There are plenty of similarities about these two releases from Paul Simon and Paul McCartney – In addition to sharing a first name, and in this case a record label – (the sound of Starbucks, no less) they’re both juggernauts of Music Royalty, and as such they both suffer from the same legacy problem for long time listeners – in that this new album is a new contribution to a long and illustrious body of work – and in this case, that includes some of the greatest songs ever written, on both sides of the Atlantic. My Father’s family hail from Liverpool, and my Nana still tells the stories of a young John and Paul running through her chemist’s shop on the way to gigs at the Cavern. So as a kid, I kind of thought that the Beatles was music. I heard those albums before I could speak, and as a teenager, I bypassed a lot of the pop and metal revolutions of the 80′s, rediscovering the music of the Beatles, and their 60′s contemporaries.
Growing up, I also heard Paul Simon’s classic Graceland – one of the longest lasting tapes to survive in our family car. And then I discovered, through the touchstone of that one dusty cassette, the back catalog of Simon and Garfunkel, and the great American songwriting tradition.
So these crucial influences, these monumental life-changing musical landmarks in my listening career, are a part of sitting down to listen to these two records from now 70-year-old blokes named Paul.
No pressure, then.
Kisses on The Bottom (don’t be creepy) is a collection of 1920′s and 30′s vocal standards, including a few originals done in the period style. When I heard about the album, I can’t say I was super-excited. I mean, this is hokey territory we’re treading here. Famous artist does album of crooner vocal standards? I couldn’t help but recall that dreadful Rod Stewart series of records. Let me just come out now and say that this record is not what you think. Or that it is what you think, but it’s way better than you think. The songs are well chosen, and delivered with a musical panache and humor that just made me smile. Yeah, sometimes it’s a bit twee, but overall the musicianship is excellent, with the keys and accompaniment from Alison Krauss’ backing band (including Elvis Costello and Edie Brickell) is spectacularly produced, sounding warm, and bringing these old dusty hits back to life. Classics like Ac-Cent-U-Ate the positive and The Glory of Love have never sounded so good.
Eric Clapton delivers some tasty guitar licks on My Valentine, and Paul himself also gets into the spirit of the acoustic guitar, sounding wry and delicate on the Sam Cooke track – Get yourself another fool.
Paul’s voice sounds a little strained in parts, and a lot like an old man. It’s clear that his two original tunes, My Valentine and Only Our Hearts have been written for the sweet part of his range – the deeper, more somber, Yesterday end. But his tone and delivery are unmistakable, and it is, well – charming to hear it in such fine form.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Paul Simon’s So Beautiful or So What finds American Paul at the top of his game. This is an amazing record, indeed it may well be the best Paul Simon has ever made. The songwriting, the crafting of stories and characters are all present and somehow unpretentious, there are fantastic reflections and insights on life and love and existence, wrapped up lovingly in African, Zydeco, uniquely Paul Simon sounding musical bundles and delivered with a zest and a zeal that astounds.
If you read Charles’ review of Simon’s last tour, you can clearly see that this guy is at the top of his game. Songs like Dazzling Blue with its haunting chants, and Rewrite – one man’s effort to write the great American Novel while working at a car wash, set to John Butler-esque staccato acoustic percussive harmonic guitar sound like Paul Simon of thirty years ago. Like McCartney’s record, this album is also spectacularly produced and mixed beautifully, it really sparkles, particularly with headphones.
So Beautiful or So What manages to transcend all this legacy, to deliver a beautiful, fresh and outstanding record, that makes you think, and smile, and wonder why all the new folk singers seem to be trying so hard.
Paul McCartney – Kisses on the Bottom – 2012 – Hear Music
Musichord Rating: 6.5/10
Paul Simon – So Beautiful or So What – 2011 – Hear Music
Musichord Rating: 8.5/10