Sunday, August 16, 2009

"Hearts and Bones," by Paul Simon

Paul Simon is a marvel. He has written and performed legendary song after legendary song over the past 40-plus years, while putting out startlingly few actual solo albums in the process: only ten original albums in that timeframe, including two soundtrack albums. That’s approximately one album every four years…way too few for such an iconic and consistently significant musician. Paul Simon’s albums continue to be compelling and progressive, moving forward without getting lost in embarrassing fads and experimentalization.

From these precious few albums, many Simon songs have worked their way into the pantheon of rock and roll classics. First, there’s the unequalled output from his partnership with Art Garfunkel, and beyond that, there’s his remarkable run of hits from the 1970’s, including, “Mother And Child Reunion,” “Loves Me Like A Rock,” “Still Crazy After All These Years,” and the tongue-in-cheek break-up song, “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover.” And for those who were paying attention, there was Simon’s thrilling mid-80’s “comeback,” Graceland, which featured the top 40 hit, “You Can Call Me Al,” ubiquitous in the spring and summer of 1987, due in part, no doubt, to the silly Chevy Chase cameo in the video, followed by the amazing and almost as big, “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes.” Sadly, though, few remember one of Simon’s very best albums, 1983’s riveting and poignant, Hearts and Bones. It’s overlooked partly, because it came after his 1970’s solo heyday and before his aforementioned mid-80’s world music resurgence. It was also ignored because it came out the year Thriller ruled the world and forever changed the tide of pop music, closing the coffin on too many 1970’s pop icons.

The overarching theme of Hearts and Bones is all love, all the time, and in the Simon tradition, the album approaches the topic from a melancholy perspective. For example, Simon’s heart is literally allergic to the women he loves in “Allergies,” the lead track and the only near top-40 hit from the album. Next, Simon mournfully ponders the past and future of love with his soon-to-be ex-wife, Carrie Fisher, in the heartsick title track, and later in the album, he thinks way too much about shaping perfect love in the companion songs, “Think Too Much (a) and (b),” where he sings, “But maybe I think too much, and I ought to just hold her, stop trying to mold her…” The former was released as a single in early 1984 and failed miserably in the wake of heinous radio hits from that year, like “Flashdance” (What A Feeling!), “Ghostbusters,” and “Islands In The Stream.”

In other places, Hearts and Bones looks into its crystal ball to forecast living and loving in the new millennium, like on “When Numbers Get Serious,” where Simon foretells the pending internet age of quick results, online dating, and web-based, virtual relationships with extraordinary accuracy. “Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War” is a beautiful tribute to both the abstract artist, Rene' Magritte, and Simon’s beloved vocal groups of the doo-wop era: The Penguins, The Moonglows, etc. My favorite song on this classic Simon album, however, is the haunting, “The Late-Great Johnny Ace,” which discusses the (then) recent and horrific death of John Lennon, juxtaposing the tragedy with the death of early rocker, Johnny Ace, by self-inflicted gun shot to the head. Simon introduced the song at the Central Park concert in 1981 and was nearly assaulted on stage near the end of the song, apparently by an angered/crazed Lennon fan, who was quickly pulled away from Simon just inches before the attack: a strange response to a song, where Simon’s genuine love for Lennon is palpably displayed. No good deed goes unpunished, as they say...

Originally, Paul Simon had other intentions for this magnificent album about love and loss. It was initially meant to repair an old friendship, reportedly to be the long-awaited Simon and Garfunkel reunion album (which is never going to actually happen, by the way; it's not, so stop hoping for it already...) to follow their highly acclaimed reunion concerts two years before. Early on, the album was also going to be titled, “Think To Much,” but after thinking too much, old conflicts resurfaced between the duo, and they parted ways once again. Simon erased Garfunkel’s vocals, turned further inward, and made a stunningly personal album which autopsied friendships, current events, the future, and love affairs that ultimately come to regretful ends, finally and fittingly naming this one Hearts and Bones.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

