Paul Simon – Negotiations and Love Songs 1971-1986

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

When I was growing up in the 1980s, Paul Simon had achieved what I always thought of as a puzzling sort of celebrity. For reasons I’ve never discerned, Simon enjoyed popularity in my middle school for a brief but intense period of time. “Cecilia” and “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard” were particular widespread favorites. Beyond that, Simon was on Saturday Night Live multiple times and was married (and later again involved with) Star Wars icon Carrie Fisher. While his musical career foundered before Graceland, that album made him a superstar, and he was everywhere. Inescapable. Still, I never warmed to him.

What I Think of This Album

Is this a good or bad Paul Simon comp? I have no idea. And the mystery does not keep me up at night. I feel like this gives me what I need, and also a whole lot I don’t. Your mileage may vary. At one point, I owned Simon’s self-titled debut – entirely because I had read that Billy Bragg had based the “I was 21 years when I wrote this song / I’m 22 now but I won’t be for long” lyric from “A New England” on a song on that album but it turns out that is incorrect, as the line is from “Leaves That Are Green” which is on Simon & Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence. The point is that I have some exposure to an actual Paul Simon studio album. Like I said, I feel that this album is sufficient.

This collection gathers 16 tracks from the six albums Simon released from 1971 to 1986. For some reason, that seems like a low output for such a long span, but I suppose he was also busy with other projects. Relatedly, 16 tracks seems like not enough from six albums, unless the albums were shitty. But Graceland by itself could have been basically grafted onto this – it is bewildering that only two of its songs are here when so many other lesser ones are included – so again I have to wonder:  maybe this is a poorly curated album.

On the one hand, this has the famous Simon solo songs that I know I like:  “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard,” “Kodachrome,” and “Late In the Evening.” And other songs that I was less familiar with and think are fine, like “Mother and Child Reunion” and “Loves Me Like a Rock.”

I always thought the lyric in “Me and Julio” was “the radical grease gonna get me released,” which I frankly think makes more sense – or anyway is better – than “the radical priest.” Whatever. I love the Latin percussion on this (courtesy of Airto Moreira). The use of gospel singers The Dixie Hummingbirds is what elevates “Loves Me Like a Rock.”

“Kodachrome” is phenomenal. Just a great melody with a stellar arrangement (love the drumming, and so well mixed, and the piano part towards the end is eye-opening), and a touch of sociopathy in the lyrics. The other true standout is “Late In the Evening,” with drummer Steve Gadd employing four drumsticks, a fun, compelling lyric, and a great Latin horn part.

I fully admit that “Slip Slidin’ Away” is cheesy – it’s got the Oak Ridge Boys on it – but I swear to God it gets me, clip-clopping into my ear drums. The Graceland tracks are by definition excellent.

But some inclusions confuse me. “Something So Right” seems pretty wrong – snoozer. Same for “St. Judy’s Comet,” I guess written for Simon’s son; on top of being a lullaby, it’s a waste of the Muscle Shoals musicians. “Hearts and Bones” is exactly what I would expect from Paul Simon in 1983, as is the even more pandering “Train In the Distance.”

I understand why “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” is here but I’ve always hated it – it’s nothing but gimmick, and shoddily done (lyrically) at that. Similarly, it’s not surprising to find “Still Crazy After All These Years,” but it’s a ponderous, heavy-handed slog. “Have a Good Time” is a fucking embarrassment, or at least should be. 

There is nothing about “Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War” that could in any way burnish Simon’s reputation. If anything, it speaks to two of his great, interrelated weaknesses. One is his refusal to let his talent be what it is and to instead aim for transcendence, only to land on pretension. The other is that Simon often conveys a lack of sincerity, preferring to instead advertise himself as a protean craftsman. Thus, “Magritte” could have been a touching, tender song about an elderly couple strolling past sex shops and dancing in their home to doo wop, but he had to make it a piece of historical fiction and both borrow significance and manufacture sentimentality from Magritte’s stature.

So maybe this a bad collection, or maybe I just don’t like Simon that much.

Random fact:  Cissy Houston sings backup on “Mother and Child Reunion.” 

The Best Thing About This Album

“Late In the Evening”

Release Date

October, 1988

The Cover Art

The shadow from the blinds is the only acceptable thing about this art.

