President Obama’s Weekly Address (Jan. 30, 2010)

January 31, 2010 at 7:54 pm (Life & Politics)

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Guns N’ Roses – “Chinese Democracy” (2008)

January 31, 2010 at 9:44 am (Music, Reviews & Articles)

Remember when this album was the most anticipated release in the history of recorded music? Remember how we had nothing better to do with our lives than to sit around with baited breath for Axl to unleash his brilliance upon us mere mortals? Remember how people were waiting 15 years for Axl Rose to finally finish the damn thing? How silly it all was, wasn’t it? Anyhow, that’s all ancient history now, but let us peruse a review of this infamous album by author Chuck Klosterman, from the A.V. Club website, dated Nov. 18, 2008 A.D. and return back to that magical time when W. still ruled America and our economy was in complete shambles…


Reviewing Chinese Democracy is not like reviewing music. It’s more like reviewing a unicorn. Should I primarily be blown away that it exists at all? Am I supposed to compare it to conventional horses? To a rhinoceros? Does its pre-existing mythology impact its actual value, or must it be examined inside a cultural vacuum, as if this creature is no more (or less) special than the remainder of the animal kingdom? I’ve been thinking about this record for 15 years; during that span, I’ve thought about this record more than I’ve thought about China, and maybe as much as I’ve thought about the principles of democracy. This is a little like when that grizzly bear finally ate Timothy Treadwell: Intellectually, he always knew it was coming. He had to. His very existence was built around that conclusion. But you still can’t psychologically prepare for the bear who eats you alive, particularly if the bear wears cornrows.

Here are the simple things about Chinese Democracy: Three of the songs are astonishing. Four or five others are very good. The vocals are brilliantly recorded, and the guitar playing is (generally) more interesting than the guitar playing on the Use Your Illusion albums. Axl Rose made some curious (and absolutely unnecessary) decisions throughout the assembly of this project, but that works to his advantage as often as it detracts from the larger experience. So: Chinese Democracy is good. Under any halfway normal circumstance, I would give it an A.

But nothing about these circumstances is normal.

For one thing, Chinese Democracy is (pretty much) the last Old Media album we’ll ever contemplate in this context—it’s the last album that will be marketed as a collection of autonomous-but-connected songs, the last album that will be absorbed as a static manifestation of who the band supposedly is, and the last album that will matter more as a physical object than as an Internet sound file. This is the end of that. But the more meaningful reason Chinese Democracy is abnormal is because of a) the motives of its maker, and b) how those motives embargoed what the definitive product eventually became. The explanation as to why Chinese Democracy took so long to complete is not simply because Axl Rose is an insecure perfectionist; it’s because Axl Rose self-identifies as a serious, unnatural artist. He can’t stop himself from anticipating every possible reaction and interpretation of his work. I suspect he cares less about the degree to which people like his music, and more about how it is taken, regardless of the listener’s ultimate judgment. This is why he was so paralyzed by the construction of Chinese Democracy—he can’t write or record anything without obsessing over how it will be received, both by a) the people who think he’s an unadulterated genius, and b) the people who think he’s little more than a richer, red-haired Stephen Pearcy. All of those disparate opinions have identical value to him. So I will take Chinese Democracy as seriously as Axl Rose would hope, and that makes it significantly less simple. At this juncture in history, rocking is not enough.

