Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Following up a tremendously successful album like Graceland was never going to be easy. When Paul Simon returned four years later with The Rhythm Of The Saints (1990), although it wasn’t the critical or commercial success of its predecessor, the goodwill that followed his mid-80s career resurgence helped catapult the album near the top of the charts. At first it appeared that Simon had turned his attentions from the African styles of the previous album to the rhythms of Brazil and Central/South America, but it was more like a blend of these styles. I’ve listened to the album numerous times over the last two decades, and even though I enjoyed the musicianship (especially the percussion), the majority of the songs never stuck in my brain. It just seemed like a letdown after the triumph of Graceland, which is why I looked forward to finally spending some quality time with the album.
The opening track, “The Obvious Child,” was a minor radio hit. I love the tribal drums (provided by Groupo Cultural Oludum), but the tune never meshes with the percussion. I’m not sure if this is because the drums were recorded in Brazil & the rest of the musicians in New York, or if the melody & rhythm never quite blend together. It’s actually an excellent song (about aging?) that I think would’ve worked better with a different arrangement. Percussion really carries “Can’t Run But,” especially the talking drum during the intro, and also includes some sweet guitar playing by J.J. Cale. Another single was “Born At The Right Time,” and it’s a real winner featuring Cajun, Brazilian & African instrumentation that could’ve fit on Graceland.
A few other songs really made their presence known. “The Coast” has a nice guitar figure by Vincent Nguini and some wonderful female African vocals, as well as old friends Ladysmith Black Mambazo. “She Moves On” melds Latin & African influences in a similar vein to early Santana. It’s got a strong melody, confident lead vocals, and memorable lyrics about a woman who won’t quite commit to him. “The Cool, Cool River” shows an Afrobeat influence (think Fela Kuti as channeled by Talking Heads), its appeal lying mostly in the arrangement as the melody is barely there. The rest of the songs sound good, but the tunes are either lost beneath the dense instrumentation or aren’t terribly ear-catching. It’s still a very good album, but after raising the bar with Graceland it feels like a bit of a letdown.
During the subsequent tour, he played a massive concert in New York’s Central Park, the scene of his triumphant reunion with Art Garfunkel over a decade earlier, to an audience of 100,000 or more. This event was documented on the excellent 2-disc Concert In The Park (1991). Eleven of the 23 songs are from the previous two albums, and several of the tracks from The Rhythm Of The Saints shine brightly here, especially “The Cool, Cool River” and “Proof,” which both have more punch than their studio counterparts. Personal favorite “I Know What I Know” works well here, even without the quirky female African vocals from the original. “Train In The Distance,” from Hearts And Bones, was a surprise inclusion. It’s a strangely quiet and obscure choice for a mega outdoor concert, yet it rises to the occasion.
He also successfully reworked some of his most popular songs using the multi-cultural musicians he was touring with at the time. “Kodachrome” is a perfect example, its new arrangement taking nothing away from the sing-along quality of the song. One of the great things about this live album is the sequencing (I assume it’s presented in the order of the concert), where classic songs are interspersed with newer material. The second disc really raises the bar, with hit after hit concluding with four brilliant Simon & Garfunkel songs: “America,” “The Boxer,” “Cecilia” and “The Sound Of Silence.” I want to single out “The Boxer” here, as I’ve never heard a version that’s less than breathtaking. It’s my favorite Simon & Garfunkel song, and I would argue that it’s the best thing Paul Simon ever wrote. Live albums aren’t for everyone, and I wouldn’t rate this as a must-have, but it’s still a winner and worth revisiting periodically.
It would be about six years before he re-emerged with new material. In advance of his first Broadway musical, The Capeman (co-written with playwright & poet Derek Walcott), he released Songs From The Capeman (1997). It’s not a cast recording, but rather Simon’s versions of songs that would appear in the musical. Sadly the show was a bomb, which must have affected sales of the album, as it was the lowest charting album of his career. The subject matter was controversial, dealing with the true story of a teenage Puerto Rican gang member who murdered two people in 1959. Initially sentenced to death, he was eventually released from prison in 1977, attended college, and worked as a youth counselor and anti-gang advocate before passing away in 1986. Of course, this is just a summary of the story. There are many more details available online if you’re curious, but this is a music blog, so I’ll move on.
I bought this album when it was first released, and I immediately liked it. The mixture of doo-wop, Brill Building songcraft and the feel of Spanish Harlem created a great atmosphere. Sure, it wasn’t the most uplifting subject matter, but Simon created his own West Side Story, and it’s a shame that more people didn’t give it a chance. Revisiting it this past week (I listened to it 3-4 times), it only got better. He does use a lot of profanity & racial slurs in the lyrics, which would’ve been a turn-off for a lot of listeners, but most of the tunes are so infectious that I would recommend that anyone who missed it the first time give it a chance now.
I love the doo-wop vocals & finger snaps in “Adios Hermanos,” and the upbeat “Born In Puerto Rico,” with the Spanish guitar and fiery trumpet solos. These two songs really set the tone for the whole album. Marc Anthony provides the initial lead vocals on “Satin Summer Nights.” I’ve never been a fan of his music, but I have to admit that he’s got quite a strong voice. “Bernadette” (not the classic Four Tops song) is a peppy doo-wop love song, and although it fits the narrative, it would sound just as good on its own. Another highlight is “Quality,” a 1950s-style rock n’ roll song with the obligatory sax solo. What elevates this song for me is the female vocal sections played in half time. Either of these last two songs would’ve worked as singles.
[Paul Simon – “Quality”]
One song with a completely different feel is the bluesy shuffle of “Killer Wants To Go To College.” There are two versions included here, separated by a couple of tracks, the first being the stronger of the two. That’s Paul’s son, Harper Simon, on harmonica. There’s also the funky Latin groove of “Time Is An Ocean,” with some nice jazzy chords, featuring Marc Anthony and Ruben Blades on co-lead vocals. Although Simon handles most of the lead vocals throughout the album, he chose his guest vocalists wisely. The final song is “Trailways Bus,” a mellow road song with excellent solos by Arlen Roth (acoustic guitar) and Bill Holloman (trumpet). It left me with a peaceful feeling at the end of a harrowing story. This album is truly a hidden gem in the Paul Simon catalog.
Now we jump back in time, by more than three decades, for what was officially his first solo album: The Paul Simon Songbook (1965). This was only issued in the UK at the time, and briefly in the US in the early ‘80s, but it didn’t receive a universal release on CD until 2004 (which is the first time I became aware of it). Prior to the recording of Simon & Garfunkel’s second album, Sounds Of Silence, Simon travelled to England and recorded a number of demos (just him and his guitar). Of the 11 songs included on the album, 9 of them ended up on the next two Simon & Garfunkel albums, so in my opinion this is less of a Paul Simon solo release & more a collection of his demos for Simon & Garfunkel. However, since it was released under his name, I decided to include it here. Pretty much every song is a winner, showing what a brilliant songwriter he already was, and his performance (both on guitar & vocals) is equally strong.
Songs like “I Am A Rock,” “April Come She Will,” “The Sound Of Silence,” “Kathy’s Song” and the humorous Dylan-inspired politic rant “A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Robert McNamara’d Into Submission)” are fully formed here. I wouldn’t consider this an essential release, but it’s enjoyable for any fan of Simon’s work, either solo or with Garfunkel.
That covers all of Paul Simon’s recordings in the 20th century. Next week I’ll be spending time with the three albums he’s released so far in the new millennium, and I will post my comments, as well as my final thoughts, shortly thereafter. Keep the comments coming, and thanks as always for visiting my blog.