Paul Simon – Graceland

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 1)

Wow. The history and legacy of this album is far more complicated than I originally knew. It makes listening to it a slightly different experience for me. The problems start with its birth. Apparently, a young singer-songwriter named Heidi Berg had secured Paul Simon’s agreement to produce her album; in anticipation of the work, she provided him with a bootleg mix tape (allegedly titled Gumboots:  Accordion Jive Hits No. 2) of South African music to give him a sense of the sound she wanted. Captivated by the music, Simon decided to use the tape as the basis for an album of his own. The Simon-produced, mbaqanga-influenced Berg album obviously never materialized.

Having decided to record with South African musicians, Simon was aware of the United Nations cultural boycott on South Africa in response to apartheid. He ultimately was not deterred. On the one hand, he consulted with Quincy Jones and Harry Belafonte, while on the other: a) so what; and b) he ignored Belafonte’s advice anyway. Also, Simon had already shown antagonism towards Nelson Mandela, according to Steven Van Zandt, and had refused to perform on Van Zandt’s 1985 “Sun City” protest song because of his allegiance to Linda Rondstadt, called out in the song for having performed at the titular resort also in defiance of the boycott. But he himself had refused to play at Sun City.

Simon’s decision was condemned by musicians like Billy Bragg and Terry Hall (the Specials), while the South African black musicians’ union voted to let Simon visit. The musicians on the album have all been nothing but supportive of Simon’s decision, while other African musicians have been critical. Simon was generous with pay and fair with royalties, while at the same time the very fact of the recording sessions endangered the musicians (e.g., risking being out past curfew) and forced them to risk their well-being for the promise of exposure and payment. And the question has been raised as to how the musicians could have been on equal footing with Simon in the studio when they were legally obligated to treat him as superior while he was in their country. Relatedly, Simon obviously benefited from apartheid while in South Africa even when not recording simply by being a white person participating in the societal framework.

Gallingly, Simon invited Rondstadt to sing on “Under African Skies,” knowing full well about her own transgressions (which Rondstadt pleaded ignorance to at the time) and in the midst of the criticism he was subjected to. This decision is difficult to interpret as anything but deliberate and petulant nose-thumbing. 

Moreover, two artists have accused Simon of plagiarism in connection with the album (not counting Berg, from whom Simon lifted the idea and executed with the privilege of his superior resources). First, featured artist The Good Rockin’ Dopsie and the Twisters averred that the tune “That Was Your Mother” was based on one of their other songs but let it slide, figuring that the exposure from being on the album at all made up for it. On the other hand, Steve Berlin of Los Lobos is adamant that Simon stole “All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints” and defied the band to sue him when they complained. As to why they did not, Berlin claims that label president Lenny Waronker talked them out of it. 

Finally, at the time the album was released, there was little to no mainstream (i.e., white) recognition of appropriation. There is now. Where does Graceland fall? Simon was voluble about the origins of the music and instead of mimicking it and passing it off as his own (though his original impulse was close to if not exactly this), he went out and found the native musicians and worked with them. He also gave credit to those musicians, including for songwriting. This sets him closer to David Byrne as opposed to, say, Vampire Weekend. But he also capitalized and profited from music that he has no organic connection to and, as he admits, he only relates to because it reminds him of 50’s American roots music.

What I Think of This Album

This is a wonderful album, regardless of all the baggage. The music is a revelation, and Simon delivers a set of lyrics that avoid pandering and pretentiousness. The bass lines, in particular, are a wonder to listen to.

“The bomb in the baby carriage was wired to the radio” lyric would be enough for me to declare “The Boy In the Bubble” a classic, but consider also the accordion intro and those huge drum hits and frankly the rest of the lyrics and this is a tremendous opening song. It was cowritten with Forere Motloheloa and the African musicians were the members of Tau Ea Matsekha.

The title track is a gentle shuffle and while some of the lyrics are a bit overcooked, the bass line is fucking killer and the guitar work is excellent, as is the druming. The Everly Brothers sing backup on this. Ray Phiri was the guitarist, while Bakithi Kumalo played the fretless bass.