The weirdest (yet more predictable) aspect of Chinese Democracy is the way 60 percent of the lyrics seem to actively comment on the process of making the album itself. The rest of the vocal material tends to suggest some kind of abstract regret over an undefined romantic relationship punctuated by betrayal, but that might just be the way all hard-rock songs seem when the singer plays a lot of piano and only uses pronouns. The craziest track, “Sorry,” resembles spooky Pink Floyd and is probably directed toward former GNR drummer Steven Adler, although I suppose it might be about Slash or Stephanie Seymour or David Geffen. It could even be about Jon Pareles, for all I fucking know—Axl’s enemy list is pretty Nixonian at this point. The most uplifting songs are “Street Of Dreams” (a leaked song previously titled “The Blues”) and the exceptionally satisfying “Catcher in the Rye” (a softer, more sophisticated re-working of “Yesterdays” that occupies a conceptual self-awareness in the vein of Elton John or mid-period Queen). The fragile ballad “This I Love” is sad, melodramatic, and pleasurably traditional. There are many moments where it’s impossible to tell who Axl is talking to, so it feels like he’s talking to himself (and inevitably about himself). There’s not much cogent storytelling, but it’s linear and compelling. The best description of the overall literary quality of the lyrics would probably be “effectively narcissistic.”

As for the music—well, that’s actually much better than anticipated. It doesn’t sound dated or faux-industrial, and the guitar shredding that made the final version (which I’m assuming is still predominantly Buckethead) is alien and perverse. A song like “Shackler’s Revenge” is initially average, until you get to the solo—then it becomes the sonic equivalent of a Russian robot wrestling a reticulating python. Whenever people lament the dissolution of the original Guns N’ Roses, the person they always focus on is Slash, and that makes sense. (His unrushed blues metal was the group’s musical vortex.) But it’s actually better that Slash is not on this album. What’s cool about Chinese Democracy is that it truly does sound like a new enterprise, and I can’t imagine that being the case if Slash were dictating the sonic feel of every riff. The GNR members Rose misses more are Izzy Stradlin (who effortlessly wrote or co-wrote many of the band’s most memorable tunes) and Duff McKagan, the underappreciated bassist who made Appetite for Destruction so devastating. Because McKagan worked in numerous Seattle-based bands before joining Guns N’ Roses, he became the de facto arranger for many of those pre-Appetite tracks, and his philosophy was always to take the path of least resistance. He pushed the songs in whatever direction felt most organic. But Rose is the complete opposite. He takes the path of most resistance. Sometimes it seems like Axl believes every single Guns N’ Roses song needs to employ every single thing that Guns N’ Roses has the capacity to do—there needs to be a soft part, a hard part, a falsetto stretch, some piano plinking, some R&B; bullshit, a little Judas Priest, subhuman sound effects, a few Robert Plant yowls, dolphin squeaks, wind, overt sentimentality, and a caustic modernization of the blues. When he’s able to temporarily balance those qualities (which happens on the title track and on “I.R.S.,” the album’s two strongest rock cuts), it’s sprawling and entertaining and profoundly impressive. The soaring vocals crush everything. But sometimes Chinese Democracy suffers from the same inescapable problem that paralyzed proto-epics like “Estranged” and “November Rain”: It’s as if Axl is desperately trying to get some unmakeable dream song from inside his skull onto the CD, and the result is an overstuffed maelstrom that makes all the punk dolts scoff. His ambition is noble, yet wildly unrealistic. It’s like if Jeff Lynne tried to make Out of the Blue sound more like Fun House, except with jazz drumming and a girl singer from Motown.

Throughout Chinese Democracy, the most compelling question is never, “What was Axl doing here?” but “What did Axl think he was doing here?” The tune “If the World” sounds like it should be the theme to a Roger Moore-era James Bond movie, all the way down to the title. On “Scraped,” there’s a vocal bridge that sounds strikingly similar to a vocal bridge from the 1990 Extreme song “Get the Funk Out.” On the aforementioned “Sorry,” Rose suddenly sings an otherwise innocuous line (“But I don’t want to do it”) in some bizarre, quasi-Transylvanian accent, and I cannot begin to speculate as to why. I mean, one has to assume Axl thought about all of these individual choices a minimum of a thousand times over the past 15 years. Somewhere in Los Angles, there’s gotta be 400 hours of DAT tape with nothing on it except multiple versions of the “Sorry” vocal. So why is this the one we finally hear? What finally made him decide, “You know, I’ve weighed all my options and all their potential consequences, and I’m going with the Mexican vampire accent. This is the vision I will embrace. But only on that one line! The rest of it will just be sung like a non-dead human.” Often, I don’t even care if his choices work or if they fail. I just want to know what Rose hoped they would do.

