Before punk won the hearts and minds of the jaded and socially exiled, it destroyed rock ‘n’ roll. It condensed lavish guitar solos into throbbing, four-note whines. It transformed drawn-out psych jams into bursts of rhythm and power chords. Mystical/neo-romantic poetry decayed into 90-second cultural reprimands. Punk empowered anyone with a voice, a pawn-shop drum kit, or enough sheer nerve to join a band. Suddenly, the individual mattered again; rock music ceased its tenure as a phenomenon and became a creation, deities fell and became androgynous vampires, the glue of rock crusted away, to be replaced by three chords, spit, and a safety pin. On both sides of the Atlantic, punk was a welcome and revered deviation from mainstream rock, if not a shocking one. The early progenitors of UK punk held a new banner for chaos, disorder, and social challenge, and their musical output remains startling, yet earnest even today. Their ranks included The Clash, The Buzzcocks, The Sex Pistols, and irrevocably, The Damned.
Occupying the sonic bridge from early 1970s glam rock, The Damned were perhaps the most flaunting members of early punk. Each player -- Brian (guitar), Rat (drums), Captain (bass), and Vanian (voice) -- had a penchant for the limelight, merging glam’s bratty strut with punk’s lewd power. The Damned were in as many ways pioneers, as they were the first punks in the UK to record a single and the first to share a stage with their US counterparts. Damned Damned Damned was also the first UK punk LP, beating the Sex Pistols’ more illustrious Never Mind the Bollocks by several months. Without foresight or agenda, it became a model for punk rock releases, signing to the then fledgling independent label Stiff Records and garnering an underrated producer in Nick Lowe. It was Lowe who kept the record’s production down, giving it a gritty, organic quality that contrasted with the Pistols’ sharp lucidity.
The songs themselves fit and pound and surge; they holler out anti-anthems like “Neat Neat Neat,” “Fish!,” “Stab Your Back,” and “Born to Kill.” There’s the haunting narrative of “Feel the Pain” that reads like a gothic rendition of The Velvets’ “Venus in Furs.” These songs don’t resound the way The Sex Pistols’ and The Clash’s first albums did; that is to say, Damned Damned Damned offers nothing that could be stitched to a leather jacket or spray-painted on the walls of Parliament. Instead, there’s a deeper, embedded aesthetic at work. Within the unrelenting backbeat, the howling guitars, the bounding, precise bass, and David Vanian’s undead-Elvis croon we find expressions of both torture and absurdity.
Take “New Rose,” the album’s first single: it begins almost as a romp on a 1950s sock-hop before it delves into lines like, “I don’t deserve somebody this great/ I’d better go or it’ll be too late.” “I Fall” follows a similar bent: “I'm a falling angel, falling down/ Be a falling angel, won’t you come round?/ Don’t be scared to follow, it’s no crime/ You’re a falling angel before your time.” And it’s here that The Damned reveal an emotional authenticity that exceeds the occasional social posturing of the other early, memorable punk albums. The 30-year anniversary edition of Damned Damned Damned, with its two (slightly redundant) bonus discs, serves to further capture this spirit. Disc 2 compiles John Peel sessions, B-sides (including a double-time take on The Beatles’ “Help”), early singles, live tracks, and demos. Despite the scattershot recording of Disc 3’s live gig at London’s 100 Club, it succeeds in bringing forth The Damned’s sheer power and disregard for rock ‘n’ roll.
That said, there’s no one device that makes Damned Damned Damned worthy of a massive year-30 anniversary reissue, which could perhaps explain its general regard in punk history as a near-classic that failed to inspire the masses the way that Never Mind the Bollocks or The Clash did. Rather, the sum of its parts and the blood on its hands made this a punk’s punk record, an unmolested expression of all things worth fighting for: love, power, brutality, and the contrary right to destroy all of it.
