After a minor single as Tom and Jerry ("Hey Schoolgirl") as 16 year olds in 1957, and several Paul Simon solo and band-related (Tico and the Triumphs) failures, Simon & Garfunkel got their partnership properly off the ground with Wednesday Morning, 3AM. Actually, this is a fairly tentative debut, even if it is largely enjoyable, as the duo cover six songs and also record six Simon compositions. None of the cover songs are overly impressive, most being pretty but pretty forgettable overall. They're pleasant and professional enough but lack grit, urgency, and soul, though there's no denying the beauty of their intertwining voices on "Benedictus." Indeed, even at this early stage their vocal chemistry was undeniable, Simon's voice being the plainer of the two (much to his own bitter chagrin), Garfunkel possessing a pure, angelic choirboy voice that was a real thing of beauty. Still, they were Simon's songs and more often than not his is the more prominent voice in the mix, even if it's Art's that you really notice (not that Simon wasn't a fine singer in his own right, because he was). Anyway, up-tempo covers such as "Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream" and "Go Tell It On The Mountain" also showed what an excellent if unflashy guitar player Simon was, and several songs here (their weak cover of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'" not being one of them) show the promise that Simon would soon live up to in crafting a legendary songbook. Johnny Ace, Elvis Presley, and the Everly Brothers (only the latter an obvious influence on Simon & Garfunkel) had gotten Paul Simon into rock 'n' roll, as had the Brill Building, where Simon had worked along with other successful friends such as Carole King and Neil Sedaka, but by the time of this album he was greatly influenced by Dylan and the burgeoning New York City folk scene, and indeed "Bleecker Street" is a low-key, lovely ode to one of my favorite areas in NYC where the folk scene was then flourishing. Perhaps "Sparrow" isn't Simon at his most lyrically accomplished, but again those harmonized voices are pure gold, though the ambitious title track again sees Simon's lyrical reach exceeding his grasp. Much better is the moving, dramatic "He Was My Brother," which sees Simon sympathetic to the civil rights movement (the song may have been written for murdered friend Andrew Goodman, later immortalized in the movie Mississippi Burning, though I've read conflicting accounts about when the song was actually written), but of course it is "The Sound Of Silence" that is this album's best known and best song, though this isn't the best known or best version of the song (more about that shortly). Still, this version is an excellent song, with those fabulous voices singing unforgettable lines like "hello darkness my old friend, I've come to talk with you again"; many could relate to its soon to be familiar Simon themes of loneliness and alienation, and the song has rightfully become an American standard. Of course, that song towers over the rest of this batch, which is rarely less than enjoyable but which only rarely suggests that Simon & Garfunkel would soon blossom to become a major act.
Sounds Of Silence (Columbia ’66) Rating: A-
After the duo’s debut album stiffed, Garfunkel went off to college and Simon toured the U.K. as a solo folkie. He also recorded The Paul Simon Songbook, which also tanked, but then something happened, a fluke really, that forever altered the duo’s destiny (at that point it was questionable whether they would even record together again). Basically, seeking to capitalize on the current “folk-rock” boom epitomized by The Byrds, producer Tom Wilson (also Bob Dylan’s producer at the time) grafted a rhythm track and electric guitar onto “The Sound of Silence,” which was re-released as a single and soon shot to the top of the American charts. The rest, as they say, is history, and the history of Simon & Garfunkel would likely have been quite different if not for that lucky bit of intervention. Anyway, needless to say, Simon returned to America and re-teamed with Garfunkel for Sounds Of Silence, which starts off with the haunting, gorgeously re-worked title track (a massive improvement in my eyes and one of my favorite songs ever) and which is a big improvement overall on Wednesday Morning, 3AM. Granted, Simon & Garfunkel’s first truly accomplished album might seem primitive compared to the lush grandeur of Bridge Over Troubled Water, but I still find these ‘60s-saturated songs consistently pleasurable (on a historical note, six of these songs were redone from The Paul Simon Songbook). Indeed, tracks such as the charming, harpsichord-led (I'm a sucker for that instrument) “Leaves That Are Green,” the desperate yet catchy “Somewhere They Can’t Find Me” (a far superior rewrite of the debut's title track), and the understated love ballad “Kathy’s Song” (about Simon's girlfriend back in the U.K.) are ripe for rediscovery. The