Review (Full LP): Paul Simon’s “Stranger To Stranger”

MI0004052915

As previously mentioned on BourbonAndVinyl, I was never a huge Simon and Garfunkel fan. I mean, my parents owned their “Greatest Hits” album, how rock and roll could that be? However, I always liked Paul Simon’s solo stuff. While he was “folky” he wasn’t really a folk musician. He always had a great sense of humor that say, Pete Seeger, would never understand. There has always been an element of “world music” in his stuff, even back to his early solo days. Of course all that peaked when he went all-in with his masterpiece “Graceland.”

After “Graceland” Simon was really hit and miss. The critics loved “Rhythm of the Saints” but to me it sounded like something bad happened down at the ol’ International Music Food Court, like somebody dropped a tray or something. “The Capeman” thing is better left unmentioned. “You’re the One” was a great and highly underrated album. He even collaborated with Brian Eno on 2006’s “Surprise.” Like one of Eno’s other collaborators, David Bowie, I would defy you to find an artist in his later years so willing to experiment as Paul Simon. I’m not comparing Bowie and Simon’s music, they come from way different places, but that spirit of, “yeah, what the hell, let’s add some drum loops and a tuba,” that “try anything that helps the song” spirit pervades both their work.

Nowhere was that more evident to me than on Simon’s 2011 album “So Beautiful Or So What.” That album was the type of a late period gem from an older artist that inspired this very blog. It had more acoustic guitar driven songs vs Simon’s post-“Graceland” drums/percussion driven songs but that didn’t mean there wasn’t a strong, almost jazz-like experimentation to that album. I loved “Getting Ready For Christmas Day,” with it’s drum loop and samples of an old time preacher. None of that sounded forced from a guy who was almost 70 at the time.

All this leads me to Simon’s new album, “Stranger To Stranger.” He brought in some guy named Clap!Clap!, an Italian/electronic/dance artist – what that means, I’m still scratching my head over. I just see that as the equivalent of bringing Eno in on “Surprise,” the guy must have added some of the percussive elements. I was nervous about the involvement of someone named Clap!Clap! but Simon’s music is so diverse I don’t think anybody can come in and screw it up. I also know his old producer from his Simon and Garfunkel days, Roy Halee was involved on “Stranger To Stranger.” It appears Simon is looking forward and backwards at the same time.

The album opens with three very percussive/drum driven songs. “The Werewolf” has Simon’s signature sense of humor, “he had a fairly decent life and a fairly decent wife, she stabbed him with a sushi knife…” It appears the monster isn’t a full-moon altered lupine but the human nature inside us all. “Wristband” starts off as funny song about a rock star who gets locked out of his own show, but as you listen you realize it’s a song about the struggle of the haves vs the have nots. “Street Angel” is almost a gospel song, and certain phrases in the song turn up later in the album, “I write my verse for the universe” being one…

After that opening percussion heavy trio of songs the album progresses to the beautiful middle section, which for me is the heart of this record. “Stranger To Stranger,” the title track, is a beautiful ballad. There’s a sax solo in the middle and the jazzy feel takes me back to the song “Still Crazy After All These Years.” Maybe it’s the chorus of, “I’m just jittery, I’m just jittery, it’s just the way I’m dealing with my joy.” This song blows me away. “Stranger to stranger, if we met for the first time… can you imagine falling in love again…” Heavy stuff. “I’m In a Parade” leaves no doubt where the parade is, it’s all New Orleans Mardis Gras. “Proof of Love” is another beautiful ballad.

“The Riverbank” marks the final part of the album and a shift from a focus on love to a focus on mortality. It’s not dark or morbid like say, Dylan’s “Time Out of Mind.” When Simon sings, “it’ll be a long walk home, from the riverbank” the wisdom feels timeless. “Cool Papa Bell” takes us back down to New Orleans. I think I hear a tuba. God knows what instruments were used on this record. “Cool Papa Bell” certainly lifts the mood back up with lyrics like, “every day I’m here I’m grateful that’s the gist of it… but check out my new tattoo.” That song remains my favorite on an album of strong tunes. “Insomniac’s Lullaby” wraps up the album. “Oh Lord don’t keep me be up all night with questions I can’t understand…” is something I think every night as I lay awake hoping for slumber. It’s the perfect ending for this album. A gorgeous lullaby for those of us who may never sleep well.

This is a complicated record from a complicated artist. This is music in it’s own category, or more succinctly, music that is impossible to categorize. It’s beautiful, it’s diverse, it’s funny, and every listen brings me something new. It’s like a surprise, long email from an old friend you haven’t heard from in a while. Simon unburdens his  mind on this record and we’re all the better for it.  I highly recommend this record. It’s definitely a “dark of the night,” full bourbon glass type of album… As always, pour something strong and enjoy!

Cheers!