On “Madagascar,” he samples MLK (possible restitution for “One in a Million”?) and (for the second time in his career) the movie Cool Hand Luke. Considering that the only people who will care about Rose’s preoccupation with Cool Hand Luke are those already obsessed with his iconography, the doomed messianic message of that film must deeply (and predictably) resonate with his very being. But how does that contribute to “Madagascar,” a meteorological metaphor about all those unnamed people who wanted to stop him from making Chinese Democracy in the insane manner he saw fit? Sometimes listening to this album feels like watching the final five minutes of the Sopranos finale. There’s no acceptable answer to these types of hypotheticals.

Still, I find myself impressed by how close Chinese Democracy comes to fulfilling the absurdly impossible expectation it self-generated, and I not-so-secretly wish this had actually been a triple album. I’ve maintained a decent living by making easy jokes about Axl Rose for the past 10 years, but what’s the final truth? The final truth is this: He makes the best songs. They sound the way I want songs to sound. A few of them seem idiotic at the beginning, but I love the way they end. Axl Rose put so much time and effort into proving that he was super-talented that the rest of humanity forgot he always had been. And that will hurt him. This record may tank commercially. Some people will slaughter Chinese Democracy, and for all the reasons you expect. But he did a good thing here.

Chuck Klosterman

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Lou Donaldson – “Hot Dog” (1969)

January 30, 2010 at 8:47 pm (Jazz)

This title track to Lou Donaldson’s 1969 album was later used as a sample for the De La Soul song “3 Days Later.”

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Bill Murphy – “Raymond Scott: Brave New World” (2008)

January 29, 2010 at 2:01 pm (Music, Reviews & Articles)

This article on electronic pioneer and engineering genius Raymond Scott comes from the Remix website and was written by Bill Murphy, April 1, 2008. Scott, who built most of the electronic instruments that he used to record with, was many years ahead of his time and was a huge influence on everyone from Devo to modern techno artists…

 

A True Original Rebel, Raymond Scott Changed the Future of Electronic Music

To start with the hypothetical: If you were an American composer trying to eke out a living in the immediate aftermath of World War II, odds are you were writing for a big band or a small jazz ensemble. Now, let’s say you had the stones to break out of that format and venture into the alien territory of electronic sound; you really didn’t have much to work with back then except a theremin, a reel-to-reel tape machine (if you could find and afford one), a microphone and a razor blade. But if you were musician and inventor Raymond Scott, that simply wasn’t enough — not by a long shot.

A graduate of Juilliard, Scott was an adequate pianist whose fascination with machines followed him throughout his budding music career. That journey started in the mid-1930s, when he recruited a quintet (simply called the Raymond Scott Quintette) that recorded a long string of his unusually wacky jazz compositions. Unbeknownst to Scott at the time, that music would end up serving as the sound bed for dozens of the early Looney Tunes cartoons (and, decades later, select episodes of The Ren & Stimpy Show) — a twist of fate that eventually endeared him to a staunch coterie of fans who had grown up with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, but for years had never known that the music was Scott’s handiwork. 

“He would often be in the control room while his band was recording,” notes Irwin Chusid, who, with Jeff Winner and Gert-Jan Blom, curates the Raymond Scott Archives. “He wanted to hear what the microphones were picking up, and he wanted to control the sound and mix it as well as possible under the relatively primitive circumstances. That’s why we called the quintet’s two-CD set Microphone Music [Basta, 2003]. Raymond considered the microphone to be the hidden member of the band, and he was a control freak about how it was positioned.”

