All Ears

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All Ears

By John DeFore

You can call him Paul

With Paul Simon currently reaching both into the past (the incredibly expensive Simon and Garfunkel tour, coming to Houston, Austin, and Dallas but not San Antonio) and into the future (his half-finished next solo album is produced not by himself, as the last few have been, but by legendary shaker-upper Brian Eno*), it's only natural that his record company is mining the middle territory.

Studio Recordings 1972-2000 (Warner/Rhino), which in stores may look like it's just titled Paul Simon, is about what it sounds like: Twentieth Century Paul, sans Art G. but with all the other collaborators who have made the songwriter's American tunes such landmark recordings.

Younger readers may think of those outside partners - Ladysmith Black Mambazo on Graceland, the Brazilian musicians on The Rhythm of the Saints - as the key to Simon's post S&G success; he has suffered his share of suggestions that he's some kind of cultural vampire. (An unfair but hilarious Drew Friedman cartoon once pictured Simon and David Byrne, both clad in pith helmets, bumping into each other in a jungle where they were racing to find the next co-optable ethnic music.) For those folks who only became aware of him in the mid-'80s, this box set is a boon, gathering up some of pop's most personal and evocative music made in the rock era.

The first one is still a standout: Paul Simon, with cover art of the songwriter peeking out under a parka, hints at the ethnographic expeditions to come with the Delta-ish "Paranoia Blues" and reggae "Mother and Child Reunion." (Not that such travels were new; Simon had already shown his Anglophilic side.) This new edition of the album offers the opportunity to compare the famous version of "Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard," with its perfect bass drum accents and whooping noises, with an early guitar-and-vocals-only demo.

Every one of the discs in the set boasts a few bonus tracks like this. Many are live tracks, some are unheard songs or works in progress, but don't underestimate those demos: sometimes they're better than the finished version. That's true on Hearts and Bones, for instance, whose "Rene and Georgette Magritte..." suffers from an overthought arrangement but is much more poignant in the stripped-down version included as a bonus track. "The Late Great Johnny Ace," on the other hand, is a beautiful song made transcendent by the more polished arrangement - even if Philip Glass' elegiac coda for strings has been reused one too many times in other contexts.

Some of the new versions involve large backup vocal groups. "Gone At Last" on Still Crazy After All These Years is imperfectly miked but thrillingly rough in demo form, with the Jessy Dixon gospel singers exerting more control over the song's feel than they do on the album. For Graceland's alchemical masterpiece "Homeless," a skeletal version minus the South African choral section feels like a song still waiting to be born. The alternate "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" shows Simon experimenting with just how much Ladysmith the song wanted.

Completists can probably find something missing here if they work hard enough. "Slip Slidin' Away," which was originally released on a Greatest Hits record but not on one of the albums, appears here only in demo form. It was never one of my favorites, and the take here is plenty polished for me; but it was a big hit for the artist and the charting version deserved inclusion. Fans who have already invested lots of money in CDs of previous editions will likely balk at paying for them again (retail is a very proud $150 for nine albums), but reportedly the discs will be issued individually before long. For those who have been playing their decades-old LPs until now, this is the time to upgrade. And for those whose knowledge of Solo Simon begins with "You Can Call Me Al," this set is an invaluable introduction to a songwriter worth getting to know.

* As if to prove just how strange a collaborator Brian Eno is for Simon, Virgin/Astralwerks is reissuing four landmark solo albums - often crazy, shrieking, startling music - that Eno made in the very same mid-'70s period when Simon was filling the airwaves with melodic introspection and nostalgia. The first two, Here Come the Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), are jagged pop records applying new experimental sound techniques to the glam-pop sensibilities of Eno's previous work in Roxy Music. Things shift beautifully for Another Green World, which is still a pop record but finds a new kind of restraint that anticipates the ambient music Eno would spend the next couple of decades exploring; as tranquil and seductive as the title implies, it is thought by some to be Eno's masterpiece - but this is a career so full of peaks that isolating one is nitpicky. Before and After Science has more in common with the work Eno was doing as producer for David Bowie and Talking Heads, layering tapes atop each other to produce otherworldly sounds; since these are the sounds that have been copied by the largest number of disciples, this is the most modern-sounding disc of the quartet. The brain bubbles to imagine what Paul Simon's songs will sound like filtered through Eno's endlessly creative sonic theories. •

By John DeFore

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