The Paul Simon Songbook (CBS ‘65, Columbia '04) Rating: B+
As noted on my Simon & Garfunkel page (which I hope you’ll read before this page): “After the duo’s debut album stiffed, Garfunkel went off to college and Simon toured the U.K. as a solo folkie. He also recorded The Paul Simon Songbook, which also tanked.” This album was actually out of print for many years and is still rather hard to find (Paul’s negative liner notes indicating that he himself wasn’t a major fan of it perhaps explaining why), but it’s well worth searching for if you’re a big fan of Simon’s work. Although not the place to start with Simon, this album is at minimum a fascinating curio, as 10 of these 12 songs would soon be reworked on Simon & Garfunkel albums. And though most of the later versions of these songs are superior, in part because Paul can’t sing as well as Art, this album holds together very well and is quite unlike anything else he’s ever done. Basically, this album is Paul Simon Unplugged, as the album features only Paul, his guitar and voice, and a single microphone; these are each first takes of songs that had been written over the previous two years. Surprisingly, these sparse renditions are actually recorded too loudly at times, for the album is at its best when hushed, haunting tones dominate. Indeed, “Leaves Are Green” is much more subdued than the version on Sounds Of Silence, and “The Sound Of Silence” is strikingly bleak without Garfunkel’s angelic harmonies. Not that it’s an improvement, mind you, but it is markedly different, as are many of these songs, though not always in good ways, as “I am A Rock” lacks the propulsive thrust of the original and “A Simple Desultory Phillipic” seems more mean-spirited in this edgier interpretation, almost uncomfortably so. Actually, Dylan’s influence is hard to miss, and both of the songs that are unavailable elsewhere are protest songs; on “A Church Is Burning” Paul takes on the KKK with an ultimately optimistic message (“you can burn down my churches but I shall be free”), while on “The Side Of A Hill,” which is downbeat and subdued whereas the former song was dramatic and defiant, Paul personalizes war by focusing on its devastating impact on the little people, you and me, really (“and the little girl weeps on the side of the hill”). Powerful stuff, even today when we’ve become almost numb to all the senseless violence seemingly everywhere, and though once again I do prefer most of the better known versions of these songs, taken together they make a powerful statement and provide an absorbing snapshot of Paul Simon the fledgling solo performer at that point in time. Lest anybody had a doubt who the songwriting visionary was in Simon & Garfunkel, The Paul Simon Songbook leaves no doubt, and if nothing else it’s extremely interesting as a historical artifact. P.S. Make sure you get the right Songbook, the one with 14 tracks (two are repeated bonus tracks that offer little added incentive), as there is a similarly titled collection (without the The at the beginning) that features other people’s cover versions of Paul Simon songs (20 in all). Note: That's Simon's U.K. girlfriend Kathy (yes, the Kathy immortalized in "Kathy's Song" and "America") with Simon on the cover.
Paul Simon (Warner Brothers ‘72) Rating: A-
Upon breaking up his partnership with Art Garfunkel, Paul Simon immediately set about showing who the brains of the operation was. This strong solo debut contains primarily low-key acoustic songs that match tasteful and imaginative musical embellishments to literate lyrics. Although Simon can be overly precious lyrically and some of these songs, particularly on side two, fail to stand out, this album contains some remarkably catchy and melodic fare, particularly the bouncy reggae rhythms of “Mother And Child Reunion” (a far more successful stab at that style than “Why Don’t You Write Me”; I also dig the gospel backing vocals and the way its moving lyrics about loss contrasts with its ebullient melody) and the great Latin groove and up-to-no-good lyric of “Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard.” Among the other most notable tracks, “Duncan” is an excellent coming-of-age story song whose exquisite flute recalls his previous classic “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)” (Los Incas play on this one as well), while “Run That Body Down,” whose loping, relaxed melody perfectly matches Simon's message to slow down and smell the roses, also expertly demonstrates Simon’s pretty, understated vocal capabilities and classy guitar accompaniment. Elsewhere, the solo acoustic "Everything Together Falls Apart," which warns against the dangers of drugs, isn't much of a tune compositionally