Hey, these look a lot like those remasters we got seven years ago. Oh well, you'll need at least one of them.
False hope, some may say - these reissues add absolutely nothing to the remasters from ye olde days of hither and yonder. (2004.) Well, that’s not entirely true: what is added to this package is the CD issue of Simon’s first live LP, previously unavailable. Even though that record is by no means an essential document, even for Simon fans like yours truly, making it available is appreciated. Of course, it should have been made available seven years ago with the others (to avoid a lot of wasted plastic, if nothing else)...but alas, marketing does need to cut corners these days.
The gulf between Paul Simon and Simon & Garfunkel has been accentuated through the longevity of Simon’s own career, but even his first solo albums embraced the fresh openness of the carefree melodies, lyrical playfulness, and his softly-edged voice that still make an old folkie stick out. Truth is, even though Art Garfunkel’s canticle-d voice was a beautiful instrument (and might’ve alleviated some lethargy if he’d sung harmony on Still Crazy After All These Years), his absence allowed for Simon’s arrangements to become more fluid and less arcane. Though only one of the four really shows you Simon’s knack for songwriting, re-investigating these albums is a useful experience. It lets one hear the spirit of American pop music moving, through the early to mid-'70s, from vigor to mere comfort.
The narrative of the records might actually look less bleak if one investigates them in reverse chronological order, but alas, you’ve gotta start with the best. Paul Simon (1972) is still the most just-about-perfect album the man’s ever made. Aside from a ghastly keyboard on “Papa Hobo”, there’s barely a false note, and few solo debuts of any era sound this crisp and level-headed. It’s an easy record to play the full way through (over and over again, perhaps), and its charms keep on giving. Seemingly tossed-off ditties like “Everything Put Together Falls Apart” or the fiddle instrumental “Hobo’s Blues” reveal a melodic ease that transmutes their nonchalance into the kind of flair and whimsy that perhaps only a true New Yorker could pull off so casually.
The musicianship is first-rate, casually organic and genial while not above studio roughness: phenomenal drumming (by Winston Grennan) on “Mother and Child Reunion”, with hi-hat bursting unpredictably between the melody; the clean electric guitar over antagonistic ‘na-na-na’s in “Armistice Day”; touches of horn and vibraphone; Simon’s own acoustic figures on “Peace Like a River” or “Papa Hobo”, which show off his knack for tricking your ear into settling for easy cadences that he often bypasses altogether. There are so many things for your ear to grab onto that the record never slips into monotony or self-aware sympathy-baiting, even when you think it might.
Yet despite the fun -- and the album is fun -- there’s a distinct sense of reflection and the carelessly relentless passage of time on Paul Simon. The lyrics are either conflicted or else pass off their particulars to the instrumental tones. Listen to the way the flute in “Duncan” follows the mention of "New England...sweet New England". If you think "I was born in the boredom and the chowder" is a little on-the-nose, then "My father was a fisherman/My mama was a fisherman’s friend" should strike a chord, justifying that flute’s presence, to say the least.
Perhaps most especially, consider the time of the album’s release while reflecting on other particulars. Simon waits to see his congressman in “Armistice Day”, but loses patience as guitars buzz and re-focus themselves (“...he’s avoidin’ me”); a doctor tells him ‘you’d better look around’ in “Run That Body Down”, and Simon follows those words with four chords, fleeting and simple, that seem to betray a feeling of something much sadder than lingering mortality. It’s this sort of acclimatizing that makes Paul Simon stand out. It’s a near-flawless document of tuneful fragility and the accustomed inventiveness of great - nay, classic - American songwriting. Also recommended for newborn babies (no joke).
There Goes Rhymin’ Simon (1973) was a clear and conscious throwback to the playful vibe of Simon’s high school days, with its yearbook album cover and lead single “Kodachrome” -- groomed more for heavy radio play than anything on the debut. “Kodachrome” is the most memorable song on the record, relying more on the presence of an insistent riff than listeners might have been expecting at the time. But while a throwback to younger days bodes well with a songwriter as on-his-game as Simon seemed to be, Rhymin’ Simon also recalls the comfort of familiar tunes. Thanks partly to Simon’s voice sounding more softly-edged, many of the tracks are just that: familiar.
The record has its share of good songs, of course. The wavy “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” culminates in a lively New Orleans orchestration. “American Tune” and “Was a Sunny Day” have lovely melodies even if they’re a bit familiar. Both “Learn How to Fall” and “St. Judy’s Comet” (dig the guitar tone) have a charming warmth. (Weirdly, the album’s second half is much more listenable than its first.) But alas, the lyrics can be a bit frustrating. Sometimes it feels like he’s taking a needlessly long time to tell us something that might not be that remarkable in the first place. “American Tune” is a good exception; half the others aren’t.