Scott’s demanding approach in the studio spilled over into how he dealt with the band — a tense relationship that often escalated into angry confrontations, compelling Scott to seriously consider the idea of using machines to do the heavy lifting for him. In 1946, he founded Manhattan Research — arguably the first professional electronic music workshop in the United States, based in his spacious Long Island, N.Y., home — and began designing and building a series of electro-mechanical devices that contained the seeds for two of his coolest inventions: the Clavivox and the Electronium.

The Clavivox happened almost by accident. Scott had bought a theremin for his daughter, but because she found it difficult to play, he sought to solve the problem by using a modified electric keyboard assembly to control the signal from the theremin’s tone generator. The unit caught the attention of a 20-year-old Bob Moog, who paid a visit to Scott’s studio with his father in the early ’50s. Patented in 1956, the finished Clavivox contained a sub-assembly designed by Moog — a full decade before the Moog modular synthesizer was introduced.

The Electronium was a much larger, module-based device that Scott developed and refined over years of strenuous work. “At first, it was very big and loud and crude,” Winner explains, citing the legendary “Wall of Sound” component, a prototype of the modern sequencer that covered nearly 200 square feet of wall space.

“People like Moog described the clicking and clacking of the switches as almost drowning out the musical tones themselves,” Winner continues. “He might have one device that was generating a rhythm, and then on top of that he might sequence pitches of percussion, which is not so different from sequencing a bass line [which Scott perfected in the late ’60s with a module called Bassline Generator]. Later, he was able to miniaturize everything and make it all electronic, so it went from being electro-mechanical to truly solid state.”

Meanwhile, Scott put his inventions to use by making music. His “strictly for the money” gig as bandleader for popular ’50s TV show Your Hit Parade allowed him to finance and maintain the studio — by now a state-of-the-art facility for recording numerous sound experiments, advertising jingles and film scores (samples of which have found their way into the work of Gorillaz, J Dilla, Madlib, Peanut Butter Wolf and many more). As the stellar two-CD set Manhattan Research Inc. (Basta, 2000) makes clear, what set Scott apart from other electronic music composers of the ’50s and ’60s was his keen, witty and often whimsical attention to melody.

Improbably, Scott’s work caught the attention of Motown president Berry Gordy Jr., who hired him in 1972 as the label’s head of Electronic Research and Development. Although Scott held the position for five years before a serious heart attack forced him into retirement, the Electronium that Gordy had commissioned him to build — a unit now owned by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh — never generated a hit. Even so, Scott’s honored place among the firmament of electronic music innovators was already assured.

“Raymond Scott was one of those rare people who was influenced by the future,” Moog said after Scott’s death in 1994. “He did things that later turned out to be directly for the future. I think he was tuned into the celestial, cosmic network — the one that’s out there in time, as well as space — to a greater extent than the rest of us.”

Bill Murphy

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Vampire Weekend – “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” (Video – 2008)

January 28, 2010 at 9:08 pm (Music)

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Serge Gainsbourg – “Histoire de Melody Nelson” (1971)

January 27, 2010 at 1:19 pm (Music, Reviews & Articles)

This review comes from the Tiny Mix Tapes website, not sure of the exact date, but it’s from 2009 (album was lovingly reissued by the great Light in the Attic imprint, who does extremely high quality work) and was written by David Nadelle.
This album was a controversial but intriguing and now classic album from the French provocateur…

 

Serge Gainsbourg was already the creator of one of the most lascivious pop singles of all time, the infamous “Je T’Aime… Moi Non Plus,” when he released Histoire de Melody Nelson — a short, psychedelic, operatic concept album about a brusque affair between a middle-aged lecher and an underage nymphet with “naturally red hair” (played by Gainsbourg’s then-wife, muse, and collaborator Jane Birkin). Although widely accepted as a classic album, it also has a stigma attached to it: no matter what musical barriers Gainsbourg surpassed, he always seemed, first and foremost, a dirty old man bent on shocking more than creating art. Certainly, Gainsbourg lived every minute of his life by his own envelope-pushing mantra (“For me, provocation is oxygen”), but he was also a romantic of the highest order, compared to Rimbaud while living, to Baudelaire in death.