but is perfectly pleasant nevertheless, and "Peace Like A River" likewise kinda comes and goes despite its bluesier ambiance, though again it's mildly enjoyable and quite listenable. So is the light and bright "Papa Hobo," which is boosted by its carnival-esque keyboards and Simon's enjoyably high-pitched vocals (which had also elevated "Peace Like A River," actually), and "Congratulations," which pointedly and poignantly asks "can we live together in peace?" as Larry Knechtel (who previously had played on "Bridge Over Troubled Water") provides soulful keyboard accompaniment. On the more unexpectedly experimental side, legendary jazz violinist Stéphane Grapelli grapples with Simon’s acoustic guitar for an interesting if short instrumental workout on the briskly paced, jazzy “Hobo’s Blues,” while the aptly titled “Paranoia Blues” sports some fine bottleneck guitar by Stefan Grossman (Simon's own vigorous guitar plucking perks up the otherwise average "Armistace Day," as do the upbeat horns towards the end). Granted, Simon’s conversational voice can’t compete with Garfunkel’s, but their breakup seems to have fully liberated Simon musically, as he flexes an amazing ability to assimilate a wide range of styles and seamlessly incorporate them into his own simple style. As a result, Garfunkel’s absence is duly noted but not much missed, and the album spawned a couple of hit singles (“Mother And Child Reunion” and “Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard”) and was a success, albeit a relatively modest one in that it sold about 10% of the massive behemoth that was Bridge Over Troubled Water. Adding insult to injury, Simon & Garfunkel's Greatest Hits, released that same year, also significantly outsold Paul Simon. So, despite producing what is still one of his best albums that by and large was well-received, it was clear that escaping the imposing shadow of Simon & Garfunkel was not going to be easy.
There Goes Rhymin' Simon (Warner Brothers ‘73) Rating: B+
So he got right back to work and soon returned with There Goes Rhymin' Simon, a lighter, more upbeat collection of songs that was mostly recorded at Alabama's Muscle Shoals studios with their legendary house band and which reflected his current state of peaceful domesticity. He even wrote songs in tribute to his new wife ("Something So Right") and young child ("St. Judy's Comet"), and the album was a significant commercial success (top 5 in the U.S. and U.K.) on the back of strong singles such as "Kodachrome" (that's the catchy, propulsive one with the famous first line of "when I think back to all the crap I learned in high school") and "Loves Me Like A Rock," the latter aided by easily hummable harmonies from the gospel group The Dixie Hummingbirds, who also help out on "Tenderness," a soft piano ballad. Actually, the album is laid-back to a fault, as most of these songs are perfectly pleasant and melodic but lack bite, though stylistically Simon spreads his wings wide enough to keep things interesting. Some choice cameos don't hurt, either, such as the Rev. Claude Jeter's falsetto backing vocals and the jaunty horns of the Onward Brass Band on "Take Me To The Mardi Gras" (a top 10 U.K. hit that only gets really good when the horns arrive, actually), Quincy Jones' tasty string arrangements on "Something So Right" (on which Simon acknowledges his own pessimistic nature as he thanks his wife for putting up with him), and The Roches' charming, quirky voices on "Was A Sunny Day," a fluffy sing songy ditty that nevertheless is easily likeable. The album on the whole is a bit of a grower, few of the songs really latching on at first (or at all, really), though "American Tune" certainly stands out due to its evocative music and ambitious, image-rich lyrics. Elsewhere, "One Man's Ceiling Is Another Man's Floor" matches its imaginative song title to deceptively ingratiating music, particularly its jazzy piano scales, "Learn How To Fall" features some pragmatic advice and a melody that would likely float away if not for its occasionally more substantial guitar, keyboards, and horn embellishments, while "St. Judy's Comet" is a peaceful lullaby that Simon wrote in a failed bid to put his son to sleep (I know how you feel, Paul). Alas, this album may inadvertently have that effect on some listeners, but I've grown to appreciate it even as I can never recall more than a few individual songs at any one time. Sure, this is fluffy "easy listening" music (or muzak) that, let's face it, if all Paul Simon albums were like it he wouldn't be a songwriter of such stature today, but as a far-less-serious-than-usual diversion I can still enjoy the craft and professionalism that Paul brings to this project.
