November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Jeff Katz/Music

Not Fading Away –

Two Old Men, Two New Albums

By Jeff Katz

How to Become Clairvoyant – Robbie Robertson

One of the biggest surprises of 1987 was Robbie Robertson’s self-titled debut. Yes, he wrote nearly all of The Band’s classic hits (though ex- drummer Levon Helm would later angrily dispute that claim). Sure he was a fierce lead guitarist, but his singing had always been an unknown. Robertson didn’t need to open his mouth in a band that contained Helm, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko, a trio of distinctive vocalists that are topped in rock history only by John, Paul and George. Yet, Robbie’s voice on his eponymous release was a gripping combination of coarse speak-sing, straight narration and straining high-pitched wails of beauty. It was an immediate classic and worth the decade long wait from the The Band’s final studio LP, Islands.

Since then, Robertson’s recorded output has been sporadic, and How to Become Clairvoyant is his first new album in 13 years. As such, it is much anticipated and delivers. Robertson appears on the cover dressed, seemingly, as the Unabomber, but he presents straight forward rock and roll; nothing as threatening as Ted Kaczynksi.

The album is built around its guests: Robert Randolph, Tom Morello, Trent Reznor (a little of Reznor’s moody sound baths go a long way. Hey, I’ve seen The Social Network twice; I get it), Steve Winwood, and the most promoted of all, Eric Clapton. The Clapton-Robertson sessions date from the early 1990s. Clapton has made no bones about wanting to join forces with The Band after the demise of Cream, but until now there were only brief encounters in The Last Waltz and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction ceremonies. The guitar and vocal interplay of the two is at the core of the record – Clapper is featured on seven of the 12 tunes, sharing lead vocals on the casually shuffling “Fear of Falling.” Stevie’s prominent organ bursts are also worthy of a shout out.

There are two musical and historical highlights. “When the Night Was Young,” about a certain youthful musician starting on the road, the road that would, for Robertson, turn out to be “a goddamn impossible way of life,” but for the then teenage Canadian and his band, the sights of Highway 61, God Bless America signs, and billboards touting guns and religious apocalypse were striking welcomes to the country that gave the birth to the music he followed.

“This Is Where I Get Off” is Robertson’s breakup song, 30 years late. Robbie makes it clear that he never wanted to leave the band, that he saw the growing alcoholism and rapid descent of band mates Manuel and Danko as the signal to move on. True? I don’t know. Certainly watching The Last Waltz would give one all the reasons they need to believe that Robbie had his sights on a new career of films and self-glorification with new friend Martin Scorsese. (They’ve worked on eight films together since). Were “the chances I’m taking against my will,” as Robertson sings? Hard to say. It’s an achingly wistful song, a soaring account of an unsure decision.

Scattered among the solid tracks is one big clinker. “Axman,” is of the worst type, in the tradition of tripe like “Rock and Roll Heaven.” Even the great Morello can’t save this singing laundry list of guitar gods. Despite that single lapse in judgment, Robbie Robertson has produced a superb record with How to Become Clairvoyant, adding significant bits of detail to the tales of rock’s past while not wasting a bit of time resting on prior accomplishments.

So Beautiful or So What – Paul Simon

I’ll admit that I am predisposed to like a new Paul Simon album. From the get-go, Simon’s solo work left Simon & Garfunkel in the dust and, among his peers (McCartney, Dylan to name two), Simon’s solo work has been an unparalleled run of excellence. The worst of his work (You’re the One, One Trick Pony and Songs from The Capeman) is quite good with moments of brilliance, and the best of his work (all the rest) are classics. Where does So Beautiful or So What sit among Paul Simon’s 12 studio albums?

The liner notes are off-putting and gave me pause. Written by Elvis Costello, they are grandiosely fawning and, for a second, I wondered if Paul was a little unsure of himself. He gets that way; after public failures like the movie One Trick Pony or the Broadway flop of Capeman, Simon tends to seek out a certain Garfunkel for financial, and perhaps artistic, rejuvenation. 2006’s Surprise was a top-notch recording, but not a hit was to be found.

No worries. So Beautiful is ridiculously good, bouncing effortlessly from the seriousness of Iraq and life after death to the goofiness of the secret of existence contained in an old Gene Vincent tune. “The Afterlife” is as funny a take on eternity as Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life, and it’s only 3:40!

I’ll admit something else; I don’t particularly like the obtuse lyrics that mark Graceland and The Rhythm of The Saints. Paul doesn’t need to try so hard to convey deep messages and wry phrases. So Beautiful is straight-forward in its poetry, hearkening back to Paul Simon and There Goes Rhymin’ Simon in easy humor and heartfelt emotion.

“Dazzling Blue” is an amalgam of Simon’s solo styles. Over tabla and clay pots, Simon strums a tale of a leisurely drive out to Montauk. It’s followed by “Rewrite,” where Simon thanks the Lord for interceding as he revises his work and his life, accompanied by djembe, glass harp and bass talking drum, in another fusing of the exotic with the common.

Clearly, Paul has mortality on his mind. The sixties legends – McCartney, Dylan, Robertson, The Stones, etc.) – have created something new: the aging, artistically valid, rock star. Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard: they’ve been rehashing their hits for 50 years. That’s true, to a small degree about the ‘60’s icons, but, album after album these guys keep producing fresh, vital music. I’m sure it keeps them young, but they’re not young, and they know it (well, maybe McCartney and Jagger don’t know it).

Simon has always ably mixed seriousness with comedy, but he’s at his happiest stuck in the ‘50’s.  I saw that in full view when he sang doo wop background vocals for Dion at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert in 2009. (Clearly, that night was important to Paul too. He thanks B.B. King, who shared the bill, for turning him on to the recordings of The Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet’s recordings, which Simon puts to use in “Love and Blessings.”) That affinity for basic rock, and a rededication to rhythm-based, rather than melody-based, tunes is what marks his pre- and post- Graceland albums. But So Beautiful or So What mixes the best of Paul Simon; super melodies over solid beats, with words that’ll make you smile as you think.

So, where does So Beautiful or So What sit among Paul Simon’s 12 studio albums?

Classic.

 

— Jeff Katz is music editor of Ragazine.

 

1 comment

1 Linda { 05.01.11 at 12:45 pm }

This interview leaves something to be desired. Mr. Katz fills his record review with “back-handed compliments” and has a slight sarcastic, condescending POV-lukewarm at best. Of course, MY opinion is colored by the fact that I am a long-time Robertson fan and adore his latest endeavor. IMHO, How To Become Clairvoyant is outstanding from beginning to end-yes, even Axman! Do yourself a favor and get this album. And Mr. Katz, while I respect your opinion and your “expertise”, I suggest that you put aside your pre-conceived notions and listen again with a more open mind. You might be pleasantly surprised.