Top five reasons (amongst many others) why Ghostface Killah’s Supreme Clientele is among the best hip-hop albums of our current decade:
1. Ghost rhymes “big microphone hippie” with “Poughkeepsie,” probably the first person in the world to ever couple these words. Never mind that they wouldn’t rhyme had anybody else said them. Never mind that he outshines almost every other MC on the planet with this couplet. However, you may want to take into account that this all comes within 15 seconds of his first verse on the record. Kinda makes “It’s gettin’ hot in here/ So take off all your clothes” seem like it was written by a five-year-old, doesn’t it?
2. The man knows how to pick beats. A perfect example of his now-trademark cherry-picking: jacking Inspectah Deck’s self-produced beat for “Elevation” for his own “Stay True,” immortalized by the original tracklisting where it’s called (what else?) “Deck’s Beat.” Even since Supreme Clientele, Ghost has continued to display the ability to sift through filler and pick out only the hottest shit, whether it’s stealing a simple loop or calling in a proper collection of should-be higher-profile producers, like Juju of the Beatnuts for “One.” The majority of Wu solo albums were unable to accomplish this same feat after 1997, although they certainly tried (see Raekwon’s Immobilarity and GZA’s Beneath the Surface).
3. “Who Would You Fuck” is the best hip-hop skit ever made, bar none. And it only gets funnier with age. Every guy has conversations with buddies about famous women they would sleep with. But this team is the first to put it on an album, which makes it all the better for treading the line between stupidity and brilliance. It sounds like the crew just decided to press record when they were up late smoking blunts and drinking beers, talking about things guys talk about. Naomi or Tyra Banks? Nia or Halle Berry? Ahh, the wonders of hypothetical sex.
4. Raekwon talks all kinds of shit about a pre-fame 50 Cent on the “Clyde Smith” skit. In hindsight, his recognition of 50’s controversial “How To Rob” street hype seems to be a prophetic way of decrying media stunts in the current hip-hop mainstream. Perhaps to avoid too much drama, Rae’s voice is rendered unrecognizable, but heads have come to realize that it was indeed he who says, “I don’t even know why he tried to do that dumb-ass shit right there.” Still, the whole situation provides a subdued counterpoint to the overblown Game/Fiddy G-Unot nonsense that has inexplicably dominated message boards for the past few years.
5. Endless slang invention. For kids in the suburbs, Supreme Clientele is like hieroglyphics; it takes years of training to figure out how to translate it. It would be easy to equate his rhymes on this album to the works of a poet, but Ghost is no Wordsworth or Frost. He speaks in a highly encoded language, coming across as completely alien on first listen, but if you pick apart his verses, they make profound sense in small portions, as if he were spitting clear stream-of-consciousness thoughts straight from his brain. Slowly but surely, the listener is able to put his stories together, figuring out something new every time they listen. This isn’t just poetry; these are street puzzles, God. For real.
1977: Fleetwood Mac - Rumours
The oxymoronic matrimony of harmony and heartbreak proved to be an especially stimulating and fertile musical cocktail for Fleetwood Mac during the recording of their aptly titled album, Rumours – the most popular and critically acclaimed work in the canon of the ever-evolving band.
In 1974, founders Mick Fleetwood (drummer) and John McVie (bassist), as well as McVie’s wife, Christine McVie (singer/keyboardist), were joined by Lindsey Buckingham (singer/guitarist) and his girlfriend, Stevie Nicks (singer/pianist). Together, they formed the most gifted ensemble of songwriters and musicians in the band’s history. Having already recorded one successful album in 1975, the self-titled Fleetwood Mac, the band was reaching an artistic zenith, as the recently minted lineup self-actualized into a musical entity.
Each musician's disparate strengths and influences -- from Fleetwood and McVies’ funk-inspired grooves to Nicks’ esoteric melodies and rhythms to Buckingham’s affinity for riff-driven ‘50s styled rock -- coalesced flawlessly to create the engaging mood and exciting songcraft. This hallmark sound is best displayed on “The Chain,” the sole track written by all five members. The fractured song unites, despondent and ebullient, with striking results, as a richly ornamental Buckingham guitar riff enlivens an ominously pulsating McVie bassline while august harmonies juxtapose bleak lovelorn lyrics: “If/ You don't love me now/ You will never love me again.” Although “The Chain” produced the album’s signature mantra, the buoyant “Never break the chain,” turmoil in the band’s numerous amorous relationships led to painful breakups, which were never rekindled during the recording of the album.
