Thursday, August 30, 2007

On Graceland by Paul Simon

This was one of the last album reviews I wrote for Rock Is Dead - Long Live Rock. It's far from perfect (I hadn't yet been taught about the evils of clichés), but I like the way my enthusiasm for the album shines through in the writing and there's a couple of amusing one-liners. What's especially nice is that I feel the same way about this record now as I did when I wrote this.

Graceland by Paul Simon (1986)
Rating: 10
Best Song: Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes

Paul Simon has written some crappy, sappy songs over the course of his musical career. None of those songs are on Graceland.

Graceland was Simon’s dip into the relatively uncharted waters and it’s quite amazing how naturally he blends his pop songwriting with the chunky South African grooves. Much of the record was recorded in South Africa with native musicians and there’s no denying the impact their playing has on the record. Bassist Baghitti Khumalo’s playing would make John Entwistle blush and the rest of the band tightens around his bubbly lines. Despite the funkiness, the grooves are full of breathing room.

And this is where Simon’s songwriting takes over. Lyrically and melodically, Simon is at the high point of his career. The lyrics shun Live Journal-ish emo rants in favour of poetic imagery and catchy hook-lines. This is particularly evident on the title track, which is full of lovely lines such as “The Mississipi Delta was shining/Like a National guitar/I am following the river/Down the highway/Throught the cradle of the civil war.” What makes the track particularly special is the way Simon intertwines American history with South African imagery, something he continues to do throughout the album.

“Boy In The Bubble” opens the record with a tremendous fusion of cajun and South African musical styles, kicking the album off with a deep, powerful accordion lick. “I Know What I Know” has a great chorus which features General M.D. Shirinda and The Gaza Sisters singing bird-like backing vocals. On the surface, “You Can Call Me Al” is a simple, catchy hit single but there are layers upon layers of complex musicality underneath: Two basslines running side by side, a forward-thinking rhythm, chunky guitars and a wonderfully hooky horn line.

The Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a South African vocal choir, add incredible richness and depth to the accapella “Homeless,” and the way their harmonies blend with Simon’s emotionally detached vocal style makes for a stunning contrast. The LBA are also featured on the intro of “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes”, a personal favourite that has one of the most unpredictable melodies on the album.

There have been several runs at blending “world” and pop music before and after Simon’s first foray. None, however, are as ear-pleasing and appealing as Graceland.


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