music is primarily jangly folk rock, and Simon has a knack for terrific, percussive-based backing tracks; he also again shows what a fine guitarist he is on songs such as the acoustic instrumental “Anji.” Elsewhere, Simon tackles heavy themes: on the more musically edgy “Blessed” he angrily rails against the emptiness of organized religion and its inherent hypocrisy, while “Richard Cory” (obviously lyrically inspired by the Edward Arlington Robinson poem, though the intense backing track is pure Paul Simon) and “A Most Peculiar Man” (which is more standard folkie fare but well done) both tackle suicide from very different angles. Rounding out the set list is "April Come She Will," a pretty ballad with Garfunkel on lead vocals that can be summed up with a single line ("a love once new has grown old"), and "We've Got A Groovy Thing Going," a rocker (that term being relative) that hasn't aged especially well (when was the last time you used the word "groovy"? I thought so....). Fine though some of the other songs are, the album's no-doubt-about-it classics are the title track, which wonderfully showcases the duo’s great harmonies, and the anthemic “screw everybody all I need is myself” pop rocker “I am A Rock,” which again revisits familiar Simon themes of loneliness and isolation but seems to revel in it. A nice twist, really, and overall this is a consistently enjoyable if occasionally musically slight (the word "dated" comes to mind) collection of songs. Still, Simon's songwriting branches out and even the lesser songs are worth listening to, plus "The Sound Of Silence" and "I am A Rock" are among the greatest songs of the ‘60s. Besides, I could listen to this duo harmonize all day long (Garfunkel deserves a great deal of the credit there as he had a gift for harmony arrangement), and Simon was starting to write consistently good and occasionally even great songs to go along with their undeniable sound.
Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme (Columbia ‘66) Rating: A-
Another hit album, this one hitting #4 in the U.S., Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme featured three more Songbook re-workings ("A Simple Desultory Phillipic," "Flowers Never Bend With The Rainfall," "Patterns") along with a slew of new Simon originals and a couple of sorta covers. "Scarborough Fair/Canticle," the track for which the album is named, is an utterly flawless rearrangement of a traditional folk song on which their harmonies are resplendent and Garfunkel's lead vocal is especially gorgeous. It's one of their signature songs, plain and simple, as is "Homeward Bound," a classic "wandering musician on the road yearning for home" song. Although Art adds low-key harmonies, this low-key yet easily hummable (and quotable) song is dominated by Simon, and the song's serious, contemplative nature is a trait that also appears elsewhere throughout the album. That said, two of my favorite tracks here are the much lighter "Cloudy" and "The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)," both of which boast airy, catchy melodies and a naive innocence that only seems to come from songs of that era (which perhaps explains why the '60s was my favorite musical decade despite its use of words such as "groovy"). "Flowers Never Bend With The Rainfall" is also highly enjoyable, this one being briskly paced, pretty, and (once again) easily hummable, while "For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her" is a dramatic love ballad with a powerful lead vocal from Garfunkel (though the live version on their Greatest Hits album is even better). The rest of the songs here are more hit-and-miss, though I can't really criticize the album on the whole too strongly, as most of the songs have something to recommend about them. For example, "The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine" and "A Simple Desultory Phillipic," the latter an amusing Dylan homage, add some energy and the "rock" to their "folk rock" equation, while Simon's ability to add adventurous rhythms is apparent on the darkly atmospheric but somewhat dreary "Patterns." "The Dangling Conversation" is an obvious attempt at a "serious statement," but, pretty though it is, its showy literary references and overly sweet strings rub me the wrong way; I can certainly see how its pretentiousness caused this dour number to flop as a single, even if the supremely confident Simon couldn't. Elsewhere, the so short it seems unfinished "A Poem On The Underground Wall" is a decent enough duet that shows off their vocal chemistry and Simon's story-based lyrics, before "7 O'Clock News/Silent Night" ends the album with a real surprise, as they beautifully sing the famous Christmas carol as a dispassionate newscaster recounts numerous negative events surrounding those troubled times. A questionable idea on paper, the end result actually works extremely well, as does the majority of Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme.