As the band was reaching musical concord, each member was experiencing emotional discord. Their incestuous relationships left them writing about and recording with bandmates they once, but no longer, loved romantically. The most musically interesting of these separations was between Buckingham and Nicks. Both songwriters treated Rumours as a cathartic canvas for their broken hearts to decant out onto. As Buckingham sardonically cries, “I ain't gonna miss you when you go,” on his anxious opener, “Second Hand News,” there is Nicks harmonizing with her jilted lover. Buckingham returns the favor, as Nicks more sanguinely sings, “I don't want to stand between you and love/ Honey” to him on her bucolic “I Don’t Want To Know,” creating a fascinating dynamic that resonates throughout the album.
Christine represents the dissolution of her marriage to John with her trademark joyous, sunny pop. Excising any feelings of bitterness and remorse from her palette, she instead composes with invigorating optimism about the future (“Don’t Stop”), showcasing a resolute fondness for romance as she repeatedly professes: “I love you” (“Songbird”). Fleetwood was not freed from heartbreak himself, as his wife had an affair with his best friend. Although Fleetwood and John were not able to express themselves lyrically, Fleetwood’s passionate drumming on “Go Your Own Way” and “Don’t Stop,” along with John’s bluesy basslines on “You Make Loving Fun” are at their finest.
Although recorded over 30 years ago on a foundation of sorrow, Rumours doesn't sound dated or stand as a testimonial to acrimony and gall. Instead, by portraying the timeless themes of compassion, absolution, and perseverance with pleasing, accessible aesthetics, it remains an enduring touchstone of pop music.
1993: Seefeel - Quique
When Seefeel started to gain notoriety among college radio DJs and skinny, pale kids after their debut release Quique, traditional rock critics around the globe sighed a collective, worried “Fuck.” Their worry had nothing to do with the music itself, but instead regarded the inevitable onslaught of lesser talents that would soon flood the already low-barrier entry shoegaze market. My Bloody Valentine had opened the gates wide, and, as always, when a “new” musical style (particularly one that does not require much presence or sophisticated musical ability) gets popular, hordes of star-eyed followers will soon follow in suit -- it can sometimes destroy a whole genre. Grunge was mauled by angsty, bass-voiced Eddie Vedder wannabes, while the image of house music will forever be tainted by countless Garage Band teenagers hoping to be the next Oakenfold. Shoegaze, as a genre, was neither necessarily revolutionized nor annihilated by the multitude of artists who followed Seefeel’s example of adding electronic drum loops to cumbersome sonic layers -- but Quique still managed to shine through as a special album, indiscreetly drifting between many musical scenes over the past 14 years.
Originally released by Too Pure/Astralwerks in 1993 and re-released as a two disc Redux in 2007, Quique – at 14 years old – still sits comfortably alongside today’s synth heavy artists like Ulrich Schnauss, Strategy, and Stars of the Lid. Accordingly, the main reasons why Quique, or any enduring album for that matter, still survives are the indescribable, intangible elements that critics have a tough time putting into words, and copycat bands have an even tougher time duplicating. The foreign drones somehow ring familiar; the guitar feedback feels warmer than the now-standard glacial Icelandic variety, and the undemanding, beautiful melodies stop short of haunting, but linger in your head long enough to make you question the meaningfulness of the rest of your musical collection.