Paul Simon: Four Songs from “Stranger To Stranger”

MI0004052915

I’ve never been a fan of folk music. I’ve always felt like the John Belushi character in “Animal House,” Bluto, when he encounters a cheesy folk singer on the stairs and pulls the acoustic guitar out of his hands and smashes it. However, I’ve always loved Bob Dylan. His first four albums stand amongst my favorite. And, I must admit I’ve always loved old-style acoustic blues like Robert Johnson. Of course Dylan’s music was always infused with the blues whether the folkies want to admit or not. Yes, I do love the acoustic guitar. On the opposite end of the spectrum from Dylan is Pete Seeger. I can’t stand that fuckin’ guy. I don’t care one wit about his politics, I just can’t stand his music. Springsteen did a whole (terrible) album dedicated to Seeger’s music and Seeger came out and said he didn’t like it. Douche bag, your table is ready…

Somewhere in the middle of all that lies Simon & Garfunkel. I was never crazy about Simon & Garfunkel but I didn’t loathe them like I do say, Joan Baez. Yes, I will admit Art Garfunkel could sing like the angels, but their music together always left me cold. They do have a few good tunes (see my theory of music post). Paul Simon’s solo music however I always enjoyed. It was acoustic based, but there was an element of “world music” which I guess means exotic rhythms and percussion. I consider the term “world music” to be nebulous. “Me and Julio Down By the School Yard,” “Cecilia” and even “Mother And Child Reunion” had elements of other culture’s music in them. Of course his huge break through on this front was when he went all in on the “world music” thing on the “Graceland” album. I still love listening to that a one. I think he took it a little too far on “Rhythm Of The Saints” which sounds like someone dropping a tray of flatware in the kitchen of a Mexican restaurant with a transistor radio playing in the background.

A few years ago I went on a “binge listen” of all of Simon’s classic albums from his first solo record up to “Graceland.” After “Graceland” I felt his music was kind of hit or miss. I mean, what was that “Capeman” thing? I did think “You’re the One” was wildly under-rated. Then out of nowhere in 2011 Simon put out the brilliant “So Beautiful Or So What” record. I was blown away at the brilliance of that entire album. I even convinced the Rock Chick to listen to it once… only once… and she sat through the whole thing without holding up her hand and saying, “Uh, Ken, put the Cult back on,” which I considered a near validation of the music.

Now five year’s later Simon is on the cusp of putting out his next album, “Stranger to Stranger.” He purportedly “labored” over this record for five years. That always makes me nervous. I mean, the early Stones and Beatles records were all hammered out in an afternoon. “The Long Run” by the Eagles (an album I do like) took years to make. Sometimes it’s better to just knock this shit out quickly. He apparently asked some Italian dance/electronica guy named, gasp, Clap!Clap! to help him on this album much like when he brought in Brian Eno on “Surprise.” I don’t even know what an Italian dance/electronica person does. Producer? Does he play something? It all left me pretty suspect.

Simon has put out three songs thus far from “Stranger to Stranger.” On the bonus version of the disc, he includes a song that has already been released, a duet he did with Dion, “New York Is My Home.” If you want to hear two titans harmonize, go out and buy that song alone. It’s a great song about a great city. I didn’t buy the bonus edition as I already owned “New York Is My Home” and other than a tune named “Pete and Horace” the bonus stuff was all live versions from “The Prairie Home Companion,” …gads, man.

“Wristband” was the first single. It has Paul Simon’s signature sense of humor. It’s the story of a rock star getting locked out of his own concert backstage and not being able to get back in because he doesn’t have a wristband. Simon says it’s not autobiographical, but God I wish it was. That Simon sense of humor is what always divided his work with Garfunkel and his solo stuff for  me. I like to laugh. I wasn’t crazy about “Wristband” the first time I heard it but it has really grown on me. Repeated listens bring out the percussive elements and the song really starts to open up.

I really liked the other two songs almost immediately. “Werewolf” is an ominous, cacophony of a song. “The werewolf’s coming, you better stock up on water…” There is so much going on in this song I don’t even know how to describe it. There’s even an old school horror movie organ towards the end of the song… I think even Warren Zevon of “Werewolves of London” fame would be proud.

“Cool Papa Bell” was the stand out track for me, so far. Again, it’s a virtual pot of gumbo worth of sounds. I think I hear a fucking tuba in the background. I can’t stop smiling when I hear this song. “Every day I’m here I’m grateful…” Since I met the Rock Chick, I think I can actually agree with that sentiment. There was a time when I wouldn’t have agreed, but thankfully those days are far behind me. Like Satchel Paige said long ago, “Don’t look back there might be somebody gaining on you…”

I’m not ready to make a recommendation on this album as of yet, in terms of purchase. I will say, “New York Is My Home” is a must have. I will be writing a full album review when the album comes in June, so stay tuned.

Be grateful you’re here, every day. Cheers!