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Thursday, June 16, 2016

Stranger to Stranger

I've written before about how musicians from the golden age or rock often outstay their welcome, and end up playing Las Vegas and other places for aging boomers. Some, though, are still at the top of their game. Paul Simon has just released his thirteenth solo album, Stranger to Stranger, and he shows no sign of slowing down.

Of course, Simon was never a rock star, per se. Though he has written some rock tunes, I would classify him more as being a part of the American songbook, and could be dropped in any era and be a success. I've written about that at length here. As for this new album, I think it's the strongest he's done since Graceland, his revelatory album from 1985.

As he has over the thirty plus years since Graceland, Simon again uses musical styles from all over the world. His liner notes are goldmines of information about where the songs came from and who participated. The very first note on the very first track, "The Werewolf," is a note from an Indian instrument called the gopichand. It sound like a wolf howling, which leads into a terrific, witty song about how the werewolf--death? is coming for us all:

"You better stock up on water
Canned-goods off the shelves
And loot some for the old folks
Can't loot for themselves
The doorbell's ringing
Could be the elves
But it's probably the werewolf
It's quarter to twelve"

Simon was inspired by Harry Partch's microtonal instrumentals. Partch used a scale of 43 notes, not twelve, and created some exotic instruments to play them. There is also the flavor of Flamenco, as Simon used some musicians of that style in "The Werewolf," "The Riverbank," "Stranger to Stranger," and "Wristband," which is my second favorite song on the album. Starting with an amusing anecdote about locking himself out of a theater and not being allowed back in by the guard, who tells him "You gotta have a wristband, my man, or you don't get through the door," Simon takes that and uses it as a metaphor for inequality:

"The riots started slowly
With the homeless and the lowly
Then they spread into the heartland
Towns that never got a wristband
Kids that can't afford the cool brand
Whose anger is a shorthand
For you'll never get a wristband"

Another song I like is "Street Angel," which has a very strange vocal sound underneath the main instrumentation. Simon reveals it's a gospel track slowed down and played backwards. Who thinks of these things? It sounds ghostly, yet friendly. Another is "In a Parade," about one of those street angels in an E.R.:

"Diagnosis: Schizophrenic
Prognosis: Guarded
Medication: Seroquel
Occupation: Street Angel"

Simon ends the album with two lovely songs, "Cool Papa Bell," name-checking the great Negro League baseball player, and "Insomniac's Lullaby," the song contains the first guitar lick that started the album and uses those Partch instruments, now housed at Montclair State University: zoomoozophone, cloud-chamber bowls, bowed marimba, harmonic canon, and chromelodeon.

Simon, at 74, is still innovating. I'm sure in concert he still plays the old stuff, but he isn't resting on his laurels. Long may he create.

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