Tuesday, November 3, 2009

THE STUDIO RECORDINGS 1972-2000 [released 2004]
(Warner Brothers)
By Luke Torn

A nearly faithful accounting of Simon's post-Artie studio work, luminously remastered; available individually, or as a nine-disc box

It's an odd time to evaluate Paul Simon's solo career, in light of his successful 2004 reunion tour with Art Garfunkel. But maybe all that boomer nostalgia needs a little levity, and the sweep of his solo work proves Simon has never dwelled on the past.

Studio Recordings 1972-2000 is that rare bird--an attempt to collect an artist's entire oeuvre. Never prolific, occasionally over-ambitious, Simon's career paints the picture of the pensive, cerebral pop craftsman, less interested in musical trends of the day than in finding an appropriate--sometimes daring—sonic backdrop for his acerbic social observations, pithy narratives, and gentle reflections. Nonetheless, as the years wear on, Simon's ability to sustain the intimacy that marked his greatest songs wanes, even as his appetite for musical expansiveness grows.

The remastering is aurally breathtaking throughout this set. The early records--especially the first two--sound radiant, bringing out textures never hinted at before. The brick-box includes all nine of Simon's studio albums, housed in digipacks. Each contains several extra tracks (30 in all), generally working drafts or demos of familiar songs. There's no booklet or contextualizing essay, simply the original lyrics and production notes.

Along with Dylan and the Beatles, Simon was a 1960s prophet, instrumental in radically expanding the canvas of popular song, capturing the conscience of the times with as much eloquence and passion as any artist. The duo's swansong, the ethereal “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” transcended all, a humble gospel song wrapped in sentiments so universal that it instantly launched Simon into the songwriting elite.

Simon's eponymous first solo step post-Garfunkel (Paul Simon (1972), ****) is loose and free, with bits of reggae and Latin influences (foreshadowing, that), sublimating big social statements to streetwise hipster personae and deceptively intuitive songcraft.

Long on slice-of-life vignettes, it spawned two hits ("Mother and Child Reunion" and "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard"). But, as insinuating as those are, the meat lies in "Duncan," a beautifully sung, aw-shucks reminiscence mirroring the take-stock mood of the times, and "Paranoia Blues." The latter, a gripping, bottleneck-laced cut, solidified Simon's reputation as the consummate New York songwriter. While you could read social commentary in between the lines (voices from the generation of the spooked), there was plenty of room for humor, too.

There Goes Rhymin' Simon (1973, *****) is this set’s crown jewel. The songs, many of them cut at Muscle Shoals with greats like Jimmy Johnson and Roger Hawkins, represent Simon at his most melodically indelible. There's a graceful intimacy here, from the rhythmic kick of "Kodachrome," to the gospel swing of "Love Me Like A Rock." This album and its follow-up, Still Crazy After All These Years (1975, ****), angle for a level of sophistication more akin to Gershwin or Berlin than Dylan. "Tenderness," which echoes Ray Charles' "You Don't Know Me," and "Something So Right," with a gorgeous string arrangement by Quincy Jones, remain spine-tingling works 30 years on. The album's sublime centerpiece, meanwhile, "American Tune," captures the unraveling of '60s idealism in the starkest terms: "I don't know a dream that's not been shattered/Or driven to its knees." Here, the protagonist of S&G's "Homeward Bound" finally realizes there's no home to go home to.

Still Crazy meanwhile, was cut in the wake of Simon's failed marriage. With its jazzy sheen, sodden New York atmospherics, and melancholy verging on ennui, it's torch music for the brokenhearted. Like other wrecked masterpieces of its era (Dylan's Blood on the Tracks), it has a corrosive sadness at its core that no amount of tasteful jazz chops by ace session players can hide. It's overproduced, nasty in places, but still bears the hallmarks of a legend in his prime. The title track, with its woozy late-night reverie and watery Bob James arrangement, is Simon at his self-referential best, but also a prime example of why punk rock had to happen. "Have a Good Time" is even more telling: it bespeaks of '70s hedonism the way Simon's most passionate '60s compositions captured that generation's idealism. It was Simon's last album proper for eight years.

During the drought, Simon appeared in Woody Allen's Annie Hall, switched record labels, played the filmmaker. The less said about 1980's One-Trick Pony (**) the better. A triumph of style over substance, it's got plenty of groove, but few memorable cuts ("Late in the Evening" was the hit). A couple of fine bonus tracks, "Stranded in a Limousine" and a sad Vietnam-era ballad, "Soft Parachutes," which was the film character's fictional big hit, salvage this disc. But a rare Warner Brothers faux pas, omitting Simon's 1977 hit single “Slip Sliding Away,” disappoints. Go figure.

The little-regarded anomaly of Simon's catalog--1983's Hearts and Bones (*****)--followed the ballyhooed 1982 S&G reunion. Simon expressed disappointment with this record, and it was a failure on the charts. Still, it's his most nakedly personal and, in its weird way, most soulful record. This one's been described as Simon's Tonight's the Night, referring to Neil Young's magnum opus, and while Simon never possessed Young's impulsive bent, Hearts and Bones' dark themes and eloquent narratives, from postwar snapshots to panoramic vignettes trace complicated emotional terrain, making this his unsung masterpiece. "What is the point of this story," he sings in "Train in the Distance," one of the most exquisite, perceptive songs of his career. "The thought that life could be better," comes the answer. A breathtaking acoustic demo of this song is the singular highlight of this box.

Graceland (1986, ***) was next, and its left-field success reconnected Simon with his rightful audience--baby boomers now out in the suburbs seeking unthreatening, multicultural spirituality. A hugely influential effort which shone deserved light on South African musicians, there's nonetheless aloofness in Simon's songwriting here. Given to cuteness ("You Can Call Me Al") and irrelevance (the Cajun effort "That Was Your Mother"), Graceland is more touristy than revelatory. While admirable for opening up western tastes to worldbeat, substantial portions of this record sound forced. Only "Boy in the Bubble" ("These are the days of miracle and wonder") and the title song take their place in the upper regions of Simon's canon.

Rhythm of the Saints (1990, **), shifted focus from South Africa to Brazil, and is both less accessible and more oblique. Simon's melodies are so thin that the grooves just vanish into air, though its musical landscape remains self-consciously adventurous. "Born at the Right Time," is the lone standout.

Songs From the Capeman (1997, *), the aural companion to Simon's Broadway flop, and You're the One (2000, **) are his most recent outings. Expanding upon and recasting the street music of his youth, the former's precision and attention to every sordid thought and character detail are daunting. Despite some nice moments (especially the elegiac “Trailways Bus”), though, the album does not cohere--the spoken asides and impenetrable narratives just aren't conducive to practical listening.

The latter, the long-awaited return of Paul Simon, modest songwriter, is preoccupied with aging and mortality, veering from joyful simplicity to ruminations on love and philosophy. Alternately ponderous, comic, and disconnected, it's merely workmanlike.

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