Still Crazy After All These Years (Warner Brothers ‘75) Rating: B+
Simon sings in "I Do It For Your Love," "love emerges and it disappears," and if Still Rhymin' was about its emergence, Still Crazy After All These Years is about its disappearance, as Simon and his wife divorced in 1975. As such, this album is somber and sad whereas Still Rhymin' was mostly upbeat, and the songs are obviously highly personal and hit close to home, unlike many of Simon's songs where he's content merely to be an observant storyteller. Musically, Simon forsakes the stylistic diversity of his first two solo albums, instead opting for a smooth, easy going jazz pop delivery that's at times slow to the point of lethargy. Of course, Simon's such a pro that these songs are often trickier than they at first seem (repeat listens are most definitely in order), and he often adds a slick instrumental touch (flute, horns, accordion, sax) to keep things from getting stale. Piano and/or keyboards replace the guitar as the primary instrument, which is fitting for a confessional singer-songwriter album I suppose, and lyrically Simon remains a force to be reckoned with, particularly due of his attention to the small details and his uncanny ability to incisively write about the ups and (primarily) downs of love. That said, it must be said that musically this mature "adult" album isn't terribly exciting, though the gospel-ish Phoebe Snow duet “Gone At Last” (the album's lone up tempo track) and the tongue in cheek, agreeably melodic “Have A Good Time” are both easily accessible. Better still is the terrific title track, on which Paul meets up with an old flame and feels empty thereafter, and the catchy sing along “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover,” which gave Simon his first #1 hit since “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Elsewhere, there's a song about Simon's second love, baseball ("Night Game"), that never really ignites, and "Silent Eyes" is a cold, dreary finale. "Your Kind," with it's oft-quoted lyric about breaking up because "I like to sleep with the window down, and you keep the window closed," is a grower, and "I Do It For Your Love" and "Some Folks Lives Roll Easy" (left unsaid; most don't) eventually sink in as well. Still, this album, despite its stellar sound quality and subtle melodicism, is severely lacking in intensity and toughness, and even the much ballyhooed reunion song with Garfunkel, “My Hometown,” is good but less than what might have been (it's only really good in fits and spurts, though the song has a moodiness and an overall darkness that Simon and certainly Garfunkel often lack). As such, Still Crazy After All These Years, which was a smash hit and won several Grammy Awards (figures...), is pleasantly enjoyable but only modestly so in a soft rock, adult contemporary sort of way.
One Trick Pony (Warner Brothers ‘80) Rating: B
After Still Crazy Simon laid low for a long while, but he kept busy by appearing on Saturday Night Live (good friend Lorne Michaels produced), doing his own (scathingly reviewed) T.V. special, making a cameo in Woody Allen’s Academy Award winning movie Annie Hall, dating actress Shelly Duvall, releasing the successful single “Slip Sliding Away” (a #5 hit), leaving Columbia for Warner Brothers after some contentious litigation, and finally writing and starring in his own movie, One Trick Pony. Now, I’ve never seen the movie, as it’s not widely available and isn’t supposed to be any great shakes, anyway, but this soundtrack album is actually better than I expected it to be (though technically it's not billed as a soundtrack album, the music here was created for the movie). It has it’s flaws, some having to do with the limits imposed by it's concept, as the lyrics necessitated having to advance the storyline, which is about a one-hit wonder who is down on his luck due to his own limited talent and the seedy nature of a business that eats up and spits out guys like his character (having struggled for years before making it big, and being such an excellent analyst of human behavior in the first place, Simon was well qualified to comment upon the subject, which nevertheless didn’t appeal to many moviegoers). Musically, the album is primarily comprised of low-key, lightly funky mood pieces that are enjoyably groovy if a bit boring, with "Late In The Evening" being the obvious standout. One of Simon's best songs, this minor hit is flat-out fun, with its bustling percussive groove, airy harmonies, and Dave Gruisin' catchy, upbeat horn arrangements really hitting the spot. The funky title track and the lively "Ace In The Hole," two other rare up tempo tracks, are the albums other truly memorable tracks, the latter in part because it's a rare duet (with keyboardist Richard Tee) but also due to its near 6-minute duration. Again, the rest of the album kinda comes and goes, but not at all unpleasantly, and as usual the sound quality and playing from his crack studio band (drummer Steve Gadd, bassist Tony Levin, and guitarist Eric Gale in particular stand out) is impeccable. Perhaps my appreciation of the album would increase if I saw the movie with which it is so closely tied into, but then again this is an album reviews site, and in judging One Trick Pony strictly on its own merits it's decidedly a minor Simon effort. That said, this album is too often too easily dismissed, as its cinematic set pieces work well as perfectly pleasant if fairly faceless mood music.