Clocking in less than 28 minutes, Histoire de Melody Nelson is a groovy, emotive, and intriguing piece that demands more than a cursory listen. Even the recording details have a strong, mysterious allure of their own (until recently, the identities of Gainsbourg’s English session musicians, now known to be Vic Flick, Brian Odgers, Big Jim Sullivan, and Dougie Wright, were uncommon knowledge). Although not terribly difficult to find (my copy is a mid-’90s import reissue) this album should be readily available in all record stores, Wal-Marts, and gas stations throughout the land, even though that would crush its caché considerably. The king of reanimating lost gems, Light in the Attic (with plenty of help from UK treasure trawlers Finders Keepers) is doing its part by reissuing and revamping Gainsbourg’s beloved record which, 38 years after its original release, still holds persuasive power as both a shock-value missive and high conceptualized musical work of art.

In the opener, we meet our characters: the narrator (Serge) and Melody, his object of desire and destiny. More important than the collision between his 1910 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost and her bicycle that highlights, “Melody” is the impact between an inebriated, well-trodden rogue and an innocent but world-ready nymphet; between an overpowering of will and a submission to emotion, and between wanton lust and pure love. The opening scene is heightened by the presence of an indescribable and uncontrollable “spirit of ecstasy,” matched musically by Jean-Claude Vannier’s unwavering cinematic arrangement and the backing band, holding down a hypnotic groove, heavy on scattershot guitar and an elastic bounding bass (ripped off delightfully by Beck on Sea Change’s “Paper Tiger”).

“Ballade de Melody Nelson” is a gorgeous string-powered song which foreshadows the fate of Melody, a girl who had much love to give but whose days were numbered. A mock declaration of bravado is demonstrated for the fatal ending of a “delicious” young girl who our narrator only knew for an instant but who will touch him more than he cares to let on. After this, we experience “Valse de Melody” (a lovely contemplative reminiscence done in sweeping waltz fashion), “Ah! Melody” (detailing the freeing of inhibitions under the influence of burgeoning love), “L’Hotel Particulier” (the irresistible funk of consummation), and the climactic beat instrumental “En Melody” (literally, “in Melody,” complete with Birkin’s orgiastic loss of control) before setting up the tragic final act.

The album ends with the lengthy piece, “Cargo Culte,” which mirrors “Melody” in sound (but adds choral flourishes) and details the devastating end to this unconventional love story. Melody, under the influence of a newly discovered erotic energy, desires to return to her English hometown. Serge, on the other hand, has fallen under her spell and prays for a quasi-religious/spiritual cargo cult to will the plane upon an air disaster in order to bring his Melody back to him. The demise is inevitable; Serge’s heart collapses as she is plucked from the sky and taken from this world, leaving him “having nothing more to lose nor a God in whom to believe.”

Although Gainsbourg had already set himself a life-course of provocation and near-illicit behavior in addition to that of a superstar musician and acting legend in France, the pieces from all camps never fell into such perfect place as they did with Histoire de Melody Nelson. Yet, when released, the record was an unmitigated commercial disaster. As a wordsmith, Gainsbourg is peerless, and Melody is his magnum opus; it may not be his most playful, but it is his most beautiful set of words. Musically, it is a “concept album” that is marvelously understated, never allowing itself 10 minutes, much less one, of instrumental flatulence normally associated with the term. The pomp, when it rears its head, is delectable and reflects the salaciousness going on in the story perfectly. Likewise, Vannier’s contributions are so essential that he deserves co-credit on the front cover (which he was due until it was decided that Gainsbourg would get a solo billing).