Bookends (Columbia ‘68) Rating: A-
The duo got another unlikely career boost when director Mike Nichols commissioned Simon to write music for his upcoming film, The Graduate, which starred Anne Bancroft and a young Dustin Hoffman and would come to be regarded as a classic. Flawlessly using old songs (I cannot not think of the movie when hearing songs such as "The Sound Of Silence," "Scarborough Fair/Canticle," and "April Come She Will") and a new masterpiece written for the film ("Mrs. Robinson" was Bancroft's character in the film, which you should see if you haven't already), the soundtrack album, which also included music from Dave Gruisin, was a #1 hit (despite the fact that it was a hodgepodge whose material was mostly available on better albums) that increased the duo's profile immeasurably and set the stage for the success of Bookends. Riding that momentum, Bookends was a #1 U.S. and U.K. album despite its mature, adult content; side one was an impressively cohesive concept mini-album about the aging process, while the more scattered side two consisted of previously released singles or re-workings of earlier singles. In addition to its ambitious lyrics, musically Simon sought to branch out as well, adding more instrumentation than usual, particularly strings, and using the studio as an instrument to layer together different sounds. This isn't always a good thing, as a song such as "Save The Life Of My Child," about a young suicide jumper, seems overly cluttered, though Simon remembers to write a singable chorus as well. The highlight of side one is easily "America," another one of his universally loved, signature songs. One of those "voice of a generation" songs where Simon seems to be singing for all of us, it's a questing song of discovery (memorable line: "I'm empty and aching and I don't know why") accompanied by a gorgeous melody and a memorably anthemic chorus. The sparse "Overs" revisits the same theme as "April Come She Will," if not quite as effectively (it is pleasantly pretty, though), before the album's nadir comes in the form of the aptly titled "Voices Of Old People" (whereby Garfunkel recorded old people's complaints), which may advance the storyline but which certainly doesn't bear up over repeat listens (my problem with all novelty songs and albums). Thankfully, the ship gets righted on "Old Friends," a lushly orchestrated, movingly melancholic look at growing old that rivals John Prine's "Hello In There" as the definitive word on the subject (the subject not being one commonly covered in the field of pop music, aside from oddballs such as Randy Newman, anyway). Bookending these songs (pardon the pun) are the two "Bookends Theme"s that really elevate and accentuate the overall concept of side one, as side two is something else entirely. Actually, song-for-song side two is probably superior to side one, even if it doesn't hold together nearly as well. As per usual, Simon's protagonist is dissatisfied with life on "Fakin' It," just going through the motions, and the melody is light and memorable (though the production is sometimes intrusive). Indeed, despite Simon's lyrics being more questioning and cynical than ever, the overall tone of Bookends is much lighter than on Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme. Of course, there's light and there's slight, and "Punky's Dilemma" comes and goes rather unremarkably, though Simon singing about cereal is rather odd to say the least, and at least the song provides further evidence of Simon lightening up a bit, again unlike on Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme, which was very good but a bit undermined by its deadly seriousness. Anyway, "Mrs. Robinson" comes next, and I won't say much about it as it's one of those songs that everyone seems to know and love (and can quote verbatim). Suffice it to say, with a great rhythm track, some vigorous acoustic plucking (again, Simon is so solid on guitar that I almost take him for granted), catchy harmonies, and unforgettable lyrics featuring Jesus and Joe DiMaggio, this one has it all. Rounding out the set list are two other well-known songs, the fairly rocking and psychedelic "Hazy Shade Of Winter," later a #1 hit for The Bangles (whose hard-hitting version is excellent), and the lightly satirical "At The Zoo," which interestingly pits upbeat music against seemingly whimsical yet undeniably cynical lyrics. I wish they had repeated the great fadeout ending elsewhere, but it's still a very good song on a very good album that, as per usual, features two all-time classics ("America," "Mrs. Robinson"), a few minor ones ("Old Friends," "Fakin' It," "Hazy Shade Of Winter," "At The Zoo"), and some lesser tracks that are still quite listenable (aside from "Voices Of Old People"). What makes Bookends a better album than the previous one is its successful concept, its embrace of studio technology, the occasional addition of some needed levity, and (most importantly) a slightly stronger overall batch of songs.