Hearts And Bones (Warner Brothers ‘83) Rating: A-
After a massive reunion concert with Garfunkel in New York City's Central Park (captured for posterity on the enjoyably nostalgic The Concert In Central Park) and a much ballyhooed Simon & Garfunkel tour that was enjoyed by the masses despite the backstage tensions, Simon & Garfunkel returned to the studio for a prospective new album. Tensions soon resurfaced, however, so Hearts And Bones, much to Garfunkel's dismay, became the next Paul Simon solo album. It made sense, really, as this was Simon's most personal and emotional (and least commerical) album ever. And though the album lacked a hit single and stiffed commercially, it was a typically classy and clever affair that showcased Simon’s easy going melodies along with another pristine production. Ever the pop craftsman, what is atypical about this album is how obviously autobiographical it is, as Simon examines "the arc of a love affair" in general and in particular by dissecting the failure of his first marriage ("Train In The Distance") and his tumultuous (and ultimately short-lived) current union with actress Carrie Fisher (the masterful title track and both versions of "Think Too Much"). Of course, as with any great songwriter, Simon’s personal diaries could be anyone’s story. Ever quotable (“if you ever want to write a song about the heart, and its ever-longing for a counterpart”), Simon’s soft rock melodies are also enjoyable (if not exactly easily memorable) throughout, with the only real misfires being the unnecessary up tempo reprise of “Think Too Much (a)” (not bad but (b) is much better) and the weak “Cars Are Cars.” Though it too is marred by dated '80s studio touches (bright synths, booming drums), "Allergy" is much better, in large part due to Al DiMeola's flashy guitar solo. Mark Rivera's sax solo on the richly metaphorical "Train In The Distance" and Philip Glass' lovely arranged fadeout to "The Late Great Johnny Ace," a moving tribute to John Lennon (and Johnny Ace, of course), are other nice touches from a true pro, and like "Train In The Distance," “Think Too Much (b)” has an airy melody that easily entices. The light, groovy "When Numbers Get Serious" and the easy going "Song About The Moon" (about songwriting in general and overcoming writer's block in particular) are also mildly enjoyable but are hardly highlights, unlike the title track and “Renee and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War,” both of which are flat-out terrific (the latter song despite its obvious pretensions). Though its sparse melody may seem skimpy at first, "Hearts And Bones," is a real grower (much like the album as a whole) whose low-key melody is boosted by magnificent lyrics, and “Renee and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War” is simultaneously an evocative mood piece and a joyous tribute to the doo wop groups of the '50s. Alas, as previously mentioned, the album deserved to be a success but completely flopped. Still, though slightly inconsistent and stingy with the hooks (no commercial concessions were made, though the album is quite listenable), Simon's best batch of lyrics are reason enough for a thorough investigation. This understated, melancholic album of intelligent adult reflection may not appeal to the short attention spans of top 40 listeners, but those who are willing to give these subtly ingratiating melodies and wise words a chance will be amply rewarded, as Hearts And Bones remains the overlooked gem in Paul Simon's catalogue.
