Thursday, 30 August 2018

Billy Joel




I became aware of Billy Joel in 1973, with his "Piano Man" single. It seemed, during that period, that a number of UK artists had an American "equivalent" - David Bowie had Lou Reed, The Stones/Mott The Hoople had The New York Dolls and Elton John had Billy Joel. He was very much perceived as the USA's Elton John, serving up piano-backed, thoughtful ballads with a touch of rock here and there.

Personally, I properly got into him with the "52nd Street" album in 1978, which inspired me to buy "The Stranger" too. Despite being preoccupied with punk and new wave at the time, this sharp, cool New Yorker appealed to me in the same way that Bruce Springsteen did. He was more than just a balladeer - he had a knack for an atmospheric lyric and he merged it with a tough, streetwise persona too. He had a knowledge of music history as well, reflected in many of his recordings. There was always a down to earth honesty about Joel, together with a bit of wit that made him and his music an attractive prospect. The best material comes from the 1974-1978 period, a time where he just personifies that whole New York Italian restaurant vibe.

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The albums covered here are:-

Streetlife Serenade (1974)
Turnstiles (1976)
The Stranger (1977)
52nd Street (1978)
Glass Houses (1980)
The Nylon Curtain (1982)
An Innocent Man (1983)
The Bridge (1986)
Storm Front (1989)
and River Of Dreams (1993)

Scroll down to read the reviews chronologically.

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STREETLIFE SERENADE (1974)

1. Streetlife Serenader
2. Los Angelenos
3. The Great Suburban Showdown
4. Root Beer Rag
5. Roberta
6. The Entertainer
7. Last Of The Big Time Spenders
8. Weekend Song
9. Souvenir
10. The Mexican Connection                        

Billy Joel was not quite the finished product here in 1974, but with each consecutive album release, the quality got better and better. This is another step along the way.

Joel was in that “grandiose rock ballad” groove at this time, and the first two tracks, Streetlife Serenader with its strong piano, ballady vocals, pounding drums and the slightly funky Los Angelenos with its great drum sound are fine examples of that and lyrically strong too. Incidentally, both appear in good live versions on the live Songs In The Attic album. The Great Suburban Showdown is a typical Joel song in both lyrics and delivery, backed by a country-style steel guitar and delivered against a fetching melody. Nice organ break too. Roberta is a touching, rather unique song about a prostitute.

  

The standout track is, of course, The Entertainer where Joel muses on how his latest album will end up in the discount bin “like another can of beans” and moans about his big hit Piano Man being cut down to 3.05 at the behest of the record company in search of a chart hit. Often a world-weary cynical side to many of Joel’s lyrics.

Last Of The Big Time Spenders would not have sounded out of place on 1977’s The Stranger. The quirky Weekend Song sounds Elton John/Leon Russell-ish and Souvenir is a short, but evocative final vocal ending to what is an often overlooked album.



A couple of instrumentals are on here too, leading one to wonder whether he was running a bit low on new songs, or maybe he just wanted to showcase his ivory tinkling skills and prove he was indeed a piano man. In reading up about the album, it was in fact true - he hadn’t had time to write any new material but the record company were pressurising him to get the album completed. Root Beer Rag is certainly a fun workout though. The Mexican Connection is less frantic, more melodic.

Although there is no sign that this has been remastered like many of the subsequent albums, I have no problem with the sound. It sounds full and defined. Good enough for me.

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TURNSTILES (1976)

1. Say Goodbye To Hollywood
2. Summer, Highland Falls
3. All You Wanna Do Is Dance
4. New York State Of Mind
5. James
6. Prelude/Angry Young Man
7. I've Loved These Days
8. Miami 2017 (I've Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway)     

Arguably Billy Joel’s first great album, often unfairly overshadowed by the multi-million selling The Stranger. It felt on here that he had finally married all the disparate facets, both musically and lyrically, that appeared in patches on previous albums. This one hit the nail on the head. Joel was now beginning to forge an identity as an artist with a Springsteen-esque finger on the pulse of the streets of New York City which was partnered with an innate instinct for a melody and a killer lyric. He could give you moving, sensitive ballads yet he could also rock when necessary. He had returned to his native New York and wrote this album as a kind of celebration of his homecoming. You can really feel this and the result is a far more cohesive, expressive piece of work than its predecessor.

Billy had wanted to write a song for Ronnie Spector of The Ronettes. What a song it was too, he out-Spectored Phil Spector on the marvellous, uplifting, saxophone-heaven that is Say Goodbye To Hollywood. Despite Ronnie’s iconic voice, Joel’s version is even better. Joel had always loved The Beach Boys' Don't Worry Baby and this song is composed along the same lines, along with those of The Ronettes' Be My Baby. Joel liked to pay a bit of musical homage and he certainly did so here. 

There are two other great rock songs on here too, the closing, anthemic Miami 2017 (I've Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway) with its great New York-inspired lyrics and the mighty, piano-introduced Prelude/Angry Young Man, often used since as a worthy concert opener. Both of these show that what a great rock outfit Joel and his excellent band could be, at times.

The sensitive balladeer is found on the simply beautiful, short but sweet Summer, Highland Falls , one of my favourite Joel songs ever - “they say that these are not the best of times, but they’re the only times I’ve ever known”. It is chock full of gentle atmosphere.

James is also a lovely, thoughtful, tender song to an old schoolfriend and I've Loved These Days is a slightly tongue-in-cheek mock celebratory but strangely yearning piece of nostalgia for the decadence of an era that has barely ended. The slightly Latin-influenced All I Wanna Do Is Dance echoes the same sentiments, with its question "why don't The Beatles get back together".

Then, of course, there is the iconic New York State Of Mind. Forget Sinatra’s New York New York, this has to be the greatest of all NYC songs. Full to the brim with images of the Big Apple against its melodic piano backing and Joel’s soulful voice. One of his finest moments. Do not underestimate this album in comparison with others. It is up there among Joel’s best.

  

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THE STRANGER (1977)

1. Movin' Out (Antony's Song)
2. The Stranger
3. Just The Way You Are
4. Scenes From An Italian Restaurant
5. Vienna
6. Only The Good Die Young
7. She's Always A Woman
8. Get It Right The First Time
9. Everybody Has A Dream      

Taking much of the New York-themed atmosphere from the previous Turnstiles, this was a wonderful collection of New York Italian and also very clear Long Island-inspired piano-led rock songs, with organ, saxophone and drums to the fore. You feel you are at a table with a red check tablecloth and waiting for your pasta arrabiata. This image, of course, is helped no end by the album’s centrepiece, the magnificent story-telling narrative song Scenes From An Italian Restaurant with its Long Island characters Brenda & Eddie and many musical mood swings. From piano balladry to rocking saxophone and back again. Marvellous. Joel’s A Day In The Life. It also has that extended, street poetry cinematic drama of Bruce Springsteen's Jungleland

Those New York/greater New York references abound in much of this album - either directly as in Long Island's Sullivan Street neighbourhood or in it’s characters - AntonyMama LeoneMr. CacciatoreBrenda & EddieVirginia. Even Joel’s whistling at the beginning and end of the title track and the end of the album (a repeated coda to the album) is like the whistling of a waiter clearing the tables after lunch. Somehow I see this as a “New York in daytime album” as opposed to an evening one. Maybe that’s just how I visualise it. Lunch time in Little Italy, or maybe in a quiet Long Island local trattoria. Thinking about, it, maybe the latter. while Turnstiles had been a New York album, this can be seen very much as a suburban one from the Island. 

  
                           
Highlights are the vibrant. evocative opener Movin' Out (Antony's Song), based around Antony's Long Island neighbourhood and his dreams of getting away for a more exciting life, The Stranger, the afore-mentioned Scenes From An Italian Restaurant, the beautiful Vienna, written after a visit to Austria, and the celebratory rock 'n' roll of Only The Good Die Young. Joel had an ability throughout his career of changing the atmosphere from song to song yet still retaining an over-riding feel to an album. The Catholic guilt and ebullient lust of Only The Good Die Young is followed by the tender sensitivity of She's Always A Woman.

The standard chart-friendly romance of Just The Way You Are (covered successfully by Barry White) is not out of place (although Joel always thought it was - he never really liked the song, apparently), neither is the beautiful, yearning She's Always A Woman. However Get It Right The First Time seems a little superfluous, slightly lacking the sheer chutzpah of all that preceded it.