Lewd and romantic at the same time, Gainsbourg played upon a much-trodden theme — made most famous by Vladimir Nabokov in Lolita — but makes the story his own by adding a few unique turns (still, it is interesting to note that Gainsbourg had the idea of setting Nabokov’s work to music, even going as far as asking the literary legend’s permission, but an ongoing contractual recording of the novel and Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation derailed his plans). The concept behind the album is just that — a concept or a sketched story. The blanks are there for the listener to fill in: backgrounds, emotions, and aftermaths. Histoire de Melody Nelson is much, much more than a simple lust story, and like any true work of art, it poses more questions than it answers. As the album continues gaining attention for its growing army of celebrity musician admirers, lovers of music owe it to themselves to find this impeccably conceived, progressive musical landmark. Frequently labeled as a lecherous rogue or public provocateur, Gainsbourg is also one of the most important artists of the 20th century, and this masterpiece is the proof.

David Nadelle

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Miles Davis – “Decoy” (Video – 1984)

January 26, 2010 at 2:35 pm (Miles Davis, Music)

The video taken from Miles’ 1984 album of the same name. Unfortunately the video doesn’t fade away but cuts out right as it’s ending.  

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“Inside”

January 25, 2010 at 7:41 pm (Poetry & Literature)

It won’t be long now
until I’m finally inside your walls
the passageway to ecstasy
and I may never want to climb back out

To hold you
and look into your deep blue eyes,
the window that leads to your soul,
while I show you everything you mean to me
you’re the movie star in all my dreams

This anticipation that has been growing
for several months,
like a gasoline fire raging wildly,
ready to explode

And I would do anything your heart desired
I’d take away the clouds
and replace it with the sun
just say the word
and it shall be done

A royal man once sang,
“I wanna be your lover,
I wanna be the only one you come for”
he must have been singing it to a girl like you

If only those words could be true.

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Miles Davis – 80s Medley (Unreleased)

January 25, 2010 at 2:29 pm (Funk, Jazz, Miles Davis, Music)

A “medley” of unreleased songs from Miles Davis, circa 1985. Some of this is taken from his unreleased Warner Bros. Rubberband album. Sadly, these are not full versions of these songs. They have yet to be released officially. Definitely some funky stuff. This needs to be released!
The “video” looks like it’s of a MD interview and shows Miles sketching as he talks.

Songs include: “Maze,” “Rubberband,” “See I See,” “Digg That” and “Street Smart Cues,” (from the film Street Smart).

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Paul Simon – “The Rhythm of the Saints” (1990)

January 25, 2010 at 7:23 am (Music, Reviews & Articles)

Paul Simon’s highly rhythmic 1990 follow-up to Graceland — this review comes courtesy of Rolling Stone, James McAlley, Nov. 15, 1990…

 

On Graceland, Paul Simon’s spirited, cross-cultural masterpiece. the singer-songwriter was “looking for a shot of redemption.” Over the course of his brilliant solo career to that point. Simon had dutifully paraded his tangled emotions on the epics of despair Paul Simon and Still Crazy After All These Years, as well as on the slightly less constrained There Goes Rhymin’ Simon and Hearts and Bones. But on Graceland, he showed a willingness to explore a world of ideas and feelings outside the labyrinthine complexity of his own psyche. Lifted to higher ground by the force of that album’s lively South African grooves, the notorious pop fatalist found himself singing, “I’ve reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland.” The feeling of transcendence was tangible.

The Rhythm of the Saints, Simon’s first collection of new material in four years, extends his reach not only further into the riches of world-beat music but further into the realm of the spiritual. The idioms that drive the new record are the guitar stylings of West African pop and the ritual rhythms of candomblé, a syncretic Afro-Brazilian cult that formed in South America when West Africans were displaced there during the diaspora. Simon has taken the primitive, religious roots of this music as inspiration for a song cycle that examines with visionary beauty and brooding intensity the viability of faith in a corrupt, heartless and sometimes merely predictable world.