Graceland (Warner Brothers ‘86) Rating: A
After the commercial failure of One Trick Pony and Hearts And Bones, a rethink was in order. Inspired by a various artists collection of South African artists that a friend gave him entitled Gumboots: Accordion Jive Hits No. 2, Simon further investigated similar music and then flew to South Africa with producer Roy Hallee. This would prove to be a highly controversial move, as Simon's mere presence there was in direct disobeyance of the international boycott of South Africa due to its racist, oppressive Apartheid regime. Still, though I can certainly see why some people were up in arms about this, my own take is that the ends justified the means in this case; frankly, without getting into political details, the boycott was meant to ensure that artists stayed away from the fat cats in Sun City, not the dirt poor musicians who Simon paid handsomely for these sessions, whose music he brought to an international audience by virtue of this album, and who I've never heard say anything but positive things about the man. So, with that defense out of the way, let's talk about Graceland, which was an astonishingly inventive synthesis of American pop music (Paul Simon music) with the music of South Africa. Basically, when Paul was in South Africa he jammed with the cream of the crop of the local musicians, and he then took to the studio with the results of the jam sessions, incorporating his own melodies, lyrics, and vocals and molding the results into a finished product (inviting other musicians in as well, including some of the South Africans, and recording at several locations along the way). So, let's get this straight, this is a Paul Simon album, it just happens to be a Paul Simon album with an exotic African flavor, and as such criticizing Simon for “stealing” Africa’s syncopated beats, instrumentation, and top performers is about as valid as criticizing the Beastie Boys for “stealing” from Led Zeppelin, as both artists merely used these sources as inspirational building blocks for their own vastly different constructions (much like Led Zeppelin and countless others did with the blues and much hip-hop does with James Brown, P-Funk, and other funk artists). Rather, Simon should instead be commended for putting these diverse influences together and making things click, as well as for smartly choosing first class collaborators. For example, Ladysmith Black Mambazo play major roles on “Diamonds On The Souls Of Our Shoes” and “Homeless,” which their wondrous harmonies can’t help but dominate. Likewise, The Gaza Sisters steal the show on “I Know What I Know” and Linda Rondstandt lends her gorgeous alto to really paint a picture “Under African Skies.” Yet it is Simon’s crafty vision that dominates most of these catchy songs, as his accomplished melodies and intelligent lyrics (whose often-downcast if hopeful nature contrasts with the upbeat music) enchantingly mesh with the mellow African grooves created by stellar players such as Baghiti Khumalo (bass) and Ckikapa “Ray” Phiri (guitar). Simon ingeniously uses percussion, accordion, horns, reeds, and backing vocals throughout the album, and he merges many disparate musical elements into a seamlessly simple sound (impeccably produced as always by Hallee) that can only be called pop music. So what if Graceland popularized and Americanized African music; is that such a bad thing? Listening to the upbeat, lightly danceable cadences of Graceland provides its own uniquely satisfying rewards, and if I could offer a lone criticism about the album it's simply that Simon's downcast, plain-spoken vocal delivery doesn't quite fit in on an album that's so intoxicatingly joyous overall. Still, this is but a minor quibble, as songs such as "The Boy In The Bubble," the title track, "Crazy Love Vol. II," and "You Can Call Me Al" are easily among Simon's best. The latter song, with its ridiculously catchy horn hooks and memorable pennywhistle solo, became a top #5 hit in the U.S. and U.K., propelled by its amusing video with friend Chevy Chase. All in all, Simon got the last laugh on his critics, who generally failed to even notice that the last two tracks have nothing to do with Africa; "That Was Your Mother" is a Cajun song and "All Around The World Or The Myths Of Fingerprints," guesting Los Lobos, is Tex-Mex. Still, it was the musicians of South Africa who liberated Paul Simon's music and really lit his muse, and as such they deserve much of the credit for the success of Graceland. And unlike his other recent efforts Gracelandwas a major success, selling 14+ million copies worldwide, winning loads of awards, and gaining recognition as an instant classic.
The Rhythm Of The Saints (Warner Brothers '90) Rating: A-