This slight dip in quality at the album's end is continued on the final track, which is a strange inclusion, an old track from 1971 called Everybody Has A Dream. There was no real need for this one in my opinion. It sits a bit oddly with the others, although it is redeemed by the piano and whistling reprise of The Stranger at the end.

It is quite strange with this album, though, in that because I am so familiar with it, and it is so good, that I find I can't write so much about it. I have written almost as much about The Nylon Curtain, for example, yet that is a vastly inferior album, for me.

The live material on CD 2 of the deluxe edition is excellent, both in sound and musical quality. The album is remastered perfectly too. Highly recommended. Amazingly, Columbia Records would have dropped Joel had this album not sold. They needn't have worried. It sold by the bucketful.



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52nd STREET (1978)

1. Big Shot
2. Honesty
3. My Life
4. Zanzibar
5. Stiletto
6. Rosalinda's Eyes
7. Half A Mile Away
8. Until The Night
9. 52nd Street           

Released in 1978, at the height of punk, following on from the phenomenal worldwide success of the previous year’s The Stranger, this was also a top seller. Joel’s mix of New York street tales against a piano and jazzy brass backing tapped in to the tastes of those for whom punk never happened. I was a punk in 1978, but I still liked this. It seemed to garner all-round respect in the same way that Bruce Springsteen did. It certainly did for me and others, if not necessarily from the music media. Yes, Joel was known by some as a balladeer, but he could also rock, and he knew how to summon up the atmosphere of the city streets. New York is the ultimate city for such street romance and on this album Joel moves back from the Long Island vignettes of The Stranger firmly into the big city. The album is absolutely dripping with Big Apple ambience. Furthermore, while I felt in some ways The Stranger was a daytime album, this is very much one for after the cars have turned their headlights on (to paraphrase Joel in Until The Night). 
                                 
It was the lead-off single, the catchy, radio-friendly My Life that helped to popularise the album, but it was by no means the standout track. That honour, for me, lay with the Phil Spector meets Bruce Springsteen and The Righteous Brothers on the mighty Until The Night. It has a great atmosphere and a killer chorus, with a superb build up from the verses to those dramatic chorus parts. The bit where Joel sings "as the cars turn their headlights on.." always gives me a bit of a tingle. It is a bit of an overlooked Joel classic, rarely played in concert or on the radio. 

  

Also impressive is the Latin-flavoured groove of Rosalinda's Eyes (written by Joel for his mother) and the upbeat, soulful tones of Half A Mile Away and the atmospheric New York bar-room piano jazz of Zanzibar. The latter is just so evocative of New York after dark - street lights, car lights, bars, people. It also owes a pretty big legacy to Steely Dan circa Katy Lied/The Royal Scam. Joel's lyrics are not impenetrable and oblique, however, they concern waitresses, Muhammad Ali and his old man's car. It may sound Steely Dan-esque but it is proper working class everyday ambience enhance by Joel's knack for a dramatic delivery. Check out that jazzy trumpet solo too.

Stiletto is a suitably pointed little number, both lyrically and musically, with Joel having a pop at a prickly girlfriend backed by some loose jazzy piano breaks, while Honesty is just a typical Joel heartfelt but periodically dramatic ballad of the sort he always had in him and Big Shot sees Joel in New York Italian mode, putting down someone who has got above his/herself - “you got the Dom Perignon in your hand and the spoon up your nose”. Joel’s songs, while often thought to be just romantic, often betray a hard, street-wise edge. He often puts down the wealthy drug-addled indulgent culture.

The jazzy, piano-driven 52nd Street is a short, almost half-song to finish off this assured album and leaves you wanting more, not that one's appetite hasn't been sated, however. This was the last of three truly excellent Joel albums, maybe his best three. They certainly nailed his reputation for years to come. His arena-filling popularity started here.



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GLASS HOUSES (1980)

1. You May Be Right
2. Sometimes A Fantasy
3. Don't Ask Me Why
4. It's Still Rock 'n' Roll To Me
5. All For Leyna
6. I Don't Want To Be Alone
7. Sleeping With The Television On
8. C'Etait Toi (You Were The One)
9. Close To The Borderline
10. Through The Long Night                                     
By 1980, Billy Joel had, by putting out three excellent albums, gained record sales and was now getting good concert attendances. Convincing critical kudos, however, was still eluding him and he was now considered a somewhat safe, mainstream artist suitable for playing at low volume on wine bars or hairdressers’ salons. He had garnered a certain amount of respect, but he found that the punks and the new wavers were considered far more credible than him, something that apparently infuriated him and his one-time amateur boxer’s fighting spikiness came to the fore on this, his most edgy and “rock” album.

A fair few artists channelled their inner punk/new wave traits around this time - The Rolling Stones, Queen, Elton John, Ian Hunter to name a few and Joel seemed to be wanting to prove that he too could do edgy, short, sharp rock and new wavey nostalgic pastiches. He left behind the Springsteen-esque street scenes and characters of the earlier albums too. The approach here was more minimalist, both musically and lyrically. Oddly, though, in the same period, previously punk groups like The Ramones, The Jam and The Clash were desperately trying to diversify and show just how “un-punk” they could be.

A glass smashing sound introduces the jangly Beatles/Byrds-style riff of the infectious rock of You May Be Right. “I walked through Bedford Stuy alone” proclaims a pugnacious Joel, referring to Brooklyn’s dodgy (now gentrified) Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood. This track has always been a favourite of mine. Its pounding drums and blues harmonica ending makes it one of Joel’s rockingest numbers to date. This sound is continued on the new wave thump of Sometimes A Fantasy. If a group like The Police or The Knack had done this, it would have been hailed as a great single. Like many new wave bands, Joel had an ear for a melody developed from way back and this stood him in good stead as he launched his own brand of power pop.

 

The old McCartney-esque balladeer instincts haven’t left him completely, however, and they are used here to the max on the breezy, tuneful Don’t Ask Me Why. The big hit from the album was to infectious, singalong It’s Still Rock’n’Roll To Me. Again, many new wave acts were releasing retrospective material like this and being hailed for it. Look, Joel was a songsmith and a melodian. He didn’t need to prove anything and he duly got a big hit with this. His concept of punk/new wave was still so beautifully hook-laden, though, that however more ostensibly aggressive the album was, the very skills and talents that had got him this far were still apparent. You can’t keep a good songwriter down.

A personal favourite has always been the melodramatic, ABBA-esque All For Leyna (listen to that Ulvaeus-influenced piano intro). it is a punchy but tuneful piece of melodious but spiky rock. It was a minor hit and deservedly so. I Don’t Want To Be Alone is a deceptively appealing number with real hints of Joe Jackson’s 1979-80 material in it, for me. It has a vaguely white reggae groove to it with a sumptuous bass line too. It is possibly the most new wave number on the album. Sleeping With The Television On has some nice guitar riffs, big drums and yet again, some killer hooks. Once more, there is something Joe Jackson-ish here. All very thin tie and sharp suits.

C’Etait Toi (You Were The One) changes the mood as Joel sings at times in French over a jaunty French café accordion-driven backing. Nothing angry or confrontational about this. The riffiness returns on the next one with the chunky rock of Close To The Borderline which has Joel sounded ever so slightly like Robert Plant in places. The album closes with the laid-back McCartney-style strains of Through The Long Night.

So, yes, he may have been clad in a leather jacket on the front cover, smashing a glass window, and a new wave thin tie and blazer on the back but Joel didn’t really prove himself a punk. He was far too fond of a melody and a killer couplet for that. His efforts to prove a point resulted in a highly enjoyable album, nevertheless.



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THE NYLON CURTAIN (1982)

1. Allentown
2. Laura
3. Pressure
4. Goodnight Saigon
5. She's Right On Time
6. A Room Of Our Own
7. Surprises
8. Scandinavian Skies
9. Where's The Orchestra        

After two critically-acclaimed albums in The Stranger and 52nd Street, the somewhat patchy Glass Houses in 1980 began something of a fallow period for Billy Joel. This album, from 1982, was, in my opinion, his most inaccessible, introspective album. Over 35 years on, and I still can’t really get into it. That is also acknowledging that it contains two bona fide Joel classics in Allentown, about the declining US steel industry, and the monumental, evocative Goodnight Saigon, about the horrors of the Vietnam War. This track sits completely at variance with the rest of the album, however. I am really not sure what it is doing there.