The opening of “I Know What I Know” reminds me of “La Bamba.” The song is based on the work of General M.D. Shirinda and the Gaza Singers, and Shirinda gets a co-writing credit. Frankly, Simon’s lyrics kind of suck on this one, but the music and the backing vocals are divine.

“Gumboots” is essentially a rerecording of one of the songs from the infamous mix tape that started it all. The tempo and delicate accordion work are fantastic. Not sure the saxophone overdubs add anything special. The synclavier is an admittedly nice touch by Simon. Songwriting credit and backing by the Boyoyo Boys.

Listening to the gentle vocal tones from Ladysmith Black Mambazo on “Diamonds On the Soles of Her Shoes” is like the most peaceful drowning imaginable. The rest of the arrangement is out of this world – the horns, the guitar, the bass, the percussion. Youssou N’Dour played percussion on this track. LBM’s leader Joseph Shabalala got a credit for this tune.

The big hit was “You Can Call Me Al,” propelled in part by a goofy, celebrity-guested music video. But the fact is the music is unstoppable and Simon’s delivers a set of lyrics of relatable disillusionment and displacement. The bass solo is palindromic – the second half is just the tape of the first half played backwards – which doesn’t make the first half any less goddamn impressive.

My least favorite track is “Under African Skies,” as it sounds like Simon is trying too hard for something transcendent. And then there is the Rondstadt element, which is difficult to ignore. But for the most part it’s just that you can see the seams on this one. There is no better parody of a Paul Simon song title than “Crazy Love, Vol. II.” This one feels a little slight – I don’t like the glassine guitar figure and the melody is fairly mediocre. These are really the only weak tracks.

Shabalala also co-wrote “Homeless,” featuring another performance by LBM, who again provide soul-stirring vocals. Notably, Simon is only minimally present on this track, which was a wise decision and one I am surprised he was capable of. The wash of LBM’s voices is wonderful.

The final songs are a bit anomalous. I get (or assume) that Simon was trying to draw some connections to American roots music but it throws the album off and makes it seem like more of a school project than a labor of love. That said, both “That Was Your Mother” and “All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints” are great songs. I have a minor soft spot for zydeco – I just can’t listen to much of it at once.

Adrian Belew also played on the album. Ray Phiri died in 2017, while Joseph Shabalala passed in 2020.

The Best Thing About This Album

The bass work.

Release Date

August, 1986

The Cover Art

I hate this medieval tapestry bullshit. Zero out of ten.

Simon & Garfunkel – The Essential Simon & Garfunkel

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

My first Simon & Garfunkel album was (a dubbed copy of) The Concert In Central Park. For many years, this was the only Simon & Garfunkel I owned, so it was a shock to me later when I heard the studio versions (and also when I learned that the Simon solo songs from the show were not Simon & Garfunkel songs). I still think of the Central Park versions as the relevant lodestars. One more thing. Simon & Garfunkel released five studio albums. They employed an ampersand for the first two (Wednesday Morning, 3AM; Sounds of Silence), switched to an “and” for the third (Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme), reverted to the elegant symbol for Bookends, and then ended things back on the “and” (Bridge Over Troubled Water). This ambivalence – or carelessness – is fucking inexcusable. Just so you know, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel met in elementary school and started out as a duo called Tom & Jerry.

What I Think of This Album

It turns out that you don’t really need that much Simon & Garfunkel. I assume any Greatest Hits comp should suit almost anyone’s needs. This one is fine. Notably (and properly), it pulls almost half of its 33 tracks from Bookends and Bridge Over Troubled Water. And even then it cheats because the final song – “My Little Town” – is not really a Simon & Garfunkel song and they use a live version of “Overs” instead of the studio version from Bookends. So really, they use 17 songs from two albums out of a total of 32 legitimate Simon & Garfunkel songs. Frustratingly, they end up having to split the Bookends tracks across the two discs.

Implicit in this decisionmaking is that much of the early stuff is pretentious crap. I don’t know who decided to group “A Most Peculiar Man,” ”I Am a Rock,” and “Richard Cory” together – I sort of hope it was a cruel joke – but it makes me want to say “I. Get. It. Let’s move on to a different theme, please. Message received.” Also, “A Dangling Conversation” is embarrassingly terrible and all my life I have HATED “Scarborough Fair/Canticle.”