Throughout the album, Mark Clifford, Daren Seymour, Sarah Peacock, and Justin Fletcher appear to meld together three seemingly disparate musical approaches. First, on their better-known songs (“Climactic Phase No. 3,” ”Imperial,” “Plainsong”), Seefeel harnesses the spirit of Moondawn-era Klaus Schulze by weaving loopy, fantastic textures with heartening rises and falls, leaving off stylistically where Mouse on Mars and Cornelius eventually pickup. Second, the band infuses their local flavor into ”Polyfusion” and ”Industrious,” with gloomy grooves that probably earned them head-nods from their (pre) grimy British contemporaries, Tricky and Portishead. Third, the band further explores the fringes of the aural universe with dim-washed ambiance like on closing tracks ”Filter Dub” and ”Signals.” The perfect instrumentation and minimalist restraint on the final tracks prove that the indefinable qualities that make this album age so well are actually the result of thousands of knob adjustments on the synths and millimeters of difference in microphone placement. They just made it seems so easy.
Though the members of Seefeel made a few more records and eventually split to pursue separate music careers, Quique remains their ghostly masterpiece. And although we often laugh today at the majority of the early ‘90s musical output, Quique stands proudly alongside Loveless and Dummy as the relevant diamonds in that period’s musical rough.
Superchunk are the Saint Maria Goretti of indie rock -- so pure and chaste, releasing every record since 1993 though their own label, Merge -- though their super-frenzied punk-pop could have easily made a serious splash in the major leagues. Twin guitars buzz and rumble over bracing, joyous melodies, and Mac McCaughan’s tattered yelping somehow sounds both embittered and encouraging all at once. “Life-affirming,” I guess you’d call it.
No Pocky for Kitty, Superchunk’s first full-length on Merge and last with original drummer Chuck Garrison, was recorded in Chicago by Steve Albini, on a three-night hiatus from the band’s first nationwide tour. In the liner notes, McCaughan recalls how the engineer shared Chunk’s “insane work ethic” and how he scored the lowest rates at the Chicago Recording Company by booking the 6 PM-6 AM shift. “It’s hard to believe now, but at the time it didn’t seem at all crazy to be going about things that way,” admits guitarist Jim Wilbur, who, in the spring of ‘91, was still recuperating from a semi-serious bronchial infection.
Albini receives no sleeve credit (as per usual), but Pocky is one of his best works; the signature “Albini sound” -- unbuffed mistakes and harsh, massive guitars -- click with the songwriting instead of working against it, like on The Wedding Present’s Seamonsters or PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me. These songs are huge. “The Chapel Hill, N.C. quartet writes about mundane, everyday occurrences -- a slack co-worker, a teetering relationship -- and shouts about them from the rooftops,” praised the Chicago Tribune.
Indeed. “Skip Steps One & Three” is about a reckless driver. Or a pot smoker. “Seed Toss” is about a bitchy girlfriend. “That’s the fun of it,” said McCaughan. “The challenge is to take a small thing and make it into something worth talking about, even though it probably wasn’t to begin with.”
Rock, even punk rock, doesn’t sound like this anymore -- raw, vital, unstoppable. Listen to No Pocky for Kitty, then anything by Against Me!. Sounds like music from a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
There are some progressive thinkers out there who believe hell is not a place of brimstone and churning magma vats, but rather a place you might go to live out your worst worldly fears for all of perpetuity. For many, sitting in solitary confinement, listening to the shriek of demons for all-time at top decibel while traversing their infertile mental landscape, constantly haunted by the internal demons that inhabit the deep, dark reaches of their own spiraling negative infinity for eternity might be kind of a drag. These people are most likely not Burning Witch fans.
For the uninitiated, Burning Witch is Greg Anderson and Steven O’Malley’s band before anyone ever heard of those names. Greg Anderson's Southern Lord imprint, along with its most vital act, O’Malley’s Sunn O))), has become synonymous with the new breed of creeping gaseous heavy drone that has oozed its way into the metal market in these opening days of Aquarius. You won’t hear Anderson's playing on this collection though, as he left the band to form Goatsnake before the Witch ever entered the studio. The original Crippled Lucifer, also released on Southern Lord, was a compilation of their first two EPs, Rift Canyon Dreams (Merciless Records) and Towers (Slap-A-Ham). Towers was actually a reissue of their demo, recorded in ‘96 by Steve Albini. Their follow-up to the Albini sessions became Rift Canyon Dreams. Sadly, this would be the band's last release. In ‘98, the original Crippled Lucifer was compiled, including the two EPs (sans the track “Communion,” which was inexplicably omitted).