I find the other tracks very up and down, to be honest. Laura is a cynical, almost miserable John Lennon-esque tirade against a former lover; Pressure is a lot better, a synthesiser dominated (but in a good way) pounding, insistent number. She's Right On Time is a Beatles-ish (certainly the chorus) acceptable number, but it is nowhere near the standard of earlier material. Not at all. Nevertheless, I quite like it. A Room Of Our Own just seems a lazy rocker. Again, it sounds like filler from a mid 1970s Wings album, which people would forgive because it was Paul McCartney. The middle bit (about a tin of sardines) is such a Lennon plagiarism, both musically and lyrically it is untrue. Then there is the Run For Your Life similarity. In trying to sound like Lennon and McCartney, Billy just seems to have lost his mojo here. Some people seem quite happy with his channelling his “inner Beatles”, however, it must be said. Why, he even sported a McCartney Let It Be style beard too.

Surprises just gets nowhere for me. Again, there are tinges of The Beatles in it. I can’t really explain why this album just can't reach me. I am at a loss really. I own every Billy Joel album and can listen to them all every now and again and enjoy them. Not this one. I will continue to plough through it for the sake of this review.

  

Scandinavian Skies is Joel’s Revolution 9 (comparatively - considering his previous material). It is a pretentious, discordant mishmash of God knows what. Bizarre lyrics based loosely around a tour to SwedenLennon impersonations, Walrus orchestration, funny background noises, classical stylings. My oh my, it is truly awful. Unlistenable (at times). I realise, of course, that this is just my personal opinion. Some people love this and feel it is one of his most adventurous, ground-breaking compositions. Probably the best thing to do is download it and see what you think. Many would completely disagree with me. Funnily enough, I find sometimes it strangely compelling and find myself listening to it every now and again. Maybe that is its strength. Therein is the quandary within this album.

Even some pleasant saxophone cannot save the moribund Where's The Orchestra. Sorry, this album just doesn't do it for me. Some see it as Joel's Sgt Pepper. Joel himself says it is the best thing he ever did. Who am I to argue? Give it a chance, I guess. Every couple of years I do. I refuse to completely write it off. Maybe someday the penny will drop. Oh, and the remastered sound is truly fantastic. Big, full and punchy. Pressure sounds particularly impressive.



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AN INNOCENT MAN (1983)

1. Easy Money
2. An Innocent Man
3. The Longest Time
4. This Night
5. Tell Her About It
6. Uptown Girl
7. Careless Talk
8. Christie Lee
9. Leave A Tender Moment Alone
10. Keeping The Faith          

After 1982's somewhat controversial and questionably patchy release in The Nylon Curtain, where Billy Joel tried, with varying results, to channel his inner John Lennon, he was back, two years later, trying to evoke the vibe of the doo-wop era of the late 50s/early 60s, in particular Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons.
               
It was a far more commercially successful and accessible album than its often introspective, angry and, at times, plain weird predecessor. Kicking off with the upbeat and harmonious Stax-y Easy Money, we then get a real Joel classic in the sad yearnings of An Innocent Man, with is beautiful vocal. The Longest Time is one of the most "doo-wop" of the tracks, great harmonies abound and a killer chorus, while This Night sees Joel stealing a riff from Beethoven, so to speak, for the chorus. Tell Her About It is a more down and dirty, slightly blues-influenced upbeat rocker.

  

Uptown Girl sees Joel in full rich girl/poor guy mode and doing his best Frankie Valli falsetto. Unsurprisingly, it was a huge number one hit. Below is a still from the accompanying garage-set video. Yes, I know, it has a certain ludicrous look to it. Look at those expressions! Careless Talk is a fifties-influenced slower rock 'n' roll number, while Christie Lee goes into full saxophone-driven rock 'n' roll. Leave A Tender Moment Alone is a romantic "slowie" with an appealing harmonica solo from guest blower Toots Thielemans.

The album ends with one of its most attractive songs in Keeping The Faith - an evocative throwback to the fifties Joel grew up in with all sorts of contemporary cultural references thrown in.Yes, The Nylon Curtain takes much longer to get into, this album is more more instant, and, consequently a bit more disposable. A bit like Born In The USABrothers In Arms or Thriller. I have to admit I listen to other Billy Joel albums a lot more. Not to denigrate it, though, it is a good one.



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THE BRIDGE (1986)

1. Running On Ice
2. This Is The Time
3. A Matter Of Trust
4. Modern Woman
5. Baby Grand
6. Big Man On Mulberry Street
7. Temptation
8. Code Of Silence
9. Getting Closer                                     

Like its title suggests, this is something of a bridging album for Billy Joel, after the huge commercial success of An Innocent Man and its multiple hit singles from two years earlier and Storm Front from three years later. It has great memories of 1986 for me.

Joel produced a much less commercial album here and in many ways it is the better for it. It is a pretty credible effort, to be fair. There is no obvious hit single on here, although the riffy rocker that was A Matter Of Trust was a middling hit. There are two wonderful, sweeping romantic numbers on the album - the lovely, evocative This Is The Time with its instant build up chorus and Temptation, a number that sees Joel's deep, alluring and melodic voice on top form. He just has such a way of producing a real, catchy hook to a song that maybe slow in its build up but has that tuneful drama in its chorus. Both of these have that to the max.

Running On Ice is a frantic, piano-driven rocker to kick things off with another glorious hook. All good stuff. This is actually one of my favourite Billy Joel albums.

 

Billy doesn't neglect his beloved jazzy blues either and his duet with Ray Charles on Baby Grand is bluesy, soulful and pretty magnificent, to be honest. Big Man On Mulberry Street (pictured below from the turn of the 20th century) has Billy revisiting his old New York haunts, something which guarantees and atmospheric song. It merges big band punch, jazzy vocals, brass riffs and a New York urban soundscape. An impressive cornerstone of the album.

Modern Woman is an upbeat, slightly cynical, slightly witty take on strong contemporary women who give the singer the runaround, while the slightly staccato, shuffling Code Of Silence features Cyndi Lauper on vocals with Joel. Getting Closer  is another of those slow songs with a killer hook on its refrain. Joel was just the master of those sort of instantly recognisable songs at the time. I prefer this album to An Innocent Man. A good one.



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STORM FRONT (1989)

1. That's Not Her Style
2. We Didn't Start The Fire
3. The Downeaster Alexa
4. I Go To Extremes
5. Shameless
6. Storm Front
7. Leningrad
8. State of Grace
9. When In Rome
10. And So It Goes             

Three years after The Bridge, 1989’s Storm Front was probably Billy Joel’s last decent album. Indeed, the patchy River Of Dreams was the only subsequent release before his muse deserted him and he seemed to go into semi-retirement and undertake to occasional tour and no more.

This album featured quite a few rock tracks - the heavy-ish chugging opener, That's Not Her Style; the pop rock of I Go To Extremes; the horn-driven soulful rock of When In Rome; the rock ballad Shameless and the powerful, clunky Storm Front. All very upbeat, on the whole, and energetic.

Then, of course, there is the unique and extremely appealing We Didn't Start The Fire, featuring name checks from the fifties onwards of politicians, singers, cultural figures and mentions of various notable incidents. All of this over a frantic rock beat. A classic hit single and a track Billy Joel will long be remembered for. I have friends who are not Joel fans in any way, yet they love that song.

 

The archetypal Joel melodic, attractive, meaningful ballads included here are the evocative Leningrad about a US-Russian friendship during the bleak cold war years and the haunting Downeaster Alexa, a moving song about the fishing industry. There is also And So It Goes, a quiet, piano-driven ballad that closes the album and State Of Grace, a mid-paced musical and enjoyable number with an addictive hook, the sort of song that Billy Joel has done so well over the years.

Overall, a highly competent album. The musicianship is high quality as indeed in the sound on this latest remastering.



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RIVER OF DREAMS (1993)

1. No Man's Land
2. The Great Wall Of China
3. Blonde Over Blue
4. A Minor Variation
5. Shades Of Grey
6. All About Soul
7. Lullabye (Goodnight My Angel)
8. The River Of Dreams
9. Two Thousand Years
10. Famous Last Words              

In 1993 Billy Joel suddenly called a halt on his recording/songwriting career. He still occasionally tours, singing his material from 1972-1993, but since 1993 he has not released an album. He seemed to suddenly lose interest and also his muse. Fair enough, if he felt he hadn't got it in him, or hadn't got the desire then that was a fine, honest decision on his part.

