Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Two great new CDs: Paur Simon, Stranger to Stranger, and Shawn Colvin & Steve Earle, Colvin/Earle

Paul Simon, Stranger to Stranger (2016)
Concord Records

This is not your typical Paul Simon album, not your typical “pop” album.  It doesn’t rely all that much on traditional song forms (verse-refrain, maybe with a “break”), but is more like modernist poetry set to music.  There are exceptions, of course.  “Wristband,” the second track, is a pop-song-sounding thing.  The narrator is a singer/guitar player who manages to get himself locked out behind the venue in which he and his band are performing, and, when he gets to the front, the doorman confronts him with

Wristband, my man
You got to have a wristband
If you don’t have a wristband, my man
You don’t get through the door…

But just when you think it’s a fairly simply little ditty, it suddenly becomes very political:

The riots started slowly
With the homeless and the lowly
Then they spread into the heartland
Towns that never get a wristband…

And you know that the end will not be a pretty fade out.

There are two songs, not back-to-back, that will stick in my mind—“Street Angel” and “In a Parade.”  In “Street Angel,” we meet a homeless man, on the streets,

I make my verse for the universe
I write my rhythms for the universities
And I give it away for the hoot of it…


They took him away in an ambulance
Made a way with the ambulance
He waved goodbye from the ambulance…

He returns, more or less, in “In a Parade:”  But it’s a parade in the ER and one that does not seem to be likely to have a happy ending:

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

The opening track, “Werewolf,” really belongs with these two. 

The werewolf is coming.

The fact is most obits are mixed reviews
Life is a lottery
A lot of people lose…

There are love songs as well—“Stranger to Stranger,” “Proof of Love”—both of which are at best ambiguous about the outcome.  But the song that speaks most clearly to me is the closing track (well, before the “bonus” tracks), “Insomniac’s Lullaby.”

Oh Lord, don’t keep me up all night
Side-by-side with the moon
Alone in the bed
The season ahead
In a winter that lasts until June…

All of the songs are supported by extraordinary rhythm tracks and a huge ensemble of supporting musicians.  At age 70-whatever, Paul Simon has lost nothing, and gained much.

Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle, Colvin/Earle (2016)
Fantasy Records

You might think this is a fairly standard alt-country outing, but it is really a piece of work.  Six original songs (co-written) and four covers (two of which are excellent).  To deal with the covers first, their version of “Ruby Tuesday” is not much like the Stones’ hit, and the song is not, in my opinion, all that good as a song.  Jagger’s singing carried the original, but it’s not much here.  Their cover of John Loudermilk’s (1960) “Tobacco Road” is nicely done, but, once again, the song (about a poor boy in a dying town who vows to get out, get rich, return, and re-make the town) doesn’t really resonate.  On the other hand, their cover of Sylvia Fricker’s “You Were on My Mind” (1964) really makes you forget the hit version (by We Five).  They make the underlying angst clear and almost a physical thing.  Finally, Emmylou Harris’s 1999 piese, “Raise the Dead” is reason enough to buy the CD.  A sample, the second verse:

Sam Cooke met the woman at the well
She told him that his some was something he could never sell
And I think he knew that a change was gonna come
Still he lived to fast and he died too young
Well dyin’ I have survived but
I’ll never get out of your love alive.

The six originals consist of five very country love songs, in which there is almost always as much pain as happiness, and one more song (which will get more attention).  For me, the best of the five love songs is “You’re Still Gone.”  The chorus changes from verse to verse, but appropriately.  And the verses have some real high points, like:

Every time the rain comes in
Every time I hear the wind
I can hear your voice again…

The high point of the album, though, is “Tell Moses,” which you must hear (I can’t find a working link to it, but the whole CD is worth buying in any event).  The song ends

So tell Mary, tell John
Say the hourglass is empty
And the judgment day has come
Say Joshua’s blown his trumpet
And the walls are comin’ down
Tell sister brother too
Tell them where they’re gonna meet us
And what we’re gonna do
Tell Stephen tell Shawn
There’s a message in the music
Everybody sing along…

The singing is not the real strength of the CD, although it’s strong enough.  The strength is in the writing and the playing (especially Earle’s mandolin, but the backing band is extraordinary). 

Both these CDs are keepers, friends.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't heard the Colvin album, but I'll give it a try. I agree about Simon's. Great stuff.