This latest manifestation I review today was supposed to be released earlier in 2007, and went so far as hitting store shelves when a manufacturer’s defect was discovered and a mass recall was ordered. Now, the glitches have been corrected and 10 years after the original Crippled Lucifer release, Southern Lord gives it the deluxe treatment. Finally, all of Burning Witch’s material is beautifully collected on two CDs with a magnificently printed sepia-toned, 40-page booklet complete with handwritten lyrics, photographs, and thermodynamic diagrams to boot. (Seriously, does anyone do a more knock-out job of packaging than Southern Lord?)
Fans of the new breed of drone metal will hear the seedlings of their favorite bands like Sunn O))) and Khanate being planted. However, the subtlety and tectonic slowness of Sunn O))) compress the more aggressive use of drones by Burning Witch to vapor. The tracks from the Rift Canyon Dreams are less insistent and more of a celebration of natural landscapes. There, one can see a closer approximation to the aforementioned bands’ style of creeping death. The older tracks are more in line with the hardline, Sabbath-worshipping stoners, Eyehategod and Cavity. Singer, Edgy 59’s vocals are probably the biggest difference between the new mostly vocal-less acts. An often face-painted King Diamond look-a-like, Edgy 59’s range runs from death-rock Christian Death pandering to Geddy Lee style vocal theatrics -- when he’s not shrieking like a bat out of hell. O’Malley’s guitar is as crushing as anything he’s ever done, each drone hanging out in negative space; a new drone is not created until the previous one evaporates into the atmosphere, as the drums slowly plod along in a merciless war cry.
For fans of this style, no excuse should be made for not picking this collection up. Even if you’ve collected all of the Witch’s material in their previous incarnations, this package here is a beautiful and concise oeuvre that is, as stated on the Southern Lord website, finally awarded its “appropriate sheath.” You, the listener, will also be rewarded, with near two hours of demonic doom that should, if you’re lucky, remove all light and joy from your petty little existence.
For a few years, I held down a DJ slot on a free form radio station. While it mostly provided me with an advanced education in music, from time to time I would lure guests into the studio for offbeat interviews. One such guest was the porn juggernaut Ron Jeremy, who was in town making an appearance in the local branch of sex toy chain shop. During the anticipation leading up to the interview, I found myself wondering what I would talk to him about. Admittedly, I am not a connoisseur of his movies. I tried to research him online to prepare, but the only thought that kept going through my head was I wondered what Ron Jeremy smelled like. I started asking friends what they thought his aroma would be, and hypothesis such as baby powder, lube, and Hi Karate aftershave came my way.
That experience provided me with the only time in my life that I ever wondered what a person smelled like until I sat down with this album from Egyptian Lover. Why would listening to his seductive electro beats and staring at his come hither portrait on the album cover trigger the olfactory nerve endings of my mind? With that thought, I closed my eyes and let the beats transport me to the smokey and low-lit backstage area at an Egyptian Lover gig in 1984 where I was greeted by a thick waft of frankincense and myrrh. Pushing my way through an entanglement of scantily clad exotic beauties, I turn a corner to witness The Egyptian Lover himself sitting upon a futuristic throne of solid gold, aviator glasses on, erotically draped with luscious babes in a carnal trance while being fanned by palm frond enhanced women who resembled Princess Leah in Jabba bondage gear. He waves his hand for me to take a seat at his feet without saying a word while the women scatter out of the way. He then says to me in a hushed voice, "Shuggypop, my aroma is a blend of juniper berries, cyprus, and lotus flower oil."