This was an album that subsequently didn't get much of my attention, which is probably a bit of a shame, as it is not a bad album at all and a fair swansong.

No Man's Land is a crashing rock number to open with, with a bit of an Elvis Costello & The Attractions keyboard/drum sound, particularly at the beginning. It is a lyrically cynical song about big business and high-level corruption.

The Great Wall Of China is a shuffling, powerful number, pretty typical of Joel's later material, full of power and purpose and appealing vocal delivery. Once again, the lyrics are realist and questioning. There is some great guitar soloing half way through from veteran Danny Kortchmar and Joel's voice is commanding and melodic throughout. It is a bit of a hidden Joel classic.

  

Blonde Over Blue has an attractive drum rhythm and another world-weary lyric. Joel's vocal is good, as are the synthesiser backing passages. Its appeal is not as instant as much of his earlier material, but a few listens and it gets there. A Minor Variation is a muscular, slow-paced but strong bluesy thumper of a number. It features a vibrant horn section. Joel could always deliver a bluesy vocal and he does just that here. Shades Of Grey is an ebullient, infectious song with Joel sounding committed and enthusiastic, as he sings two men's parts as they address each other.

All About Soul is one of the last Joel classics which features an absolutely killer, uplifting chorus that makes one remember just what a great artist Billy Joel was, what an ear for a tune he had and what a great voice too. I talk about him in the past tense because his career is now in the past, even though he is alive and well at 70 in 2019.

Lullabye (Goodnight My Angel) is a tender piano ballad to one of his three daughters. Sometimes songs like this can be quite mawkish (John Lennon, Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart are all guilty), but I have to say that this one is quite delightful.

The final Joel classic is to be found in the doo-wop glory of The River Of Dreams and its addictive harmonies behind Joel's falsetto vocal. He cuts loose on the piano too - like the true piano man he is. The clip below shows him, backed by a large gospel choir, delivering a great performance of the song at the Grammy awards. Two Thousand Years is a big, grandiose, anthemic ballad. There is something Elton John-ish about it.

The final track is a sad but musically uplifting one in Famous Last Words. "These are the last words I have to say..." sings Billy over an attractive rhythm and piano melody. This is a really good song and a fine one for Billy Joel to bow out on. Hey Billy - thanks, man.

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Steeleye Span






LIST OF CATEGORIES (click on a category to read detailed, album-by-album reviews)

The Early Years (1970-1973)
The Electric Years (1974-1976)
The Later Years (1986-2016)

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Saturday, 25 August 2018

Paul Simon




Paul Simon is a truly wonderful songwriter, as his time with Simon & Garfunkel showed, and it continued throughout his solo career which has now been over four times as long as the partnership with Garfunkel. He has a fetching mellifluous voice and a mastery of subtle and sensitive lyricism that go together so well.
































I first heard his solo work in the early seventies with the reggae-influenced Me And Julio Down At The Schoolyard and Mother And Child Reunion but it was the New Orleans jazz of Take Me To The Mardi Gras that really confirmed me as a fan. I can still remember listening to it on a tiny transistor radio in the kitchen in my childhood home, and thinking "wow, what a great record...". I loved the atmosphere on it, and the way Simon's gentle voice just sort of you invited you in.

The world music adventures of the mid-eighties were a superb renaissance after a quiet period and his career his continued giving us quality ever since. He is genuinely one of music's finest singer-songwriters. I challenge anyone to listen to any Paul Simon album and not get something out of it, at some point.

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The albums covered here are:-

Paul Simon (1972)
There Goes Rhymin' Simon (1973)
Still Crazy After All These Years (1975)
One Trick Pony (1980)
Hearts And Bones (1983)
Graceland (1986)
The Rhythm Of The Saints (1990)
Live In Central Park (1991)
Songs From The Capeman (1997)
You're The One (2000)
Surprise (2006)
So Beautiful Or So What (2011)
Live In Hyde Park (2012)
Stranger To Stranger (2016)
and In The Blue Light (2018)

Scroll down to read the reviews.

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PAUL SIMON (1972)

1. Mother And Child Reunion
2. Duncan
3. Everything Put Together Falls Apart
4. Run That Body Down
5. Armistice Day
6. Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard
7. Peace Like A River
8. Papa Hobo
9. Hobo's Blues
10. Paranoia Blues
11. Congratulations     

After the demise of Simon & Garfunkel the previous year, Paul Simon cast off the shackles off what Simon & Garfunkel had become - big, dramatic ballads like Bridge Over Troubled Water without the musical explorations and adventurousness that Simon so liked. He had tried to get them into the duo's work, subtly, but now has was free to do his thing.
                              
Funnily enough, though, despite the convincing experiment with reggae on Mother And Child Reunion and Caribbean calypso-style rhythms and "world music" sounds on Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard (the album's two big hit singles) the album was pretty low key. Quiet, gentle songs, intelligent, perceptive lyrics. Simon set his stall out for many subsequent albums. Duncan is a beguiling, interesting song, with a witty first couple of lines and Everything Put Together Falls Apart is a laid-back, walking pace acoustic number, of the type that would typify much of Simon's work over the next few years. Run That Body Down is wry and observantly astute. This is a long way removed from the grandiose, stately ballads of Simon & Garfunkel. The latter track has some fetching wah-wah style guitar in the middle. It is a "grower" of a song and one of my favourites on the album. Simon began a tradition that would serve him well over the years - employing the finest musicians.

 

Armistice Day sees Simon delving into the blues, with some impressive guitar backing another lyrically interesting song. These songs are proper, serious "adult" songs and now, nearly fifty years later they haven't dated at all. I have to say, also, that, for 1972, the sound is truly outstanding on the latest remastering.

Peace Like A River has a big, resonant bluesy slow tempo beat to it. Another very enjoyable cut. Papa Hobo is another observant, environmentally-consciousness song with some infectious backing. The song morphs into the short, bluesy instrumental Hobo's Blues. Simon's exploration of the blues continues with the bottleneck guitar of Paranoia Blues, which, after a reflective opening, launches into a huge, thumping chorus part. Congratulations is a suitably understated acoustic number upon which to end this gently appealing album.



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THERE GOES RHYMIN' SIMON (1973)

1. Kodachrome
2. Tenderness
3. Take Me To The Mardi Gras
4. Something So Right
5. One Man's Ceiling Is Another Man's Floor
6. American Tune
7. Was A Sunny Day
8. Learn How To Fall
9. St. Judy's Comet
10. Loves Me Like A Rock  

This a delightfully mature and nonchalantly laid-back, relaxing album. Leaving behind some of the reggae rhythms of 1971's Paul Simon, we get a more polished, reflective collection.
                                
The lively, energetic Kodachrome starts the album in fine fashion, while Tenderness is a lovely, laid-back, piano and bass-driven ballad. Then comes my favourite, and one of my all-time best songs of Simon's - the wonderfully atmospheric groove of Take Me To The Mardi Gras. I remember first hearing this as a young teenager, fourteen I think, one hot day in May 1973 on my tiny transistor radio and I was just entranced. I can still remember that moment. Paul Simon's voice, the effortless instrumental sound, and, of course that thoroughly addictive New Orleans brass sound at the end. Something So Right continues the relaxing, tranquil feel of the album. One Man's Ceiling Is Another Man's Floor is a powerful, bluesy number with some excellent boogie-woogie piano half way through and a strong, vibrant bass throughout. Some gospel vocals join in too, to see the song out.

American Tune is lyrically beautiful and observantly cynical. It is beautifully orchestrated too. Was A Sunny Day revisits some of that Caribbean vibe again, with a lilting, calypso-style rhythm, although at times Simon's cod-Caribbean voice is a tad embarrassing. However, you can't really dislike the song in any way.

 

 

Learn How To Fall is a summery number, with some pumping brass passages underpinning the chorus in the sort of way that would be used fifteen or more years later on The Rhythm Of The SaintsSt. Judy's Comet has a warm bassy sound as Simon sings a lullaby over the insistent, full beat. It is actually quite beautiful. It has some hypnotic percussion too. Loves Me Like A Rock is instantly recognisable as Simon whoops it up with a gospel choir. Track that will always be referenced as archetypal Paul Simon.

