely is devoid of any outright social commentary, but this lead-off song makes a strong statement without hectoring. Technology gives and technology taketh away, so that the “days of miracle and wonder” aren’t as transcendent as one might assume they should be. There is sustained urgency in the music, from the beginning with that see-sawing accordion all the way to the end as Paul hums his way home. Picture-perfect album-opening track.
1. “Graceland”- Simon has spoken about how he sort of fell into this song based on the initial drum beat which reminded him of Sun Records classics. Yet the tale the song tells is typically Paul, a wistful road trip by a man trying to find himself as much as the location of the King. The descriptions of the scenery are so vivid you feel like you’re on the trip with him, while the descriptions of the narrator’s inner longing are so incisive that they conjure an ache that’s familiar to many. This is songwriting of the highest degree within a gorgeous musical setting. What more could you ask for?
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For books and e-books based on material that originated on this site, check out the links below.)
The quasi-soundtrack to Paul Simon’s largely forgotten movie of the same name, 1980’s One-Trick Pony was the singer-songwriter’s first album in five years. The absence didn’t result in a ton of inspiration, however, as the album, although expertly played and rarely less than solid, was lacking in truly killer songs, at least compared to Simon’s previous track record. Here is a song-by-song review.
10. “That’s Why God Made The Movies”- If you wanted to sum up the album’s overall flaw, it’s that there are several tracks that have too much of a sleepy vibe. Some of the better ones compensate with intriguing lyrics or affecting melodies, but this one is a bit of a bore.
9. “Jonah”- Maybe this is one is too specifically catered to the hard life of a musician to resonate to a wider audience. Maybe the arrangement is more tasteful than animated. Whatever it is, “Jonah” never quite catches fire.
8. “Nobody”- A familiar-sounding paean to a significant other who solves all the narrator’s problems, it’s got several nice moments. Best of all is the interlude featuring the solo by Eric Gale and Simon’s walled backing vocals which aren’t all that dissimilar from “The Only Living Boy In New York.”
7. “Ace In The Hole”- It’s suitably gritty and played to the hilt (in a live take) by the crack band Simon assembled. Still, Paul seems much more at home with the more melancholy shades of the melody than when he’s tasked with keeping up with duet partner Richard Tee in the faster-paced sections.
6. “God Bless The Absentee”- Again, the whole life-on-the-road vein has been mined many, many times before, so that’s a bit of a strike against this one. Still, Simon’s lyrics are heartfelt enough to get him by, especially when his narrator opines touchingly on the son left behind at home.
5. “Oh, Marion”- The main section has a little bit of a Steely Dan vibe to it, both in the jazz-funk in the music and the acidic tone of Simon’s lyrics. The dreamy middle section is a real beauty, with Paul soaring into an upper register to really bare his pain. Great lines in that part as well: “The only time/That love is an easy game/Is when two other people are playing it.” Ain’t that the truth.
4. “Long, Long Day”- Simon can do this kind of after-hours stuff with both hands behind his back, so a song like this one can easily get taken for granted. Patti Austin helps out on vocals, offering some romantic solace to the narrator. Paul’s own vocal is understatedly great You can feel every mile the narrator has traveled and every time his heart has been broken in the subtle weariness in his voice.
3. “How The Heart Approaches What It Yearns”- That poetic title doesn’t quite capture’s the laid-back vibe this song emanates, but it does match the romantic drama perpetrated in the lyrics. Some lovely guitar work by Paul and Eric Gale highlight a pitch-perfect rendering by the band. The final image of the narrator all alone in some lonely restaurant failing to connect to the object of all that yearning is a real grabber.
2. “One-Trick Pony”- This is the one point in the album when some genuine passion sparks up through all of the measured ruminations. Maybe it’s the live setting that helps it along, but more likely it’s the song itself with its inherent feistiness that does the trick. In the portion when Simon compares his own fumbling efforts to the steady efficiency of the title character, the music comes alive to a point where it’s almost startling compared to the placid exterior of most of the tracks around it.
1. “Late In The Evening”- At the very least, the opening track proved that Simon hadn’t lost anything in terms of his ability to construct an irresistible single. Steve Gadd, the hero of “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover,” does it again here with his nimble stick work in conjunction with Tony Levin’s hopscotching bassline. The lyrics are like a mini-autobiography, with Simon bouncing through pivotal moments in his character’s life. It ends with the love of his life and an explosion of horns, but, at every stop along the way, music is in the background of the scene and at the forefront of his heart.