Bridge Over Troubled Water (Columbia ’70) Rating: A
With Garfunkel trying to kickstart a movie career with a part in Catch-22, Simon felt more pressure than ever with regards to gathering together enough quality material for an album, but he came up with the goods and Garfunkel contributed some of his most notable vocal performances. Still, Garfunkel being away put a strain on their relationship, which had grown strained to begin with, as Simon grew increasingly frustrated by having to share the spotlight, compromise on the outcome of his songs (Garfunkel and producer Roy Hallee weren’t shy about voicing their opinions), and the constraints caused by their partnership, which he found too limiting. But boy did they go out in style, as Bridge Over Troubled Water, the duo’s last studio album together, was an absolute blockbuster that went platinum ten times over, won several Grammy Awards, and was highlighted by two of their greatest songs ever. The majestic, much-covered title track begins with gospel piano before Garfunkel starts singing softly. The lyrics soothe and the song gives off a decidedly spiritual air; it eventually builds and builds, boosted by Garfunkel’s powerful, awe-inspiring vocal that is among the greatest in pop history (not that Simon appreciated it, feeling jealous of the adulation Garfunkel received for the song in concert and voicing on more than one occasion that he should've kept it for himself; needless to say I'm glad that he didn't). Perhaps the big budget production and lush orchestrations are a bit bombastic, but this to me is a true "power ballad," and “The Boxer,” a lovely song for lonely hearted losers that’s highlighted by its haunting "lai lai lai" harmonies and “bombs away” production effects, is just as good, though again some will probably feel that a more subtle approach would've worked even better. Elsewhere, the upbeat “Baby Driver” (nice energy, good guitar) and “Why Don’t You Write Me” (a weak first attempt at a reggae track) are decidedly lightweight, as is the much better “Keep the Customer Satisfied” (which I like despite Simon's rock star whining, especially its horn-heavy finish), while their cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love” seems fitting yet unnecessary, making the album slightly less than the A+ caliber masterpiece it’s often cited as being. Indeed, side two is considerably weaker than side one, and by and large the ballads blow away the more up-tempo material, but there's still enough terrific stuff here for the album to warrant its classic status. In particular, “El Condor Pasa,” on which Simon adds English lyrics to an exotic, old Peruvian folk melody (love that luscious flute) and which features the South American group Los Incas, exquisitely foreshadows Simon’s later pre-occupation with world music, while “Cecelia,” easily the album's standout up tempo track, is an irresistibly catchy sing along backed by a great rhythm track. Meanwhile, the poignant “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” and the especially evocative “The Only Living Boy In New York” can both be seen as gorgeous goodbyes to Garfunkel; both are typically clever as well, as, like Frank Lloyd Wright, Garfunkel had been an architecture major in college, while the truly wonderful latter song alludes to Art being out of town (New York) while filming Catch-22. Finally, the modest “Song For The Asking” is another strong, pretty ballad (fittingly sung solo by Paul) that ends this album (and the duo’s career) on a high note, though there would be periodic if short-lived reunions later on, the most famous being the one captured on The Concert In Central Park.
Greatest Hits (Columbia ’72) Rating: A+
Simon & Garfunkel made very good albums (aside from the just-getting-started Wednesday Morning, 3AM, which I still rather enjoy), but they made great singles, and most of their biggest and best hits can be found on this collection, which was released by Columbia to capitalize on the duo's stellar reputation before Simon began his solo career. It was a smash hit, of course, and though it has since been supplanted by more comprehensive and better sounding collections such as The Best Of Simon & Garfunkel, this concise 14-track collection is the album that I and many other people grew up with, so I decided to review this one, perhaps for nostalgic reasons. Remember when I said that all of their albums (again, aside from the debut) have two all-time great songs? Well, all eight ("Mrs. Robinson," "The Boxer," "The Sound Of Silence," "I am A Rock," "Scarborough Fair/Canticle," "Homeward Bound," "Bridge Over Troubled Water," "America") of them are here, as are excellent additional hits and album tracks such as “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her,” “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy),” “Kathy’s Song,” “El Condor Pasa,” and “Cecelia.” Again, it should be noted that Art Garfunkel has a truly lovely voice (something that Simon seemed to be jealous of in later years), yet when Simon chimes in their chemistry is palpable; above all else their vocal chemistry was what made this duo so special. Simon had a knack for clever, memorable lyrics (“where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?”) that often struck a universal chord despite being highly personal in nature, and his subtly inventive, catchy melodies are also easy to admire if never the most exciting around. Although I miss other notable album tracks that aren’t included here such as "Bleecker Street," “Leaves That Are Green,” "Cloudy," "Flowers Never Bend With The Rainfall," "Fakin' It," "Hazy Shade Of Winter," "At The Zoo," “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright,” and especially “The Only Living Boy In New York” (so really Bridge Over Trouble Water had 3 of their greatest songs ever), this just means that you'll have to go back their original album sources, all of which are worth hearing. Still, if you want nothing but the crème de la crème, this is a pretty good place to start, and completists will be further enticed by a previously unissued alternate take of "America" and live versions of "For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her," "Homeward Bound," "Feelin' Groovy," and "Kathy's Song," some of which are actually improvements upon the original studio versions.
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