"Baja Sessions," by Chris Isaak

Best known for his 1991 hit, “Wicked Game,” used in the creepy David Lynch film, “Wild At Heart,” Chris Isaak makes living through sad and tormented personal relationships sexy and hip. Don’t believe me? Check out his second best-known sort-of hit, “Baby Did A Bad, Bad Thing,” used in the trailer of another creepy film, Stanley Kubrick’s, “Eyes Wide Shut.” See what I mean? In Isaak’s Elvis Presley-fueled, early-rock world, heartbreak is a strangely familiar presence…and it’s also just kind of strange: always lurking in grim shadows down dark, murky motel hallways. Isaak’s mournful croon echoes Orbison perfectly, as his grumble is as simpatico as his falsetto.

But as cool as he is, picking any one Chris Isaak album to highlight for a “Must Hear” blog is a difficult and somewhat arbitrary task. I mean, while universally hailed by critics, Isaak’s albums are sometimes described as being interchangeable, with no one album standing out as a “new direction” or finding Isaak taking a on different approach or style. And that’s what I love about this rockabilly acolyte. With Isaak, there will likely never be an experimental period; there will never be a “Justin record;” there will only be straight-ahead, but suffering and romanticized rock-and-roll music. Even Isaak’s 2004 holiday offering,
Christmas, doesn’t veer from this well-honed approach.

But it’s the ongoing artist – audience dilemma, isn’t it? The artist wants to grow and evolve, not getting mucked into routine or repeating themselves, and the audience wants to hear what they like, what’s familiar. And either perspective is completely defensible. Case in point for the artist’s side: Radiohead constantly evolves and reinvents its sound, pushing into new and uncharted sonic territory with each new release: and they do so exquisitely. Case in point for the fan’s side: Sade puts out essentially the same album every four to five years, adding a few sonic embellishments du jour, and the fans scramble back for more. Some artists adapt well with change (i.e., Paul Simon, Green Day, and Madonna, who has famously predicted the “next big thing” with startling accuracy), but some attempts to adapt with the changing musical tides quickly fall apart (e.g., 
Carpenters, Chicago, and the once great Stevie Wonder, who spiraled into synthesizer hell with early-80’s drivel like “Part-Time Lover” and “I Just Called To Say I Love You”).

But if Chris Isaak has one album that stands out among the excellent bunch, it’s his fresh and uncluttered
Baja Sessions. Inspired by time in the beautiful, breezy, Baja, Mexico, the album highlights Isaak’s lighter musical side. What stands out about Baja Sessions is the laid-back approach that permeates this alluring effort. It’s as if he and the band are lounging in their beach chairs and hammocks, bare feet dangling over the side, playing their favorite bummed-out love songs, and somebody accidently pressed “record” on the reel-to-reel. In fact, Baja Sessions is one of the most relaxed albums I’ve ever heard, covering songs from his beloved pre-rock era and some of Isaac’s own songs, perfectly co-opted from previous albums.

The album’s opener, “Pretty Girls Don’t Cry,” is a whispered Orbison sound-alike, and sets the breezy pre-rock pace of the album. Two outstanding covers follow shortly after, Roy Orbison’s classic, “
Only The Lonely,” and Gene Autry’s 1939 hit, “South Of The Border (Down Mexico Way),” which sounds like it was written with Isaak in mind. Baja Sessions also returns to stunning originals from Isaak’s previous albums, most notably, “Wrong To Love You,” from Heart Shaped World, and the lovely, “Two Hearts,” from San Francisco Days. The Baja versions are stripped down and chilled, and the fresh take on these familiar tunes offers a significantly original vision without watering down the songs’ vitality. Hearing Isaak cover his own material reminds me why he is such a resilient artist: he doesn’t rely on hits to deliver his work; he never has. Isaak focuses solely on creating enduring, classic pre-rock and roll that transcends trends and top 40 radio.