(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.)
For 1975’s Still Crazy After All These Years, Paul Simon made his version of a traditional singer-songwriter album. Although it isn’t as musically adventurousness as some of his earlier discs, the album features some of Simon’s most cutting lyrics. It also might be his most downbeat album, full of mid-life crises, romantic ennui, dead-end hometowns and baseball fatalities. Still, even though it stagnates a bit on Side Two, it’s another fascinating effort. Here is a song-by-song review.
10. “You’re Kind”- This is pretty much a one-joke premise about a guy who can’t stand romantic prosperity and kicks away the best thing he ever had for trivial reasons. (Although I’m with the narrator: I prefer the window open when I sleep.) It’s sort of funny the first time, but it just takes up space after that.
9. “Gone At Last”- While it’s not certain whether the meeting that saves the narrator of this song is of a spiritual or romantic nature, what is clear is that the gospel music within the song, a duet with Phoebe Snow, is a little more pedestrian than praiseworthy.
8. “Night Game”- I think it’s safe to say that Paul didn’t intend it to be taken literally that the hurler bites it in this song, a la Michael Madsen when he crashes through the wall in The Natural. It seems more a symbolic death that haunts this strange but interesting mood piece. The imagery is striking, especially the closing lines: “And the tarpaulin was rolled/Upon the winter frost.”
7. “Have A Good Time”- Since Simon pretty much sat out the late 70’s as a recording artist, he didn’t get drawn into disco. This tongue-in-cheek track is probably as close as he ever came. The lyrics depict a clown who is willing to ignore all reality, both in terms of the problems in his personal life and the issues that plague the world at large, in pursuit of temporary enjoyment. A bit broad, but still clever.
6. “Silent Eyes”- Simon doesn’t get too specific with his observations on Jerusalem, yet his compassion is evident from the power of his vocal. The choir does provide a few moments of solemn beauty, but when you add that to the dramatic piano flourishes, it makes “Silent Eyes” seem just a bit too in-your-face about its intentions as a important with a capital ‘I’ album-closer.
5. “Some Folks Lives Roll Easy”- Like many Simon songs, this one starts without a lot of fanfare yet surprises you with its potency somewhere along the line. It begins with Paul making generalized observations about the fates of certain people compared to others. Everything seems matter-of-fact until it builds to the singer practically wailing out the closing lines, showing that maybe he’s more affected by it than he lets on. Sneaky good.
4. “I Do It For Your Love”- Propelled by a lovely blend of instruments, Simon’s ruminates unsentimentally on marriage. It seems that if you tie the knot, all you have to look forward to are bad pipes, shared illnesses, and ill-chosen floor decorations. Oh, and you also get “The sting of reason/The splash of tears,” which is when the black comedy doesn’t seem so funny anymore. The song is no pick-me-up, but its honesty is potent.
3. “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover”- There aren’t too many songs with a drum beat as the hook, but, courtesy of sessionman Steve Gadd’s little martial rumble, this major hit is one of them. I’ve always found that the jokey chorus skews a little too close to novelty-song territory for my taste. Luckily, the somber verses help to atone for it, especially in the way that Simon contrasts those blunt refrains with the exceedingly formal and polite conversation between the narrator and his mistress.
2. “My Little Town”- Welcome back, Artie! This reunion proved that the inimitable chemistry between Simon and Garfunkel hadn’t dulled a bit in their five-year-recording hiatus. It helped that Simon wrote a great song. In typically counterintuitive Simon fashion, he chose this occasion of great nostalgia to write a song that pokes holes all over the idyllic visions one might have of their hometown, painting a picture of an unimaginative, stifling place that leaves the narrator “Twitching like a finger/On the trigger of a gun.” When the duo tear into that piercing refrain (“Nothing but the dead of night back in my little town”), it’s clear they left that old burg behind long ago.
