Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Albums Of Our Lives, Part One Of Many

As a music snob and an obsessive-compulsive mp3 hoarder, I resist the urge to come up with lists of "best songs/albums ever." I happen to find the movie High Fidelity repugnant. John Cusack's character's repeated listing of "best breakup songs ever," etc., comes across as dull and self-important. I don't need to know what other people's exact rankings of the Best. Songs. Ever. are - but it's fun to talk about music. So I thought I'd give the whole thing a stab in terms of LPs/tapes/CDs that have been big influences for me at different points in my life. In fact, they're all still favorites. Let's start with one, and maybe I'll continue this later if y'all and I find it interesting.

Simon & Garfunkel's Greatest Hits (1972). This was the tape of my childhood that became the CD of my adulthood in high school. There are few things in this world that we like consistently from birth through the present, and never stop liking, and this album is one of them. The tracks:

1. Mrs Robinson: Actually my least favorite track on the whole CD. What I love about this song is that it cues me for the rest of the disc. No, it's true: in any other context, I'll totally skip this song, but when I put this CD in, I have to start here.

2. For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her: The live recordings of their older material is really what makes Greatest Hits such a gem in its own right. Art Garfunkel has a really, really high voice. It's almost creepy. This song has, on a number of occasions, made me cry for no good reason other than the fact that I (maybe not-so-secretly) love to cry. I especially love to cry to specific sappy types of music and gay cowboy movies.

3. The Boxer: I most frequently will tell people that this is my favorite song ever. I'm not a fan of picking any one song over any other song, but The Boxer really hit a chord with me some time around the age of 5 or 6, and it's stuck. I actually - and this is kind of embarrassing for one's favorite song - am still not sure exactly what that instrument is. It sounds like an oboe when it's at the forefront of the mix, but the same melody is played by what sounds like strings in the background. So, are there both strings and woodwinds in this song, or is it the same whatever-it-is in the front and back of the mix? Such an enigma. Oh, yes, and this song also introduced me to one of my favorite words, "whores." At age 5, I just assumed it meant manual laborers, and the "manual laborers" non-sexually-harassed the protagonist by yelling "come on buddy" or something to that effect. I was once innocent only a couple decades ago. Damn you, Simon!!!

4. The 59th Street Bridge Song: Again, the live tracks on this album are uniformly better than the originals. I would have loved loved loved to have seen my dad's favorite group for $3 as he did in college. Damn you, dad!

5. The Sound of Silence; 6. I Am A Rock; 7. Scarborough Fair/Canticle: Besides being my dad's favorite group, one of my mom's favorite groups, and the only non-classical tape that my parents ever listened to in the car, I think that Simon & Garfunkel resonated with me as a kid because they used a very childish rhetoric. There's really an "Emperor's New Clothes" logic behind a lot of their music. These three songs comprising the end of the A side of the LP/cassette are probably their best "gee whiz, why can't we all get along" tomes, hitting three different angles: first, the "everyone's yelling at each other but no one's listening;" second, "the reason I'm not listening is because I've been burned before and I'm sick of crying;" and third, "all most of us want to do is find love, so why are we fighting wars in foreign places for no purpose?" Scarborough Fair/Canticle really achieves, in much more gorgeous and poetic form, what the preacy "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?" attempted. That's one of the great legacies, in my humble opinion, of the great Simon & Garfunkel: every urban left-winger in the '60s picked up a guitar and preached to the choir, but most of them were unsubtle and unmusical. Yet these guys figured out how to do both. Using a centuries-old English love song with a subtle background message to get the point across was genius, AND beautiful to listen to in a way that Pete Seeger/Phil Ochs/etc. never acheived.

8. Homeward Bound: You can really sing the songs on this CD. It's well known that S & G had some of the best harmonies out there, but when you think about it, they started with the best melodies. Even as a one-person unit, any of their songs would still be phenomenal. Although, once you've heard their tight harmonies, you'll never go back. And for the record, these guys were most strongly influenced by the Everly Brothers. Putting "Bye Bye Love" toward the end of their last CD wasn't a fluke or a throw-away. It was a shout-out to the guys who taught them how to do what they did best.