Everything about the album is pleasant - the gentle melodies and Simon's always interesting lyrics and gentle vocal delivery. Yet, despite all that, I don't feel the album is an absolute classic. It is one of those "wash over you" albums that provides a most enjoyable forty minute or so, but not one that gets you thinking "wow!". Maybe it is because Simon is so good, you just find you expect just a little more. Maybe this is a little harsh, because it is still an excellent album.



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STILL CRAZY AFTER ALL THESE YEARS (1975)

1. Still Crazy After All These Years
2. My Little Town
3. I'll Do It For Your Love
4. 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover
5. Night Game
6. Gone At Last
7. Some Folks' Lives Roll Easy
8. Have A Good Time
9. You're Kind
10. Silent Eyes
11. Slip Slidin' Away    

Whereas 1973's There Goes Rhymin' Simon experimented with various musical styles, this album, two years later, was pretty much played in the same laid-back, immaculately-played and easy late night jazz style. It is a very relaxing album.
                          
Still Crazy After All These Years is a reflective piece, well-known to everyone by now. My Little Town  sees Simon reunited with Art Garfunkel for some delicious harmonies and a Kodachrome-style rhythm. I'd Do It For Your Love is another entrancing slow number, while 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover is an addictively rhythmic and catchy song that became one of his biggest hits. Night Game is a rather odd song about a participant in a baseball game dying, it would seem. It is a rather chilling song.

Gone At Last is a vibrant, lively slice of infectious gospel and Have A Good Time has a punchy bit of jazzy brass in it, over an insistent female backing vocal. Some Folks' Lives Roll Easy is a soulful, slow number that Simon would re-record on 2018's In The Blue Light.

You're Kind has an appealing, bassy and percussion-driven refrain and a mellifluous Simon vocal. The tempo ups a bit on this, but not much, just in its stronger rhythm. Silent Eyes is a plaintive piano and bass-driven ballad to end what is a pretty low-key and short album. Slip Slidin' Away, recorded during this album's sessions surely should have been included. It is the best track on the album, not on the album, if you understand.

It was a huge seller, but for me, there are several much better Simon albums out there. It is perfectly pleasant, of course, as all his albums are. It seemed a bit of a "treading water" album to me. Despite that, there was not another album to come for another five years. Actually, maybe I'm being a bit unfair, it does have hidden depths and appeal, requiring many listens.

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ONE TRICK PONY (1980)

1. Late In The Evening
2. That’s Why God Made The Movies
3. One Trick Pony
4. How The Heart Approaches What It Yearns          
5. Oh, Marion
6. Ace In The Hole
7. Nobody
8. Jonah
9. God Bless The Absentee
10. Long Long Day


This album, from 1980, contained songs from Paul Simon’s spectacularly unsuccessful movie of the same name, but it was not billed as a soundtrack. It functioned as a straight forward album of Simon with a band. It includes two live tracks within the album, both of which are excellent. The music was culturally completely different to the new wave, punk and disco that dominated 1980. Simon never followed trends, did he? He was all the better for it.

Late In The Evening is a bone fide Simon classic to start with, full of that quintessential Simon je ne sais quoi. You just know it when you hear it. The rhythms are totally intoxicating from beginning to end as are Simon’s beguiling, cinematic and enigmatic lyrics. As for the brass section and the percussion solo - wow. I haven’t even mentioned the guitar either. The song is just an unbridled joy.

That’s Why God Made The Movies is a gently shuffling number with Simon reminiscing about lying around in his swaddling clothes (he claimed to have had memories from being one or two years old in the previous song, so he must have been a precocious child!). It is another of his cryptic songs that could mean all sorts of things. The first live track is the vaguely funky groove of One Trick Pony, with its jazzy beat and easy, free feeling. It is a really addictive number with a great vibe to it, lovely rhythms and, of course, Simon’s mellifluous voice.

 

How The Heart Approaches What It Yearns is a walking pace, slow number that was re-interpreted on 2018’s In The Blue Light. Oh, Marion is similarly low key with a more solid drum backing and light jazzy guitar sound.

The other live track, Ace In The Hole, is an upbeat number with a funky guitar backing and Simon assisted on vocals by Richard Tee. It features some fine guitar too, from Eric Gale. Nobody is a slow burning, sleepy, reflective number and Jonah is similar in its typically Simon-esque gentle ambience. God Bless The Absentee ups the tempo slightly on a muscular number enhanced by some bluesy guitar. Long Long Day is a quiet ballad to end this short but pleasant album on. It remains considerably underrated in Simon’s canon.

** The non-album bonus tracks from the movie include the short but sweet Soft Parachutes; the punchier slow, staccato groove of All Because Of You; the gently melodic, saxophone enhanced Spiral Highway and the gospel-influenced fun of Stranded In A Limousine.




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HEARTS AND BONES (1983)

1. Allergies
2. Hearts And Bones
3. When Numbers Get Serious
4. Think Too Much (B)
5. Song About The Moon                
6. ThinkToo Much (A)
7. Train In The Distance
8. Rene And Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War
9. Cars Are Cars
10. The Late Great Johnny Ace


From 1983, this was Paul Simon’s least successful album, which was somewhat of a travesty, as far as I am concerned, because there are some really good songs on it.

Allergies, after a quiet, slow start, breaks out into a rhythmic, staccato chunky number containing typically politely cynical Simon lyrics. The song has some fine horn breaks too. It is a really good, underrated Simon song. Check out that quirky guitar solo. Even more archetypal Simon is the subtle strains of Hearts And Bones with its quiet melody and pre-Rhythm Of The Saints lyrics, particularly the first verse. Once again, it is a most impressive and atmospheric song. It ends with the sort of tribal drum sound that Simon would use a lot by the end of the decade.

Simon has always liked a bit of lyrical fun and we get some here on When Numbers Get Serious. It is a chunky, attractive number with gentle reggae hints and a throwback feel to those Caribbean-influenced hits of the early seventies like Mother And Child Reunion and Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard. Think Too Much (B) has an infectious rhythm, sheep/goat noises and a fetching vocal from Simon. Again, it is a pre-cursor to the Rhythm Of The Saints material. The melodious Song About The Moon is more typical of mid-seventies Simon fare. The second part of Think Too Much (A) (curiously A comes after B) is even more upbeat, with a thumping drum beat, some skanking/funky guitars and a great, deep bass line.

 

Train In The Distance has some homage paid to Simon’s beloved doo-wop at the beginning, before it becomes a familiar gentle Simon song with a killer hook line in “everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance...”.   He’s right, we do. Nice saxophone at the end, too.

Rene And Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War is one of my favourite song titles, and the song is duly pictorial in its lovely images and plaintive delivery. It is a truly fine song. I love the bit where Simon changes the lyrics to “apres la guerre...”. Cars Are Cars ups the tempo on a quirky, amusing number. The album closes with a moving, evocative tribute to John Lennon in The Late Great Johnny Ace. The lyrics are typically cryptic at times but as with many of Simon’s songs, it doesn’t matter. I love the last line about drinking with a stranger in a bar on the night Lennon died.

Overall, for me, this was a good album and any criticism it received was quite unfair.

** The one non-album bonus track is the tender, acoustic The Shelter Of Your Arms.



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GRACELAND (1986)

1. The Boy In The Bubble
2. Graceland
3. I Know What I Know
4. Gumboots
5. Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes
6. You Can Call Me Al
7. Under African Skies
8. Homeless
9. Crazy Love, Vol II
10. That Was Your Mother
11. All Around The World Or The Myth Of Fingerprints   

The album that brought Paul Simon back to global super-stardom. Recorded with a host of South African musicians and vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Simon married his unique lyrical mastery with the lilting, similarly unique, guitar sound of South Africa’s townships. Simon succeeded in introducing what is a marvellous musical style to a greater world audience. Township jive is uplifting, melodic, impossibly catchy and generally inspirational. Considering the often tragic, discriminatory background from which it sprung, its general joie de vivre is utterly remarkable.

Highlights are, of course, the quintessential township numbers - I Know What I KnowGumbootsDiamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes and the beautiful Under African Skies with its super lyrical characterisation - “Joseph’s face was black as night, the pale yellow moon shone in his eyes”. Then there is the gentle lilt of the beautiful Crazy Love, Vol II and the a capella harmonies of Ladysmith Black Mambazo on the evocative Homeless.