1. “Still Crazy After All These Years”- Whether it was a self-portrait or a character sketch of middle-aged malaise, Simon gets the lyrics, simple and yet telling, just right on the title track. In the last verse, when he admits to worrying about how he’ll handle the future, this seemingly harmless little lament gains a lot more heft. The music is simply brilliant, reflecting the narrator’s plight: The sad yet resigned electric piano of Barry Beckett in the main section, the edgy strings in the bridge, and the resilient sax solo of Mike Brecker, which brings the song to a towering peak.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For books and e-books based on material that originated on this site, check out the links below.)
1973’s There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, Paul Simon’s second solo album after his split with Art Garfunkel, saw him continuing to explore diverse sounds and lyrical themes that veered seamlessly from the playful to the confessional. Yet unlike his self-titled solo debut from the previous year which had music that tended toward the exotic, this album is filled mainly with American tunes, at times upbeat and rollicking, at times wounded and soulful. Here is a song-by-song review.
10. “Learn How To Fall”- If there is a problem with the album, it’s that certain songs don’t have much of an identity. Besides the dueling guitars of Simon and Jerry Puckett, this one is non-descript musically and full of pat bromides lyrically.
9. “One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor”- It tries to work up a lather in the middle section, but it all seems a bit busy. The song might have been better off building off the tense piano part played by Barry Beckett that bookends it.
8. “Was A Sunny Day”- The island vibe seems a little out of place with the rest of the more earthbound tracks around it. The episodic nature of the verses anticipates future triumphs like “Slip Sliding Away,” but here, although pleasant, everything is a bit slight.
7. “Take Me To The Mardi Gras”- With an appearance by the Onward Brass Band, lovely vocal help from the Reverend Claude Jeter, and a shout out to Jelly Roll, Simon certainly has the right guests on board and the particulars in place for a tribute to Mardi Gras. His lyrics are smooth, but it’s all a bit subdued for a song about one of the biggest parties on Earth.
6. “St. Judy’s Comet”- It’s a rite of passage for every rock star to write a good-night song for their kids. Simon’s is typically understated and humble, especially the way he frets about how it will look to the world if his powers of songwriting fail to knock his kid out. Musically, it’s a little bit sleepy, but, considering the subject matter, I suppose that’s apropos.
5. “Tenderness”- “There’s no tenderness beneath your honesty,” Simon sings, suggesting that the truth hurts if it’s leveled with disdain. Paul Griffin, a veteran of a million great records, adds some jazzy piano on the periphery, while The Dixie Hummingbirds second Simon’s emotions with fathoms-deep backing vocals.
4. “Love Me Like A Rock”- The two lead singles from There Goes Rhymin’ Simon were big hits, and they still get airplay galore on oldies channels today. They lack, however, the grandeur of the Simon & Garfunkel hits or the ingenuity and pep of the two big hits off Paul Simon. They’re still really enjoyable though. In the case of “Love Me A Rock,” Simon slips into its gospel setting without losing his songwriting voice, creating a buoyant noise with The Dixie Hummingbirds at his side.
3. “Kodachrome”- Again, it’s not the most profound thing in the world, nor Is it dripping with inspiration. But it does have one of the potent and incisive opening couplets in rock (“When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school/It’s a wonder I can think at all”), a galloping beat that’s impossible to resist, and a refrain that’s meaningful nonsense. The Muscle Shoals magic rubs off on the track as well, right down to the hoedown finish.
2. “Something So Right”- Dreamy keyboards from Bob James and silky strings arranged by Quincy Jones are the perfect trappings to this soulful ballad, but then finding the right accompaniment for his musings has always been one of Simon’s finest qualities as a recording artist. But let’s give credit to the songwriting on this one, as Paul manages to pull off that oh-so difficult task of writing an affecting love song without getting goopy. He achieves this by letting people hear the loneliness and pain from whence his narrator came in the verses, making the redemptive relationship highlighted in the chorus seem like a well-earned triumph.
1. “American Tune”- Simon takes a good look at himself and his countrymen and sees similarities: Yearning, restlessness, wounds that don’t heal but maybe dull a bit with time, probably heading in the wrong direction without knowing just why. “I don’t have a dream that’s not been shattered,” Simon sings in that timeless melody. “Or driven to its knees.” The cinematic middle section is powerful as Paul recounts a vision of the Statue of Liberty sailing away from all those looking to it for comfort. Simon set the bar pretty high in the category of songs about his country with “America,” but “American Tune” meets that standard with flying colors.
(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 blog, check out the links below.)