The problem is that Simon sounds like he’s settled, as though he really did get tired of waiting for that Congressman and decided to just go home and play pinball (or baseball, if you'd prefer). It doesn’t help that the musicianship on Rhymin’ Simon isn’t nearly as astute as it previously was, with instruments used less assertively, as vague coloring instead of punctuation. Admittedly, this isn’t an impeachable offense. The arrangements are generally more placid than those on the debut. But to put this in perspective, “Mother and Child Reunion” has at least twice as much color in it than “Kodachrome” does. That’s both ironic and unfortunate.
Simon recorded Live Rhymin’ (1974) in London during the ensuing tour, and the song selection bodes well right off the bat. But after getting your attention with a strong “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” (he nails "goodbye to Rooooosie..." so unthinkingly), we’re quickly reminded of how necessary Garfunkel’s harmonizing was (in the “Homeward Bound” pre-choruses, the “Bridge Over Troubled Water” finale, and his careful steps in “The Sound of Silence”). None of these versions add anything to their originals...but the truth is, none of the solo takes add anything to their originals, either.
Mind you, it’s quite nice to hear “The Boxer” with an extra verse, and played with what sounds like a ukelele by guest band Urubamba (Simon sings the "cut him down..." part really well, too). And there’s a great back-and-forth where somebody yells out for Simon to say a few words; he says “Let’s hope that we continue to live...” and then ends it there, to slightly-stricken applause. But the back half of Live Rhymin’ is damn-near unlistenable thanks to the inclusion of the Jessy Dixon Singers, brought onstage to bastardize the catharsis of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and to lay down a particularly horrifying version of “The Sound of Silence”. In short, Live Rhymin’ adds little to anyone’s Simon collection. To paraphrase: after changes, they are more or less the same. Except for the bad parts...those are godawful.
Perplexingly, Still Crazy After All These Years (1975) actually won the Grammy for Album of the Year, a fact which becomes slightly less interesting when you realize that neither Fleetwood Mac, Blood on the Tracks or Born to Run was even nominated that year. Regardless, Still Crazy likely won because its vibe communicates something which a lot of people seemed to want in the mid-'70s: easy comfort. Indeed, the album was the most background-y one yet from an artist who usually skirted that line.
This one’s generally more instrumentally colorful than Rhymin’ Simon. He seems to remember how to make strings sound good again, which is nice. And it’s not like there aren’t a few good tunes sprinkled around. “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” has a parade-like marching beat and fun rhyming in the chorus, and the title track and “Gone at Last” are two (quite different) pleasantries. But the progression of the verses and melodies -- if any -- can also seem lackadaisical, even rote in the case of flat-footed bits of nothing like “I Do It for Your Love” and “Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy”.
There are misses elsewhere. “Night Game” could have feasibly been a poignant song on the nature of American baseball, but the mixing on the vocal is distracting and the lyrics are more lame than touching (stars being “white as bone” isn’t that essential of a detail). “My Little Town”, with Garfunkel back and thus the most immediate attraction, passes by without adding anything to the duo’s legacy except the knowledge that neither of them died of a drug overdose in the early '70s. Most distracting is Simon’s singing, which is often annoyingly precious if not cloying. The way he sings "goodbye" in “You’re Kind” makes me twitch.
There’s a part in Still Crazy’s title track which briefly recalls a string surge from “Bridge Over Troubled Water”. It’s a disturbing moment, because you can hear the yearning and wide-eyed hope of that prior song being morphed into something easy and complacent. And make no mistake, Still Crazy is almost depressingly complacent. Not crazy at all.
All four reissues feature bonus tracks, but none except the two Live Rhymin' cuts add anything that wasn’t already accessible on the 2004 remasters. You get a few demos and half-finisheds, with slight melodic differences here and there and, occasionally, differently-worded verses. The demo of “Paranoia Blues” is actually quite pleasant, and the superior acoustic version of the ’77 single “Slip Slidin’ Away” (on the Still Crazy reissue) is worth a listen...but Simon’s studio knack was always one of his great skills, and thus the demos feel generally lukewarm.
So, there is something of a downward trajectory here. If one was listening to these records chronologically for the first time, they’d likely become worn-out and figure that there wasn’t much left for Simon, that he’d run his course. Luckily, we know that this isn’t true, and these early albums settle even more comfortably into his discography in retrospect. You can almost hear him limbering-up for the great work he’d do in another 10 years.
Again, let’s not beat around the bush: this is, generally speaking, a cash-grab. Aside from those who were truly clamoring for a Live Rhymin’ reissue (six or seven is my guesstimate), the casual Simon fan will receive nothing from this avowed re-gifting. But hey, what can you do? The CDs are out there now, and if it means that a few more people might be turned-on to Simon’s solo work...well, good. At least there’s that. Plus some great music.