He also dabbled in Cajun Zydeco in the infectiously catchy That Was Your Mother and Tex-Mex in All Around The World. After the release of this album, the previously-ignored genre of “world music” became “trendy”.

That said, the Los Lobos Tex-Mex collaboration All Around The World sits somewhat incongruously at the end of the album. Apparently the group said that Simon "stole" the track from them and Simon, surprised to get a legal letter a few months later, tired of the wrangling and lost interest as to whether the song was on the album or not. Stuck on the end as it was, you do sort of feel that vibe. I felt it, back in 1986, before I even knew anything of the back story to its inclusion. 

Then there are the big hit tunes - Graceland, where Simon sings about Elvis Presley’s house against a wonderful township guitar riff, You Can Call Me Al, which includes bassist Ray Phiri’s famous “backwards” bass solo part and The Boy In The Bubble with its atmospheric opening lines - “It was a slow day and the sun was beating on the soldiers by the side of the road”. Simon’s lyrics always say so much in so few lines. All the songs on his album do this. I could go on quoting all day. 

Simon subsequently had this to say regarding his having to improvise his songwriting techniques for the album -

"....It was very difficult, because patterns that seemed as though they should fit together often didn't. I realised that in African music, the rhythms are always shifting slightly and that the shape of a melody was often dictated by the bass line rather than the guitar. Harmonically, African music consists essentially of three major chords — that's why it sounds so happy — so I could write almost any melody I wanted in a major scale. I improvised in two ways — by making up melodies in falsetto, and by singing any words that came to mind down in my lower and mid range....

....My typical style of songwriting in the past has been to sit with a guitar and write a song, finish it, go into the studio, book the musicians, lay out the song and the chords, and then try to make a track. With these musicians, I was doing it the other way around. The tracks preceded the songs. We worked improvisationally. While a group was playing in the studio, I would sing melodies and words — anything that fit the scale they were playing in...."

There was/has been/is a lot of controversy about this album - some seeing Simon as indirectly supporting Apartheid by not boycotting everything to do with South Africa at the time. Or that it took a rich white man to bring the music of the townships to the world. So what? Someone had to, and the world is a better place for it. Simon united musicians and cultures for the sake of music. He should be praised for it. Make no mistake, this was a seminal album.

  

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THE RHYTHM OF THE SAINTS (1990)

1. The Obvious Child
2. Can't Run But
3. The Coast
4. Proof
5. Further To Fly
6. She Moves On
7. Born At The Right Time
8. The Cool, Cool River
9. Spirit Voices
10. The Rhythm Of The Saints
                                        
Often overshadowed by 1986's top seller, Graceland, this one did not get the credit it deserved. Having explored the ethnic music of South Africa to great effect on Graceland, Paul Simon took himself off to South America to delve into the rhythms of Brazil and the Amazon Basin, while also including major influences from the culturally and ethnically linked music of West AfricaCameroon in particular. Beguiling lyrics proliferate about Bougainvillea, families of travelling musicians, injured coasts, cool rivers, and Babalu-Aye backed by the lilting, gentle sounds of Brazilian percussion and guitars, congas, bongos and berimbaus.

The musicians are predominantly Brazilian, but there are also several notable US musicians on the album too - blues/roots guitarist JJ Cale, saxophonist Michael Brecker and art rock guitarist Adrian Belew (of Talking Heads and David Bowie fame).
                                    
This is simply a beautiful, atmospheric album. I never tire of listening to it, even now, twenty-eight years later.

  

There are, as I said earlier, multiple Brazilian musicians and backing vocals all over the album. A whole troop of drummers from the Bahía region of Brazil feature on the upbeat opener, The Obvious Child. Thereafter, though, it relaxes into a warm groove, perfect for a hot summer’s evening as dusk descends and you imagine yourself under your mosquito net somewhere deep in the Amazon basin. The CoastFurther To Fly and Spirit Voices with its delightful Portuguese vocal part are particular personal favourites. Just check out the melodies and intoxicating percussion on The Coast and that rumbling bass too. Just perfection. Or how about that lovely, lilting guitar intro to Spirit Voices? Musically, the album is just so infectious, drawing you in to its life-affirming vibrancy with every tiny note. Simon's gently reassuring voice only enhances it even more. The rhythms and the voice are made for each other, even more than the South African music was. 

The shuffling, rhythmic Can't Run But is incredibly catchy in a laid-back way, as is the gently intoxicating Born At The Right Time and the horn blasts on Proof are powerful and dramatic. It is all good, however. Just check out the back cover for a feel of the album's atmosphere.

She Moves On is also deliciously laid-back, and The Cool, Cool River is just so marvellously evocative, particularly when those Heaven-bound horns kick in again - "send their battered dreams to Heaven...". The gentle, mellifluous Rhythm Of The Saints sees the album to its quiet, reflective close as if another long sultry day ends on the bank of the Amazon. The bonus track, Thelma, although it is a typical Simon love song, is given a shuffling, Brazilian backing that completely fits in with the rest of the album, musically, featuring a lovely deep percussion vibe and sumptuous bass line.

The remastering is excellent, too, as you would expect. The whole album has a wonderful sound quality. 

I came across Simon speaking of his favourite track on the album, which is interesting -

"....My favourite track in the "Rhythm Of The Saints" is one that nobody ever plays - they never play it and it's so good - "Can't Run But." It has such fabulous percussion, the Uakti. And all these classically trained guys who invented their own instruments. I really love that track. Nobody ever plays that! That album was also the first time I've worked with Vincent Nguini who turned out to be a perfect guitarist for me. I love Vincent Nguini's playing...."

After that comment I feel inspired to play Can't Run But. Let it wash over you like the cool, cool river. Beautiful. 



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LIVE IN CENTRAL PARK (1991)

  

This is, along with 2012's Hyde Park concert, one of the best full concert live recordings from Paul Simon. While the sound on the 2012 one is marginally superior, I like this one because it includes six songs from The Rhythm Of The Saints, an album I particularly love. They are all reproduced without losing any of that distinct atmosphere from their original recordings. There are also five songs from Graceland. Simon employs a large band of African/South American musicians and what is quite interesting is that he allows them to use their distinctive styles on songs such as Kodachrome and Cecilia, giving those songs a new, invigorating makeover. The backing vocalists are superb, throughout the performance. Check out I Know What I Know. Wonderful. Straight of out Johannesburg's townships. The instrumental jam at the end of Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes is marvellous.

It is nice to hear a full, punchy version of Train In The Distance, full of brass backing. Hearts And Bones as well. Other than that, and the Rhythm Of The Saints tracks, it is pretty much solo and Simon & Garfunkel hits all the way, however. There is an exhilarating, intoxicating live feel to the whole thing. The atmosphere comes across well. There is also a spine tingling moment when some jazzy, piano noodling suddenly turns into Bridge Over Troubled Water and the audience hoots and hollers. The band, unsurprisingly, is top notch and Paul Simon is, well, Paul Simon. The guy is special. Highly recommended.



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SONGS FROM THE CAPEMAN (1997)

1. Adios Hermanos
2. Born In Puerto Rico
3. Satin Summer Nights
4. Bernadette
5. The Vampires
6. Quality
7. Can I Forgive Him
8. Sunday Afternoon
9. Killer Wants To Go To College
10. Time Is An Ocean
11. Virgil
12. Killer Wants To Go To College II
13. Trailways Bus   
                              
This was a "concept album" from Paul Simon, based on the songs from the musical he wrote, based on the story of Salvador Agron, a Puerto Rican gang member who murdered two teenagers in 1959 in New York City. It has a late fifties, New York "doo-wop" sound to a lot of the music, but, of course, is enhanced by Simon's unique vocals. It is actually pretty good. Critically, it didn't get much praise, which I feel is unfair. There is not much on here that points to it being a bad record. Not at all. Sandwiched in between the South African Graceland and the Brazilian The Rhythm Of The Saints, this is, essentially, Simon's Puerto Rican/doo wop album. Viewed in that way, it is a good record. I think the whole "concept" thing put some people off. I get that, but it doesn't overwhelm the music at all.