At the recent Tiny Mix Tapes holiday office party, house DJ Monte Rock III threw this album on, and next thing you know, a Svengali-like mind control gripped a room full of usually mild mannered music reviewers who began bump and grinding in a manner reminiscent of MC Hammer's "Pumps and a Bump" video. At the 4:37 mark in "Egypt, Egypt," a sheepish young intern in guy-liner had gotten such a jolt of confidence from the robotic grooves that before anybody knew what was happening, he was on the phone challenging Kimbo Slice to a backyard brawl. This is what this album can do to you.
Egyptian Lover is one of the pioneers of Southern California's electro/hip-hop scene. When this album came out in 1984, LA was considered too soft compared to the gritty New York hip-hop world that is now celebrated in lavish coffee table books. This was before the media crazed East Coast vs. West Coast posturing was used as a marketing tool, and before Eazy E came straight outta Compton with a bravado on roids known as gangsta that put LA on the rap map. While celebrated MC's in New York were producing poetry from the streets, Egyptian Lover seemed more concerned with freakish primal matters, that would make Penthouse Forum blush, delivered over tasty beats to pop and lock to. And I for one am thankful for it.
On the Nile takes the robotic trance of Kraftwerk and mixes in the flavor of the urban American streets. If Breakin' 2 Electric Boogaloo had more cred, it would have featured Egyptian Lover cuts on their soundtrack. Some of these b-boy beats stretch out upwards of nine minutes, and one song tends to blend into the next with only the minimal vocal tag lines distinguishing the difference to those not paying close enough attention. Most of his kinky in a Prince sort of way vocals are nothing more than a repetition of a lustful desire that are barked by a stud's voice with what appears to be a posse of robots as backup singers. If you are into lyrical prose, Egyptian Lover isn't for you. If you want a feel good boost, then I suggest booking a one-way ticket to Egypt to get your love freak on.
Notorious Lightning and Other Works is an EP that features more guitar-oriented recordings of six songs from Destroyer's 2004 release, Your Blues. The recordings are a welcome change for fans who were put off by the synthetic textures of that record, but are dynamic and interesting enough to make this EP worth owning even for listeners who already own and enjoy the originals. Backed by tourmates Frog Eyes, Destroyer's Dan Bejar retains all of the theatricality and obtuse wordplay he's known for, and adds more viscera and emotion to the songs through the addition of Carey Mercer's sinewy, distorted guitarwork and howled vocals. The atmospherics of the original recordings that kept the songs at a distance has been shed, and the new arrangements bristle with immediacy.
Mercer's singing complements Bejar's well, lending a world-weary and ragged tone to the title track's extended coda. The rest of Frog Eyes, billed here as Destroyer Players, also work well with Bejar, particularly the keyboard work of Grayson Walker as heard in the outro of “New Ways of Living.” The contributions of the members of Frog Eyes are what make this record so enjoyable; it feels like a genuine collaboration rather than Bejar telling a group of studio musicians how to play his songs, and because the other musicians bring something new to the table, the recordings have virtues of their own that can be appreciated even outside of the context of their original versions on Your Blues.
The manic intensity of the first four songs slows down and shifts to a more mournful, resigned tone for “Don't Become the Thing You Hated,” which of the songs featured is probably most similar to its Your Blues counterpart. Likewise, things remain subdued for the final track: a stately, elegant version of “Your Blues.”
True to his moniker, it's fitting that with this release Bejar destroyed the notion of the definitive recording in pop music. In the past, the remixing and rerecording of songs had only yielded stale, lifeless results that were never enjoyable in their own right. In contrast, the songs found on Notorious Lightning and Other Works equal if not surpass the originals. Despite that, at just under half an hour, this EP still might be a bit too slight to work as an introduction to Destroyer for new listeners, but for the initiated, Notorious Lightning and Other Works is well worth investigating.
I must have been nine or ten the first time I went to a roller skating rink. These adolescent hang-outs were the best things since sleep, and they were also one of the first signs of freedom I experienced. Video games, BMX bikes, giggling girls, and overnight lock-ins were also at the helm of entertainment for my friends and me. And just like now, music was everything. Artists like Prince, J. Geils Band, and Blondie were all over the radio. Each had qualities that were pop-focused, yet their sounds were very foreign to my young ears.