After a time killing (and presumably, wallet stuffing) greatest hits album called Negotiations And Love Songs 1971-86 that definitely could’ve been better (1977’s now-deleted Greatest Hits, Etc. was actually superior, in my opinion, in large part because the songs on Hearts And Bones and Graceland work so much better in their original context), and after the furor over Graceland had subsided somewhat, Simon released The Rhythm Of The Saints, which continued in a similarly exploratory manner as Graceland. This time, Paul appropriates Brazilian percussion patterns instead of South African rhythms (but remember, Paul was experimenting with unusual backing tracks as far back as “Cecelia,” if not further), but this album’s hybrid sounds seem to have come together less naturally. Granted, I suppose it was inevitable that The Rhythm Of The Saints would lack the freshness of Graceland, which seemed startling upon its release, but the fact of the matter is that these 10 songs are simply less memorable, in part due to their more diffuse melodies and lyrics but also because it’s a more modest album whose samey-sounding songs seek to establish a relaxed yet exotic overall mood. Fact is, the first few times you hear this album it’ll probably sound like one long song, pleasant and innovative enough if not overly exciting. Give it time, however, and soon The Rhythm Of The Saints starts to weave a seductive spell, led by Simon and Vincent Nguini’s melodic guitar playing, Simon’s predictably plaintive vocals, plenty of well-placed backing singers, and (especially) its inventive, highly sophisticated percussion. As for the songs, as previously alluded to they may seem interchangeable at first (there’s a reason this album was only a moderate hit after the massive success of Graceland), but individual song strengths do become apparent over time; it just takes a bit of effort on the listener’s part. For example, “The Obvious Child,” (the inventive drum solo segueing into Simon’s soaring “oohs” on the outro provides the album’s most spectacular moment), the sinuous, almost ambient “Can’t Run But” (on which the great J.J. Cales guests on guitar, though his contribution is fittingly low-key), and the richly elegant “The Coast” (which features old friends Ladysmith Black Mambazo assisting on arguably the albums most singable - if wordless - chorus) get the album off to a strong start. The hooky horns of “Proof” then leads into “Further To Fly,” which features probably the album’s most passionate vocal performance from Simon, while airy female voices enhance “She Moves On,” which, like most of the songs here, is dominated by its intermingling percussive weaves. The mellow sing along “Born At the Right Time,” arguably the album’s most easily embraceable track (that’s zydeco legend Clifton Chenier on accordion), and the lovely duet “Spirit Voices” (with Milton Nascimento, who sings in Portuguese) are other album highlights, though “The Cool, Cool River” and "The Rhythm Of The Saints" both come and go rather anonymously if not unpleasantly. Still, overall I’d have to say that the album is less about individual songs than its exotic overall sound, and though The Rhythm Of The Saints may always be seen by some as an inferior sequel of sorts to Graceland, it nevertheless was a fine foray into foreign music in its own right.
Concert In The Park (Warner Brothers ‘91) Rating: B+
Almost a decade after Simon & Garfunkel's The Concert In Central Park, Paul Simon the solo artist topped it (you better believe that was important to him) with his own Concert In The Park, which has far superior sound quality (especially impressive given that it was recorded in front of 750,000 pumped up fans) and an incredible band behind him. The great Steve Gadd leads a veritable army of (4) percussionists, Phiri and Nguini are on guitar along with John Selolwane and Simon himself, Michael Brecker adds sax and synths, and too many others to mention add horns, keyboards, harmonies, etc. Suffice it to say, the band has a very full and lively sound, and Simon loosens up the arrangements slightly, letting individual members to shine; for example, Phiri on a gorgeous version of "The Sound Of Silence," one of five Simon & Garfunkel songs (including the last four, as Paul obviously aimed to please, though "Cecelia" only faintly echoes the original version musically). Elsewhere, most of the material, 11 songs in all, is culled from his previous two albums, Graceland and The Rhythm Of The Saints, while seven additional songs appear from his other solo albums, including surprising selections such as "Train In The Distance" and "Loves Me Like A Rock." Most of the songs work well in this context, though "The Cool, Cool River" was a poor choice and Paul can't quite pull of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" as well as you-know-who (the crowd helps out, though). The merits of "The Obvious Child" and "Proof" as upbeat dance songs have never been so obvious (pardon the pun), while "Diamonds On The Souls Of Her Shoes" and "Late In The Evening" are likewise tailor made for a live setting. So are many of these rhythm-based songs, and though I still prefer the studio versions of most of these songs, that's more a reflection of Paul's studio perfectionism than an indictment of these strong performances, as this is easily the best proper Paul Simon live album on the market (that I've heard, anyway; 1973's Live Rhymin' is probably the weakest).