9. Bridge Over Troubled Water: Paul Simon has had some really, really, REALLY obnoxious attempts at multi-culti crap in his career. The horrendous wanna-be gospel of "Loves Me Like A Rock" makes me cringe; and true, "Graceland" was excellent - yet "Rhythm of the Saints" is slightly yawn-y. And the more recent albums - can anyone listen to them? Especially knowing what he's capable of? But let's backtrack to 1969, when a white urban folk duo made a fucking spiritual. A. Fucking. Spiritual. One more time: this is an honest-to-God spiritual written on a piano in a New York apartment. Is that even possible? I can't imagine anyone writing a spiritual today. Kanye West's "Jesus Walks" is definitely killer, and is as close as we'll probably see to a new spiritual. And "Bridge" isn't sung by a gospel choir or anything, either, but it's definitely inspirational. It might be the last pop song to cleverly bridge the love song/friend song/God song gap ever ("You've Got A Friend," which came out just a couple years later, is pretty safely on the secular side of things). And some might disagree with me that it's even really a spiritual at all, but I get the "God" feeling from this song that church sure as hell never did for me. At any rate, it's a spine-tingler.

10. America: My mom said, when I was in high school and a good 10 years into my S & G listening, that this song summed up her entire '60s generation. If there was one song that captured the Zeitgeist of '60s America, it was "America." Well-titled, boys, well titled.

11. Kathy's Song: This was one of the first songs I learned on the guitar, sophomore year of college. It really illustrates something about Paul Simon, and that's the fact that he's a conscious songwriter (up there with Willie Nelson and Carole King). You don't really imagine his contemporaries (the Beatles, Hendrix, Dylan) sitting down and plotting out a song: "well, I want three verses that start at the end of the measure, followed by three that start at the beginning of the measure" (Check it out between the 3rd and 4th verses: it's a conscious jump in the style of the song). And in no way does the songwritery-ness of the composition make "Kathy's Song" any less heartfelt or aching. I don't doubt for a minute that all he believes in is Kathy, and that he'd die like a raindrop if not for her. (Yeah, this one has made me cry on occasion, too)

12. El Condor Pasa (If I Could): This was my least favorite as a child, but it bumped ahead of "Mrs. Robinson" in high school when I got past the simplicity of the Andean arrangement (the oompah-ish beat has never been my favorite; I had neighbors a few years back who had a Tejano band that practiced next door at 10 AM on Saturdays, and this didn't help either). What really works for this song is the vocal track. I think the ornateness-yet-triteness of the instrumentation has a way of distracting you from the fact that the vocals are really yearning.

13. Bookends: As a child (I was perhaps 7 years old), I told my mom that this song was weird because it just kind of faded in and out for like a minute and didn't say much. This, of course, became precisely why I grew to love it. One of my favorites to play on guitar (all those double stops) and also possible to play on people's doorbell pipes if they have 3 or 4 (I've done this at parties and the melody is indeed recognizable. I'm an artist).

14. Cecilia: Simon and Garfunkel had a way of making songs that everyone can love. You don't have to be into the '60s (as I was raised to be) or a folk-music person (as I was raised to be) or a perv, or anything, to love this song. It's totally pervy (and helped warp me as a child, or so I like to believe), but it's totally cute. It's anachronistic, as Simon's best attempts at multi-culti songs are: you don't really feel like you're listening to a traditional Latin American folksong, but it doesn't sound like anything else that was released in 1969. All you know is that you want to clap your hands, stomp your feet, and sing along to what a silly hoe Cecilia is and how you don't care as long as she comes back. A metaphor for life, really.

I love music.


At 5:06 PM, Anonymous M'lah, the threesomes commentator said...

I'm glad somebody else loves this album as much as I do! I can't express what this album does for me without sounding cheesy, but cheesiness aside, I have to say that each song really speaks to me. Though I can also listen to it when happy because it's such damn good music, it's definitely my album of choice for sad times especially vis a vis relationships.

At 12:44 PM, Anonymous her man said...

I'm just amazed they can have a S&G greatest hits with all of the hits EXCEPT "Me and Julio". It's like having "We Are the World" without Prince. Just a massive oversight at best on both counts.

At 10:40 PM, Blogger Hipster said...

"Me and Julio" in its original incarnation didn't have Art on it. It was a solo Paul hit in 1972, the same year that S&G's greatest hits came out. However, as they sang it together at the Central Park concert ten years later, most people our age just assume it was an S&G song to start with. A crafty record company could just make a greatest hits CD that had the central park version of the song on it - except that Simon had switched from Columbia to Warner Bros. records around 1980 or so, and IIRC, the central park album was put out by WB.

However, Simon only had about 10 good songs after S&G and before Graceland, so it's pretty easy to download those songs only and/or get them from a friend...


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