Adios Hermanos is sung a capella, with some impressive vocal harmonies from both Simon and his backing singers. Born In Puerto Rico sees the musicians come in. It is a great, atmospheric  track and sounds like it should be on The Rhythm Of The Saints. Its lyrics speak of life in the barrios - "red beans and rice from kitchen windows....we came here wearing summer clothes in winter....". The evocative lyrics are many on this excellent song, plus there is some great Latin trumpet in the middle too. Salsa rhythms are used too, most effectively. Satin Summer Nights uses a lot of doo-wop but also some Latin guitar too and has a great atmosphere.

Bernadette is possibly the best-known track, being included on the Shining Like A National Guitar compilation. Again, it is full of rock 'n' roll idioms, vocals, instrumentations and an effervescent, lively melody. The Vampires has some delicious Latin brass sounds and a slow, syncopated salsa piano rhythm. Simon doesn't hold back on the profanities in the spoken "gang" background vocals. It all adds to the convincing atmosphere though. Quality returns to the lively doo-wop beat, it is fun of late fifties sounds, complete with a slowed-down "bridge" part. Can I Forgive Him is a slow voice and acoustic guitar narrative. Sunday Afternoon is also a laid-back number featuring a female lead vocal, while Simon returns for the rhythmic mid-paced bluesy rock of Killer Goes To College.

Time Is An Ocean features many of the assorted vocalists, male and female, on a shuffling tale of Agron's rehabilitation in prison. It has some great lyrics. Virgil has a thumping beat and a rock guitar riff intro and is sung from the point of view of the prison guard who guarded Agron and resents his academic progression. Killer Wants To Go To College II  is very much a typical Paul Simon-sounding song. The album ends with Trailways Bus which is another that sounds very much like the songs on The Rhythm Of The Saints. Again, it is a most atmospheric song. It seems to tell the tale of Agron, free from incarceration, and travelling on a bus. It can almost be taken as a separate song from the rest of the album, though. Overall, this album is an enjoyable listen, although the first half of the album is probably the better.



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YOU'RE THE ONE (2000)

1. That's Where I Belong
2. Darling Lorraine
3. Old
4. You're The One
5. The Teacher
6. Look At That
7. Señorita With A Necklace Of Tears
8. Love
9. Pigs, Sheep And Wolves
10. Hurricane Eye
11. Quiet             
                                     
Ten years after the glorious South American-influenced Rhythm Of The SaintsPaul Simon had only released the unsuccessful Songs From The Capeman stage musical project three years earlier. So, this was his first "proper" album in ten years. It is an extremely understated, low-key album, with a strong, pumping bassy sound, but very slow-tempo rhythms. The African/South American influences are still there, underpinning the whole thing, but not obviously so. The album has been described as elliptical in its economy of speech, in its whole low-key, gentle feel. Personally I would say Paul Simon has always been like that. It is almost a trademark of his. He is never "in your face".

That's Where I Belong is a perfect example of that gently understated beauty. It has lovely rhythms and Simon's vocal delivery is still as perfectly nuanced as always. Darling Lorraine is a wry tale of a marriage breaking up. It has some real echoes of Graceland in it at times and some guitar straight out of Rhythm Of The Saints. It actually ends very sadly. Old begins with some Cecilia-style percussion and melody. Simon is beginning to recognise his ageing and here he wittily expresses it. You're The One is hypnotic in its sound, Simon's voice is sensual and smooth, honeyed and always strangely reassuring. It is a totally infectious, intoxicating track. There are vague hints of Eastern Sufi-style vocals at one point and some fifties rock 'n' roll backing harmonies too.

The Teacher is very South American in its sumptuous percussion rhythms and also in its lyrics. It is a beautiful song that sweeps over you like a warm evening wind over the Amazon (or how I imagine it). The rich, warm bass and drum sounds are just wonderful. So very evocative. In the same vein is the quirky Look At ThatSeñorita With A Necklace Of Tears tells of a "frog in South America whose venom is an antidote for pain...". Again, the music is just a delight and Simon's delivery perfect.

Love is walking pace slow, haunting and deeply meaningful. Nobody does this sort of material quite like Paul Simon. Listening to this album, it is surprisingly how little critical credit it gets. Personally, I really rate it. It has layer after layer of appeal. Pigs, Sheep And Wolves is beautifully odd. Its rhythm is addictive, its lyrics perplexing. Hurricane Eye is a bit more clunky than the rest of the material on the album, without the easiness of melody, but it has an insistent, hard-hitting denouement. Quiet is a plaintive, sombre haunting number to end on, with Simon's voice singing against a sonorous string background and some deep keyboard noises in there too. I really feel at times that Paul Simon is some sort of guru when I listen to him. He is so damn wise. Or sounds it, anyway. This is a highly recommended, under-appreciated album.

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SURPRISE (2006)

1. How Can You Live In The North-East?
2. Everything About It Is A Love Song
3. Outrageous
4. Sure Don't Feel Like Love        
5. Wartime Prayers
6. Beautiful
7. I Don't Believe
8. Another Galaxy
9. Once Upon A Time There Was An Ocean                      
10. That's Me
11. Father And Daughter


Paul Simon hadn't put out an album for six years when he put this out in 2006. For his "comeback album" he collaborated, some would say surprisingly, with Brian Eno, of Roxy Music, David Bowie, Talking Heads and U2 fame. The result is a beguiling, adventurous, slightly different Simon album that challenges its listener. I guess that is what you would expect from one as avant-garde as Eno. Rather than re-visit the styles that made him successful over many decades, Simon/Eno choose to be ingenious and inventive as opposed to retrospective. It is possibly his most creative, innovative album, but not necessarily his most listenable.

The quiet but powerful, quirkily rhythmic How Can You Live In The North-East? exemplify what we have always known - that Simon was never a fist pumper of a protest singer. He makes his points wisely and often wearily, as if grinding through day by day, getting increasingly tired. Simon is often bitter-sweet, his hope ground down by a deep, academic unease. He was like this on Hearts And Bones back in 1983 and now his condition has worsened, so to speak.

Everything About It Is A Love Song sounds very like a latter-era David Bowie song, particularly on its fast, programmed drum loops. Outrageous also uses contemporary drum sounds and its vocals flirt vaguely with rap while a modern sounding guitar swirls all around. Sure Don't Feel Like Love also pounds with contemporary beats while still delivering Simon's enigmatic lyrics. He is more up front and almost aggressive vocally (comparatively) on here. This is no Slip Sliding Away.

 

Wartime Prayers is a more typical slow, gentle Simon ballad - or so you expect, initially. It grinds away, after a while, with a gospelly dignity and U2-esque rousing, anthemic guitar and drum backing. Beautiful has an archetypal Simon rhythmic backing and the sort of lyrics that you have come to expect from him. It moves effortlessly into the slow, thoughtful I Don't Believe. The drums on here are very U2, as indeed are the occasional guitar interjections. The influence is subtle, however.

Another Galaxy is, perhaps unsurprisingly, somewhat spacey in its main backing, which merges with a crystal clear acoustic guitar to produce a mysterious, brooding but also bright soundscape that is very Eno. An infectious percussion arrives too and Simon's gentle voice glides over it all beautifully. The final guitar/rhythm part is captivating. Once Upon A Time There Was An Ocean has a wonderful guitar riff and an equally superb vocal. Simon and Eno are in perfect sync here. A similarly guitar-driven edgy ambience can be found on That's Me. It is like Paul Simon meeting U2 and provides a most intriguing listen. You need to listen to it several times, though.

This eclectic, enjoyable ends with the tender and beautiful, typically Simon-esque Father And Daughter. This is a highly recommended album that begs repeated listens.



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SO BEAUTIFUL OR SO WHAT (2011)

1. Getting Ready For Christmas Day
2. The Afterlife
3. Dazzling Blue
4. Rewrite
5. Love And Hard Times
6. Love Is Eternal Sacred Light                   7. Amulet
8. Questions For The Angels
9. Love And Blessings
10. So Beautiful Or So What


After an interesting album produced by Brian Eno in 2006's Surprise, Paul Simon returned five years later, this time without Eno, but with a bit of his musically adventurous influence remaining. It is a short album at thirty-eight minutes but it is certainly an eminently enjoyable one.