You’re The One (Warner Brothers ‘00) Rating: B
After marrying again, this time a successful (thus far, anyway) union to fellow singer Edie Brickell (25 years his junior, she had a big hit, "What I am," with the New Bohemians in 1989), Paul Simon turned to Broadway. Alas, if One Trick Pony had been a disappointment, The Capeman was a complete disaster (though in fairness I never saw the play or heard Simon's resulting soundtrack album, though I've seen few favorable comments about either), as Simon elected to tell the true story of a convicted murderer. Simon tried to paint a sympathetic portrait of the killer, feeling that his harsh environment had played a major role in the tragedy (and the killer had allegedly rehabbed himself in jail), but few people, least of all the understandably outraged victims' families, wanted to hear that side of the story. So, long story short, The Capeman was a bad idea from the start that bombed on all fronts - but surely an artist who has produced such a consistently strong body of work over 35 long years is entitled to one mulligan, right? So let's skip Songs From The Capeman and proceed straight to You’re The One (with a brief mention that in between Simon went on tour with Bob Dylan, another surprising union that by most accounts was a rousing success), which sees Simon back in a more standard singer-songwriter vein a la Hearts And Bones, though the influences of his previous albums appear in subtle, low-key ways (congas, bongos, etc.). Like most of Simon’s albums, this primarily easy listening album reveals itself to be more adventurous than originally thought after repeat listens, though it was a commercially unsuccessful victim of rigid radio formats. These songs are linked by Simon’s conversational voice and ever-underrated guitar playing, not to mention some catchy, sing-songy choruses ("You're The One," "Look At That," "Senorita With A Necklace Of Tears") and a tendency to try to be too cute (the actively annoying "Pigs, Sheep, and Wolves" being the biggest offender on this front). All in all, the album is hit-and-miss by Simon's high standards; "The Teacher" is boring, "Hurricane Eye" is rhythmically adventurous (again, as are most of these songs and Paul Simon songs in general) but not especially memorable, and the prayer-like "Quiet" (a prelude to his recent collaboration with Brian Eno?) is likewise an interesting experiment but isn't much of a tune. The overall quality is still pretty high, however, starting with "That's Where I Belong," a gentle, pretty opener that leads into the album's standout track, "Darling Lorraine," a moving, surprising story song that warrants all of its 6+ minutes. Simon also addresses his favorite subject on, appropriately enough, "Love" ("we crave it so badly"), which is also pretty and singable if a bit slow going at times. You're The One is also playful at times ("Old" is a lightly nostalgic look at aging set to a rockabilly rhythm), if sometimes cynically so (great line from the same song: “Buddy Holly still goes on but his catalogue was sold”), and it has its moodier moments as well ("Love" and "Quiet," for example). So, although it's not one of his stronger albums and it doesn't really add much to Simon's overall legacy, You're The One, which gets better the more you get to know it, was still another pleasantly diverse and enjoyably tuneful album from a once prolific artist who now records all too infrequently.
Surprise (Warner Brothers ‘06) Rating: B+
After another long 6-year layoff, during which he again toured with Garfunkel, resulting in the Old Friends Live On Stage CD and DVD, Paul improbably teamed with "sonic landscaper" Brian Eno for the aptly titled Surprise. It seemed an odd marriage, the two seeming to have little in common beyond their shared love of world music, and I didn't know what to make of this album at first. As with all of his albums, however, this one grew on me with repeat listens, once I got used to the Eno-ized contrasts, as distorted guitars, electronic rhythms, and a highly modernized funkiness aren't the types of things I'm used to hearing on a Paul Simon album. Yet Eno and Simon are smart enough that Simon's melodies are still front and center; they're merely (mostly) enhanced by Eno's moody electronic embellishments in the background. And good melodies they are, accompanied as per usual by a fine batch of lyrics (he asks lots of questions about family, aging, politics, and life in general). "Outrageous," which has funky, almost rap-like verses (it works better than it sounds) before launching into a light, catchy chorus (undeniable hook: "who's gonna love you when your looks are gone?"), should by all rights be a smash hit, "Wartime Prayers" is a prayerful call for peace that's alternately somberly moving and all out anthemic, and "Father And Daughter" (written for The Wild Thronberrys movie before Eno came on board) is a delightful love song that any parent can easily relate to. I could describe several other songs as well, some of which are quite pretty ("Everything About It Is A Love Song," "Beautiful"), lightly funky ("Sure Don't Feel Like Love," Once Upon A Time There Was An Ocean"), moody ("I Don't Believe," "Another Galaxy"), or simply unlike anything else he's ever done ("How Can You Live In The Northeast," on which Simon laments our lack of sympathy for and understanding of one another). Of course, those descriptions are oversimplifications, as some songs are pretty, funky, catchy, and moody, or at least they're one or another at various times, and it should also be noted that this is Simon's most rocking album, though I suppose that's not saying much. Perhaps the album gets a bit sluggish at times on side two ("I Don't Believe" and "That's Me" are probably the weakest entries), much as You're The One had done, but by and large this album is indeed a surprising success, as Simon remains the rare '60s artist who has remained relevant into the '70s, '80s (when he was getting better as almost all of his peers were losing their way), and beyond. Now in his '60s, Simon still makes the effort to make every album sound different yet still recognizably like Paul Simon, and though this album sounds so different at first that it'll likely be off putting to some, eventually I think that you'll be pleasantly surprised by the results of this unlikely pairing.