By Mikael Wood, Special to the Los Angeles Times
April 19, 2011
For Paul Simon, the world is his sound stage.
African blues, Indian drumming, Old Hollywood strings, bluegrass harmony ´” even wildebeests ´” are present on ´So Beautiful or So What.´
Two years ago Paul Simon traveled to Kenya with his wife, the singer Edie Brickell, and their three children. The trip wasn´t strictly musical: ´We went to see the migration of the animals,´ Simon says. But fans of this Rock and Roll Hall of Famer have known about his interest in African sounds since 1986, when he set a new benchmark for globally oriented pop with the Grammy-winning ´Graceland.´ No surprise, then, that Brickell used a small digital recorder to make a sort of audio diary of their journey.
Back at his home studio in Connecticut, Simon pulled out Brickell´s recording during a bout of frustration over the tone of his guitar in a new song aptly titled ´Rewrite.´
´It sounded like I was sitting in a room playing, which of course is exactly what I was doing,´ he remembers. ´So I took the sound of the night and I put it in the background. And then I took a wildebeest and stuck it at the end of a particular guitar note every time it occurred; I thought of it as the end of a shoelace. It´s not a thing you´d notice until I said, ´There´s the wildebeest,´ but it´s through the whole song.´ Simon laughs. ´This is the degree to which I was following this obsession with making interesting sounds.´
The product of Simon´s obsession is ´So Beautiful or So What,´ a just-released studio album that many critics are calling his finest since ´The Rhythm of the Saints´ in 1990. Filled with typically thoughtful ruminations on faith, romance and mortality, the new disc bolsters Simon´s reputation as one of pop´s premier wordsmiths. ´After I died and the makeup had dried I went back to my place,´ begins ´The Afterlife,´ in which the narrator goes on to discover that heaven feels an awful lot like a dentist´s waiting room.
Yet as the presence of that wildebeest in ´Rewrite´ suggests, ´So Beautiful or So What´ also presents a fresh sonic palette for Simon, who begins a three-night stand in L.A. on Tuesday night at Hollywood´s relatively intimate Music Box; Wednesday and Thursday he´s at the roomier Pantages.
As on ´Graceland,´ the music pulls liberally from Africa ´” this time often from the West African blues tradition epitomized by the late Ali Farka TourÃ©. (Cameroonian guitarist Vincent Nguini, a regular Simon collaborator, plays on the album and is on the road with the singer´s current eight-piece live band.) Atop that foundation, though, come traces of Indian drumming, Old Hollywood strings and bluegrass harmony singing.
Several cuts even incorporate sampling, as in ´Getting Ready for Christmas Day,´ in which a bubbling guitar-band groove is peppered with excerpts from a 1941 sermon by the Rev. J.M. Gates.
´Love is eternal sacred light free from the shackles of time,´ Simon sings in one standout track, and that line goes a long way toward describing the album´s tantalizing juxtaposition of styles and eras.
´You can ask yourself how this guy has continued to write music that finds resonance in the incredibly fickle world of pop music,´ says Simon´s guitarist Mark Stewart, who´s also played with Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney. ´The answer is because he´s always been a tinkerer.´
Reached several days before the tour´s first show last week in Seattle, Stewart says Simon has been leading the band in preparing material from the new album and from throughout his career. ´This isn´t something where you sit down and he goes, ´You´ve heard the tune ´” let´s play it,´´ Stewart says. ´We´ll work eight bars for two hours, then still have the thing in pieces on the floor.´
´Paul´s not afraid to explore,´ adds Phil Ramone, who after producing several of Simon´s mid-´70s solo discs reteamed with the singer for ´So Beautiful or So What.´ ´Exploration isn´t where the record business is right now, but for Paul the music is still the centerpiece of everything he does.´
Simon traces the album´s roots to the realization that his favorite part of his previous studio effort, 2006´s ´Surprise,´ was a ´series of nice chord changes´ in the bridge of ´Everything About It Is a Love Song.´
´I got really excited about that and decided not to use percussion as a way of beginning the album, which is basically what I had been doing since ´Rhythm of the Saints.´´ Instead he focused on the music´s harmonic and textural elements, initially writing what became the album´s three elaborate ballads: ´Questions for the Angels,´ ´Amulet´ and ´Love and Hard Times,´ the last of which features pianist Mick Rossi, whom Simon was recommended by Rossi´s usual employer, Philip Glass.
´When I got into my first rehearsal with Paul I was like, ´Wow, man ´” I´m playing real piano here,´´ Rossi says. ´Even though his music reaches an audience that´s maybe not as sophisticated as a classical audience, his music is still very complex.´
Complex, perhaps, but not overstuffed: For all its structural ambition, one of ´So Beautiful or So What´s´ virtues is the effortlessness with which Simon seems to deliver the material; it´s almost certainly the lightest album about death you´ll hear this year.
That´s a quality that´s attracted a new breed of young indie rockers to Simon´s work ´” guys like Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig, who recently recorded a version of Simon´s song ´Papa Hobo´ for the film ´Ceremony,´ and the members of Grizzly Bear, who collaborated with Simon in 2008 for a performance at New York´s Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Gabe Witcher of New York´s avant-roots string band Punch Brothers plays fiddle on ´So Beautiful or So What´ and describes Simon´s influence on him and his peers as ´all pervasive.´
´There´s so much diversity in what he does, but it comes across as very natural,´ Witcher says. ´For us it just seems like a reflection of the times we live in.´
According to Simon, that´s more or less the point.
´All sounds are musical once you start to listen,´ he says, recounting a break he and Ramone were forced to take one day when a tree near his house began dropping chestnuts on the studio´s roof. ´They were making so much noise we had to stop. But then I said, ´You know what? We should record those chestnuts.´´