Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Two years after the diverse and timeless There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, Paul Simon released Still Crazy After All These Years (1975), which won the Grammy for Album Of The Year. The first thing that struck me is how mellow and subdued much of it is, with co-producer Phil Ramone adding a studio sheen that makes the album more sonically cohesive while not being quite as diverse as its predecessor. This slickness is enhanced by the New York session musicians who contribute throughout, including guitarist Hugh McCracken, bass player Tony Levin, percussionist Ralph MacDonald, and especially drummer extraordinaire Steve Gadd (who created the intricate drum pattern that drives one of the album’s highlights, “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover”).
The first two songs on the album, “Still Crazy After All These Years” and “My Little Town,” are the only ones to feature the Muscle Shoals musicians who contributed so mightily to the previous album. The former features a nice solo by one of my all-time favorite saxophone players, the late Michael Brecker. The latter is a duet with Art Garfunkel, their first since splitting up 5 years earlier. It has a skipping rhythm that’s similar to “Kodachrome” and brightens up during the choruses with blasts from the horn section. Garfunkel would’ve also been a nice addition to the aforementioned title track. It’s got a nostalgic, melancholy vibe, and the lyrics make me wonder if it’s a thinly veiled homage to his old singing partner.
The most pleasant surprise was “Have A Good Time,” which has a bit of a jazzy, Steely Dan vibe with the cool slide guitar, tight horn section, and catchy choruses with female vocal harmonies. There’s also an awesome sax solo by another great player, Phil Woods. Something tells me that a young Rickie Lee Jones was listening to this song, especially Simon’s vocal inflections, when she was putting together her debut album a few years later. Another notable track is “Gone At Last,” an upbeat gospel blues featuring some belting vocals from Phoebe Snow. I like the positive lyrics about hoping that a “long streak of bad luck” is gone at last. I also enjoyed the soft rock/light jazz feel of “I Do It For Your Love,” which reminded me of Michael Franks.
The remainder of the album is enjoyable but didn’t make a lasting impression after numerous listens. I guess the 4-5 great songs referenced above are so good that the others pale by comparison. It’s certainly an excellent album, and any Paul Simon fan should give it a listen, but I think it has a slightly better reputation than it deserves.
He took several years off from recording, focusing on film and television appearances (Annie Hall, Saturday Night Live, The Muppet Show), until he re-emerged with One-Trick Pony (1980), essentially the soundtrack to a movie of the same name that he wrote & starred in. I’ve never seen the film, so my only reference point is the album. The whole thing really has a Steely Dan Aja/Gaucho vibe, which permeates nearly every song. The only well-known song is the opening track, “Late In The Evening,” with its incessant Latin rhythm and lyrics evoking the life of a struggling New York musician. There’s some great playing by those session musicians from the previous album, as well as new addition Eric Gale on lead guitar.
Although this isn’t a major work, I made some nice discoveries, most notably “Ace In The Hole,” which is like two or three songs in one. It starts off with an upbeat, funky groove (including a nice co-lead vocal by keyboardist Richard Tee), shifts tempo to a slower shuffle with a bluesy feel and stinging guitar work from Eric Gale, back to the original tempo, and finally into a gospel-y section when the tambourine comes in about a minute before the end. “Oh, Marion” was another highlight. I love the chorus, especially when his voice goes into a falsetto on the lines “I think I’m in trouble here” and “love is an easy game.” It also features another nice shuffle beat from Steve Gadd.
He revisits Michael Franks territory on “That’s Why God Made The Movies,” and gives us a nice melody with sad lyrics on “Nobody.” The 2004 remastered version of the CD includes four bonus tracks. One of them, “Stranded In A Limousine,” is a great song but doesn’t fit the mood of the album, as it was recorded in 1977 and previously included on Greatest Hits Etc. Of the other three songs, only “All Because Of You” made an impression on me. So I wouldn’t consider this an essential album, but I’m glad I got to know the few excellent songs that had previously gone unnoticed.
In an era when artists were releasing a new album each year, waiting 5 years and then another 3 years between releases was usually commercial suicide, and Paul Simon was no exception. A project that originally began as a Simon & Garfunkel reunion before disagreements led to Garfunkel’s vocal contributions being removed and the songs being reworked, Hearts And Bones (1983) is a lost album in his catalog, but not due to lack of quality songs. Coming three years after a flop movie & soundtrack, three years before his career resurgence, and containing no hit singles, it’s no wonder that all but the most avid Simon fan has avoided this one.