Graceland derived much of its buoyancy from the jumping township jive that Simon adopted, with relatively little revision, as its musical heart and soul. In this regard, The Rhythm of the Saints – a record that marries two distantly related world-beat forms into a vibrant, textured hybrid – is more the product of Simon’s peerless studio craftsmanship. After recording the album’s dramatic rhythm tracks in Brazil, Simon returned to New York, where he and Vincent Nguini, a Cameroon native, floated vivid, circular guitar patterns over the raw percussive cadences. Melodies, lyrics and pop-influenced arrangements rose out of repeated listenings to these bare-bones tracks as Simon shaped them into songs. The resultant sound is less joyously idiosyncratic than the energetic mbaqanga that fueled Graceland – there are fewer bounding bass lines and only discreet use of accordion – but no less arresting. If The Rhythm of the Saints lacks Graceland‘s relentless bounce, its somber and bright tones shift in ways that illuminate the album’s intricate mosaic of dark and redemptive themes.

The album explodes into life with the thunderous drumming of Olodum, a tenman percussion group from Bahia, on “The Obvious Child,” the opening track and first single. In that song Simon adopts the voice of an Everyman whose days have become defined by their limitations and dogged ordinariness. Confronted by his mortality, Simon’s protagonist “wanders beyond” the “interior walls” of his consciousness to seek comfort in a higher authority. “The cross is in the ballpark,” Simon sings. “Why deny the obvious child?” Simon proposes renewal through spiritual awakening on “The Coast,” an exultant parable about a family of traveling musicians whose strained existence is altered after they take refuge “in the harbor church of St. Cecilia” – significantly, the patron saint of music. Bathed in morning sunlight, the members of the group celebrate the Resurrection, and, for their devotion, are led out of “the shadow of the valley” to salvation.

In counterpoint to these portraits of human affirmation, Simon casts haunted images of damage and helplessness. On the hypnotic “Can’t Run But,” he parallels with unrelenting grimness the steady erosion of the environment, romantic love and even the ability of music to transport the soul. “She Moves On” depicts a man endlessly undone by elusive lovers. And on “Further to Fly,” Simon skewers our desperate yearnings (“the open palm of desire”) with spirit-crushing cynicism: “A broken laugh a broken fever/Take it up with the great deceiver/Who looks you in the eye/And says baby don’t cry.”

In the Brazilian tradition, music and poetry are closely linked, and on The Rhythm of the Saints, Simon word-paints exhaustively. Many of these “art” songs are aggressively impressionistic and nonlinear – at times, to the point of opacity. The record requires several listenings before its abstract ideas begin to emerge and take on flesh, but when Simon’s literary gambles pay off – as they do to best effect on “The Cool, Cool River” – the results are breathtakingly visceral.

Powered by a surging, jagged 9/8 time signature, “The Cool, Cool River” runs through the thematic center of the album. After sketching a canvas of violence, oppression and isolation, Simon fixes the moment when a soul takes flight: “Anger and no one can heal it/Slides through the metal detector/Lives like a mole in a motel/A slide in a slide projector/The cool, cool river/Sweeps the wild, white ocean/The rage of love turns inward/To prayers of deep devotion.” In a startling moment, Simon offers this stark epiphany: “And I believe in the future/We shall suffer no more/Maybe not in my lifetime/But in yours I feel sure.”

There’s an ironic detachment in these lines that undercuts Simon’s leap of faith. That tension is part of the reason why – despite the album’s bold conviction and the soaring beauty of its most transcendent hymns, “Born at the Right Time” and “Spirit Voices” – it is finally so difficult to locate Simon in any definitive way at the album’s emotional core. By any measure, The Rhythm of the Saints is Simon’s least autobiographical work – which makes a certain amount of sense. As a confessional artist in the post-Freudian era, Simon has set his course through the world of the analytical, not the spiritual. But he’s smart enough to wonder if there are more things in heaven and earth than are known in his philosophy. Smart enough to wonder, and to know the rhythm of the saints when he feels it.

James McAlley

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