Greatest Hits, Etc.
Squirm factor: 1
Ah, daylight savings time! A wonderful, energy-saving idea from the Great War, the enduring popularity of which can only be accounted for as an oversight by the government regulators who exempted SUVs from CAFÉ standards. Anyway, to most people it’s merely an annoyance, but there are two groups of people for whom it’s a significant problem: farmers and parents. You see, neither livestock nor toddlers watch the clock, so they get up at the same old time even though it’s an hour earlier according to Timex.
So, to prepare Abe for the big fall-back, we tried keeping him up an hour later for the week before. If you’ve ever been bitten on the back of your calf by an irate youngster, you’ll understand how cranky this made him. Luckily, there’s one singer who seems to help calm him down in those rare instances when he’s out of sorts (honestly, most of the time he’s an extremely happy child): Paul Simon.
Perhaps because I was listening to this record for the first few days after he was born, Abe seems to really get into the gentle rhythms and uninflected vocal stylings of Mr. Simon. There’s something about this music that lends a calm, rational air to the house. Not soporific like a Wyndham Hill disc, just reasonable, tension-reducing, meditations on life. And upon closer inspection, a lot of these songs are downright brilliant.
Paul Simon is perhaps the least passionate songwriter I know of while he’s undoubtedly a warm person with his friends and family, his songs (with only a few exceptions, none on this collection) exude a wry, bemused take on life; “a leisurely bike ride down the irony trail” as Chris Willie Williams said about someone else. It’s just that perspective that I find myself using these days, and it’s nice to have a professional writing about it.
Musically, Simon writes sophisticated tunes using jazzy progressions and subtly complex rhythms. Take “Still Crazy After All These Years”, with a weary half-arc that perfectly underlines the exhausted lyrics, or “Something So Right” with an unresolved pivot between the verse and chorus that appropriately echo the fence-sitting narrator. “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” is crazy with percussion, including the cuica (the “squeak” in the mix), and “Slip Slidin’ Away” has a very slippery rhythm indeed, with the downbeat masked by the shifting guitar figure.
It’s the singing of these lyrics, however, that brings such peace to the listener. Simon has virtually no personality in his voice; he hits all the notes but with a bland tone of detached observation. So the listener’s not hearing the deep emotion of the singer instead he gets to soak up all the little details that make life so amusing and poignant and downright livable. “She said a good day ain’t got no rain / She said a bad day’s when I lie in bed and think of things that might have been.” “Maybe I’m blind / To the fate of mankind / But what can be done?” “The mama looked down and spit on the ground / Every time my name gets mentioned.” Simon’s not just about meaning, he’s about the sound and shape of words say them out loud, feel the way they roll around your mouth. They songs are physically pleasurable to sing.
But when it comes down to it, Simon it capable of some of the most deeply moving music I know. “Loves Me Like a Rock” seems light-hearted on the surface, but the groaning bass vocal and the pure joy of this melody shows just how deep a mother’s love runs. Its companion piece (witness the third verse about the Presidential podium) is “American Tune,” Simon’s response to the trauma of 1968 and everything that came afterward, down to Watergate. The song is profound beyond paraphrase, but listening to it gives me the strangest feeling like I’m plugged into some greater national spirit, sighing with fatigue, yet continuously hopeful for better things. Simon’s dry-eyed delivery is the only way to do justice to such a song, and I’m immensely grateful that this song exists, every time I get foaming mad at my fellow Americans. Because it’s their song, too. And if Abe can grow up to be half as composed as Paul Simon, then I think he’ll do okay.
Songs from The Capeman
Rating: 3 (library disc)
Well, what do you know... the Broadway debut of one of his generation's most eloquent songwriters turns out to be a professionally sung collection of two-note melodies performed by a group that grossly overestimates the musical interest provided by endless vamping on Cuban rhythms that don't really sound good on ballads. I'm surprised.
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