Getting Ready For Christmas Day is a bit of a strange opener - upbeat and toe-tapping but with a bit of a feel of an ad hoc demo about it, particularly in the way the sound of the scratchy, bluesy acoustic guitar riff seems to fade in and out. The vocals are shared and are similarly improvised and loose. After a few minutes, however, it gets into your system and you get used to it. The Afterlife has you thinking that your speakers aren't playing up, as the previous track had you feeling, with a deliciously quirky and rhythmic number about filling out forms and waiting in line delivered in typically laidback but cynically weary style by Simon. The rhythmic influence of the Graceland and Rhythm Of The Saints albums can be clearly detected here, the latter album's grooves even more so on Dazzling Blue which simply drips with intoxicating percussive rhythms and rubbery, vibrating bass sound.

 

Rewrite is an attractive, staccato beat-backed acoustic and percussion song, with instantly recognisable Simon vocals. It contains some very Malian-sounding West African guitar in the middle. The old world music influences are still around. Love And Hard Times is a gentle acoustic, strings and vocal number of the sort that Simon specialises in. Love Is Eternal Sacred Light sees the tempo upping on a  drum and guitar-powered highly catchy song that sort of blends Americana with a world music energy. Check out the harmonica/drum interplay bit about two minutes in and then when Simon lifts his vocals to meet the song's pace in true Graceland style. Great stuff.

Amulet returns to the acoustic  format, this time in a short instrumental interlude. It merges seamlessly into the moving quiet ballad Questions For The Angels. It briefly references the "railway station/destination" lyric from Homeward Bound all those years ago and, to bring it up to date, Simon namechecks Jay-Z too.

Love And Blessings has an infectious rhythm and it breaks out into some strong drums as it swings jazzily on its way. There are some hints of doo-wop in there too, something that makes a regular appearance in Simon's music. A jerky, blues meets world music rhythm backs the enigmatic So Beautiful Or So What. Although a short album there is some fine material on here and it shows Simon to still be a creative, relevant artist all these years down the line.



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LIVE IN HYDE PARK (2012)

 

This is an excellent full concert live album from Paul Simon, from London's Hyde Park in summer 2012. There is a vibrant crowd atmosphere and Simon runs through a lot of his back catalogue in the first half of the concert - Kodachrome50 Ways To Leave Your Lover; Slip Slidin' Away; Me And Julio Down At The Schoolyard plus some comparative rarities in Dazzling Blue and a rousing Gone At Last. Reggae legend Jimmy Cliff joins him for a cover of Cliff's Vietnam and Simon's Mother And Child Reunion. There is also a pulsating, drum-powered The Obvious Child.

The second half of the concert is devoted to pretty much most of the Graceland album and brilliantly played it is too by the usual assorted South African musicians of the highest quality. It is a joy from beginning to end. He ends with The Sound Of SilenceLate In The Evening and Still Crazy After All These Years, but in between he makes a bit of a mess of The Boxer if I'm perfectly honest. Never mind, it is still a highly enjoyable album and highly recommended. The sound quality is excellent too.

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STRANGER TO STRANGER (2016)

1. The Werewolf
2. Wristband
3. The Clock
4. Street Angels
5. Stranger To Stranger
6. In A Parade
7. Proof Of Love
8. Garden Of Edie
9. The Riverbank
10. Cool Papa Bell
11. Insomniac's Lullaby
12. Horace And Pete       

I am very fond of this album. It slowly grows on you and I find is extremely nostalgic as the great man reminds you in snatches just what a contribution he has made over many, many years. There are no great You Can Call Me Al hooks on this album, the memorable bits just float in and out of your consciousness, fleeting bits in each song, a line or two of sheer brilliance here and there which just have you smiling in recognition of such a great lyrics man at work. You just nod your head knowingly and think “that’s typical Paul Simon…”.

Musically, Simon explores contemporary dace music rhythms, with some strong, reverberating drum sounds and some authentic South American drums too. All sorts of other instruments are used - different woodwind instruments, even a trumping tuba at one point. Simon experiments with all sorts of things, his muse certainly hasn’t deserted him, even into his seventies. He is just a truly remarkable singer/songwriter. He still has so much to offer. I can’t speak highly enough about this album. I love it.

  

The Werewolf is a chunky chugging opener  with a big bassy beat. A very powerful song that grows on you, considerably, with each listen. Wristband is infuriatingly catchy and rhythmically mesmerising. It has excellent witty lyrics and a simply great bass at the end. The Clock, however, is a bit of an obviously Pink Floyd-ish waste of time, so to speak. I will forgive him, though. Street Angels has hints of a thumping hip hop backing and is just intoxicating at times. All these songs deserve multiple listens.

Stranger To Stranger is both dignified and beautiful. Again, it makes me feel so nostalgic for all the years Simon has given us. There are many hints of the Rhythm Of The Saints album in its effortless, easy groove and Simon’s gorgeous laid back delivery. There is a lovely brass solo at the end. In A Parade has another dance music influenced, pounding drum sound and some cynically witty lyrics and continues the musically powerful but lyrically understated beauty of this album. “I wear a hoodie”, says Simon, wryly.

Proof Of Love is another nonchalant beauty of a track. The quality is never-ending, it really is. The sharp acoustic guitar of to the instrumental Garden Of Edie is just superb. Such wonderful clarity of sound. The Riverbank also  has a great shuffling groove. The tuba features on the attractive Cool Papa BellInsomniac's Lullaby and the tender Horace And Pete are both gentle songs on which to end this beguiling album. It is worth many a listen.



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IN THE BLUE LIGHT (2018)

 

Paul Simon has decided to re-visit ten of his older songs and give them a new makeover. It has proved to be a beguiling album, worthy of attention. These are my initial impressions of the new versions-

One Man's Ceiling Is Another Man's Floor - From There Goes Rhymin' Simon. This song hasn't actually changed too much, the evocative piano intro has remained, although Simon's vocal is now considerably slowed down, more barroom bluesy, with some deep-voice backing vocals. He has added some jazzy piano too.

Love - From You're The One. The new version has a lighter, more gently percussive backing but the general vocal tempo stays pretty much the same. When the song kicks in, the bassy backing is similar but the overall production is not as heavy. The acoustic guitar is sharper. I prefer this one to the original, slightly. Simon's voice is excellent, too, as it is throughout the album.

Can't Run But - From Rhythm Of The Saints. An orchestrated version full of strings and flutes, without any of the Brazilian rhythmic percussion of the original. The vocal is as strong and convincing as the original, but I feel it has lost its South American, intoxicating soul somewhat.

How The Heart Approaches What It Yearns - From One Trick Pony. It begins with some jazz piano and stand-up bass and then a wonderful saxophone break, as opposed to the previous syncopated percussion, also, Simon's vocal is slower in delivery. It is given a far more jazzy makeover, tinkling piano and haunting brass all over it, giving it a new sheen.

Pigs, Sheep & Wolves -  From You're The One. Again, this has a lighter rhythm and another jazzier approach. The shuffling rhythm is not nearly as thumping or bassy. Here, Simon turns it into a jaunty New Orleans jazz celebration of a song. It hasn't lost any of its quirkiness though.

Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War  - From Hearts And Bones. A sombre cello intro begins the song and it is delivered mournfully and in a sort of graceful 1930s fashion. Its tender string orchestration replaces the backing vocals. It was always a lovely song, here Simon gives it even more soul.

The Teacher - From You're The One. The tracks from You're The One all had a bassy, thumping backing that formed the ambience of that album. As with all the four tracks from that album, this version benefits from a lighter touch. A Spanish sounding acoustic guitar lends a beautiful backing to it. Some beguiling saxophone enhances it too. Lovely.

Darling Lorraine - From You're The One. The original had some Rhythm Of The Saints rhythmic, seductive backing. Once again, this deepness of sound is replaced by an acoustic guitar and a gentle percussion. I like both versions, but this version has a haunting beauty to it.

Some Folks' Lives Roll Easy - From Still Crazy After All These Years. Originally, it was a slow, subtle guitar-backed ballad. Now it is a plaintive, classically-influenced piano backed number. It has lost that slight country air to it and is now a torch-style late night song with a distinctly jazzy, infectious percussion and sumptuous stand-up bass line where a string backing used to be. Beautiful. Definite improvement on this one.

Question For The Angels - From So Beautiful Or So What. The original gentle vocal and acoustic guitar is very similar, although there are a few more nuances in the backing on this one. It also suddenly develops what sounds like an Australian aboriginal didgeridoo break before the line about Jay-Z. Slightly incongruous but interesting.

Overall, it is a thoroughly worthwhile listen. The originals were good and so are these versions.



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