Ariel Pink’s Pedestrian Pop Hits is similar in many respects. The album has a peculiar way of drawing the same types of images in my head as the aforementioned bands did back in those days. However, while Ariel Pink’s music has some of the same nostalgic qualities I admire, he has also found a way to remain incredibly new and original. Amongst the jumble that is Pedestrian Pop Hits, there is something very carefree and reassuring happening. I must admit that I haven’t always felt this in his other releases. Additionally, this mini-album only consists of one 16-minute song, which leaves me hungering for more upon each listen. Perhaps it’s merely the law of diminishing returns presented at its finest.
“Pedestrian Pop Hits” fades in slowly with muddled keyboard noises, jangled guitar improvisations, and effect-laden vocals, which all interplay nicely with one another. Eventually, a flanged bass surfaces to give the song a more focused direction. It remains this way for virtually the entire track, and with only minimal changes taking place, you begin to fall into a trance-like state. Eventually the individual elements of the song drift away and you are left with one cohesive experience. Even near the end of the track, where the psychedelic influences come out a bit stronger, there is still a level of control that keeps things intact.
Quite honestly this is one of the better recordings I have heard in a couple years. It reminds me that as I get older I am drawn to things that have nostalgic qualities, but that I also have a need for progressive explorations. Since I am only able to draw faded images in my head of what those times in the roller skating rinks were actually like, I have to rely on people like Ariel Pink to show me how things used to look and sound. Not many artists can blur the line between pop and avant-garde with the same magical results. It takes a fine craftsmanship to be able to pull this off.
It sounds like a can’t-miss proposition: Paul Simon, with only an acoustic guitar as accompaniment, playing some of his best-known songs. This approach, as with some Unplugged entries and the recent Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 1, often reacquaints the listener with a song, but it doesn’t completely work here.
This set is somewhat awkward, assumedly because Paul Simon was in an awkward place in 1965. His first record with Art Garfunkel, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., failed to sell, so he moved to England for a new audience. Simon played the London coffeehouse circuit and became a minor sensation, so his label CBS (now Columbia) Records sent him into the studio for a solo release as a quick profit.
Though “The Sound of Silence” was the only signature Simon & Garfunkel song to appear on their debut record, Simon had already written a handful of tracks that would become the duo’s greatest hits. Some of those appear here -- “The Sound of Silence,” “I Am a Rock,” “April Come She Will,” “Leaves That Are Green” -- and maybe it’s because they’re comfortingly familiar, but those are the songs on Songbook that work best. It’s alarming to hear these songs without Garfunkel, and it’s alternately rewarding and disheartening to hear Simon take center stage on songs built for two.
“I Am a Rock” benefits most from the solo treatment. The song features Simon banging away on his guitar, which makes the lyrics (“Don’t talk of love/ I’ve heard the word before”) sound angrier than on the version we all know. The Songbook rendition of “The Sound Of Silence” is also a revelation; although Wednesday Morning featured an acoustic version, hearing Simon sing it solo lends the song appropriate intimacy. “Kathy’s Song,” one of Simon’s best works, is the record’s centerpiece, and this arrangement – even more so than the better-known live solo version – makes the song harshly personal. Last line “there but for the grace of you go I” just doesn’t sound right followed by applause.
While some songs benefit from being stripped down, others suffer. “A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Robert McNamara’d Into Submission)” is even more embarrassing here than on the following year’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. Simon’s Dylan impression is uncanny, but the talking-blues parody, timely in 1965, now sounds tired. It’s hard to imagine Simon thinking much of this song today.
Though it doesn’t reflect Paul Simon’s deservedly sterling reputation, The Paul Simon Songbook offers a fascinating glimpse at the singer-songwriter in a moment of artistic uncertainty. For Simon, this was a rare place to be.