I was drawn to this album because of the song “Allergies” which was played on rock radio stations at the time mostly because of the brilliant guitar solos by jazz fusion great Al DiMeola. The song itself is catchy with enough early-80s production values to make it radio friendly. In fact, it’s a little like the band Toto, who were then on a commercial high. There are two versions of a song called ‘Think Too Much.” The “(b)” version comes first, and although the marimba gives it a Caribbean or Central American flavor at the start, it quickly shifts gears and becomes sparse & moody. The “(a)” version is a pop song with early-80s production. As I listened, I thought it had an updated Chic feel, so I wasn’t surprised to discover that Chic main men Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards played guitar and bass, respectively. “Hearts And Bones” is also a very good song with excellent finger picked guitar by Simon.
[Paul Simon – “Allergies”]
There are two other songs that deserve special mention. The first is “René And Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War.” The beautiful melody and sparse arrangement are warm & inviting, but the lyrics make this a truly special song. Based on a photo of the surrealist artist René Magritte (most famous for “The Son Of Man,” the painting of a man in an overcoat with an apple in front of his face) and his wife with their dog, Simon created his own surreal story about the pair, including lyrics about them dancing to the music of 50’s doo-wop groups that he loved. It’s a sly, fun song that gets more enjoyable each time I hear it.
The other noteworthy song is “The Late Great Johnny Ace.” Although the man in the title was an R&B singer who died of a (possibly self-inflicted) gunshot wound in 1954, it was also Simon’s tribute to John Lennon. I had initially wondered about the timing, since Lennon was murdered three years before the song was released, but I recently learned that he played the song as early as 1981, at the Simon & Garfunkel concert in Central Park. This has to be up there with the best songs he’s ever written, not just for the lyrics but also for the great melancholy guitar figure, the shift to a mid-tempo shuffle (“It was the year of The Beatles…”), and the return to a dark, ominous tone as he sings about Lennon. Any career-spanning Paul Simon compilation that doesn’t include this track is sorely lacking.
The remainder of the album is good but not great. “When Numbers Get Serious” is a fun, bouncy song with solid musicianship, and “Train In The Distance” has tasty Fender Rhodes in the verses and a walking bass line in the choruses that got my fingers snapping. It also includes the phrase “negotiations and love songs” that was later used as the title of a popular Simon compilation. Hearts And Bones is a much better album than critics gave it credit for, and should not be avoided because of its commercial failure. I just wonder what it would’ve sounded like in its originally intended incarnation as a Simon & Garfunkel reunion album.
When Graceland (1986) was first unleashed on the public, no one could’ve predicted how successful it would be. On paper, a famous singer/songwriter who hadn’t had a major hit in years collaborating with mostly South African musicians wouldn’t signal a worldwide phenomenon, multi-platinum sales, and another Grammy for Album Of The Year. Yet that’s exactly what happened. I loved it from the first time I heard it, and before revisiting his catalog this month, it’s the album I was most familiar with. Its success has as much to do with the incredible songs as with the arrangements and guest musicians. Honestly, there’s not a bad song in the bunch, and many of them are among his very best.
The two best-known songs are probably “You Can Call Me Al” (famous for the video where Chevy Chase lip synchs the words while Simon sits there looking bored) and “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes,” which features South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. I’m sure a lot of people who watched Saturday Night Live in the ‘80s will remember their performance of this song, with Ladysmith’s commanding stage presence. They’re also featured on the a capella “Homeless,” another instantly memorable song with some incredible vocals.
“The Boy In The Bubble” is a great album opener, with accordion, booming ‘80s drums, a funky bass line and some of Simon’s most confident singing. In fact, that applies to the whole album. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him sound so sure of his voice and his lyrics. The upbeat “Gumboots” was actually an existing instrumental record by The Boyoyo Boys that Simon added vocals to, including the memorable line “You don’t feel you could love me but I feel you could.” Linda Ronstadt adds her glorious harmonies to the poignant “Under African Skies,” and Los Lobos provide the music for “All Around The World Or The Myth Of Fingerprints.” This track has some controversy behind it, as Los Lobos have claimed that they collaborated on the song but Simon took full songwriting credit. I’ve read some back-and-forth bickering about this online, but as far as I can tell there was never any legal action. Regardless of this issue, it’s a fun song with a feel similar to David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” and a great way to close out the album.
The real hidden gem on this album is “I Know What I Know” that features cool female African vocals by The Gaza sisters. There’s a bit of an off-kilter quality to the music & vocals, but that adds to its charm. It’s the song I most look forward to hearing every time I listen to the album. In popular music, commercial success doesn’t always coincide with the quality of the music, but in the case of Graceland, its popularity is well-earned. I imagine there are some people who dislike the album simply because it’s popular, but they’re missing out on possibly his best collection of songs. This wouldn’t be an easy album to follow up, and I’ll be back soon with my thoughts on the next couple of albums to see how he fared, both creatively & commercially.