The best of the early stuff is obviously “The Sound of Silence,” “Homeward Bound,” and “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)” and even this last one is sort of a squeaker. Which is not to absolve the later material. Paul Simon is consistently an affected wannabe poet. “Overs” is silly and “Bookends Theme” is stuffy. “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” would be more annoying if it wasn’t so boring.

Bookends is an album that one could arguably justify owning (and I did at one point). “Hazy Shade of Winter” is fantastic, and I love “At the Zoo” (especially the harmony near-scream towards the end). “Mrs. Robinson” (later covered by the Lemonheads) is unbeatable and “Old Friends” is pretty good. “America” is also a stone-cold classic – just gorgeous. But again, you could just get a comp and make things easy and more economical for yourself.

There are a lot of live tracks on this – eight – but none of them is a song that matters. Some of the early material was produced by Bob Johnston (Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, the Byrds) and Tom Wilson (Dylan, the Velvet Underground, Sun Ra).

The Best Thing About This Album

Making me realize that Simon & Garfunkel are overrated.

Release Date

October, 2003

The Cover Art

Did somebody order somebody else to find the picture of Simon and Garfunkel in which each of them has the worst haircut of their life?

Simon and Garfunkel – Bridge Over Troubled Water

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 1)

One of my random childhood memories associated with Simon and Garfunkel is that when I would hear the “In the clearing stands a boxer” verse of “The Boxer,” I would get chills (almost always at the “Or cut him / Till he cried out / In his anger and his shame”). At some point I noticed this somatic response, and I appreciated two things. One, I knew that there was an emotional component to my reaction – that something about those words and the way Paul Simon sung them touched me in a unique way – and that somehow my feelings were manifesting physically, and I marveled at the connection between mind and body. This was all the more fascinating to me because I knew my body’s response was genuine. I couldn’t manufacture chills on command, unlike crying or laughing; this was totally unbidden and beyond my control, so what I was experiencing was the power of music. Two, and relatedly, I tested the consistency and longevity of the experience. Every time I heard the song, I wondered if I would get the chills again or if I would have developed an immunity, or somehow become calloused. And every time, it would happen. It still does.

What I Think of This Album

The best and arguably only must-own Simon and Garfunkel album, Bridge Over Troubled Water is also their most varied and successful, and also their last (and fifth). I’ve always maintained that a good part of the appeal of the pair’s songs lies in the production, and I think that is particularly evident on this release. The booming drums on “The Boxer,” the percussion tricks and reverb-heavy sound on “Cecilia,” the gospel piano of the title track, all the harmonies on “The Only Living Boy in New York.” Let’s give Roy Halee some credit here.

Nonetheless, the songwriting on the album was superb. “The Boxer” is phenomenal – just a massive achievement – and Halee’s equally large production and the work of the Wrecking Crew (including Hal Blaine on drums) provides the perfect canvas for Simon’s tale of loneliness and validation. The power of the arrangement amplifies the poignancy of the lyrics. I fucking love this song.

Obviously, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is an epic ballad, based in part on Claude Jeter’s performance of the spiritual “Mary Don’t You Weep” when he was in the Swan Silvertones. I don’t normally care much for Art Garfunkel’s solo vocals, but he does an undeniably great job here. It’s been covered a million times, including by Aretha Franklin, Johnny Cash, and Elvis. Every year at my middle school, the girls’ choir would perform this song at graduation, and not even those jejune, lily-white bombardments can inflict lasting damage, so sturdy is it.

“The Only Living Boy in New York” (a title later lovingly bastardized by Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine) is a tender admission of Garfunkel’s importance to Simon and the loss Simon felt while Garfunkel took time off for his acting career. While relegated to a B-side, “Keep the Customer Satisfied” is a fun, bitter, and funny song from a duo who could be a bit dour, and one of my favorites of their tunes.

“Baby Driver” is another uptempo and lighthearted offering that counterbalances the two big ballads on the album. Speaking of fun, “Cecilia” is a sunny, lively vignette about a comically unfaithful lover, with an infectious Afro-Caribbean rhythm that foretells Simon’s interest in world music. To that end, Simon explores other cultural sounds in “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)” (written by Daniel Alomía Robles), which he performs with Los Incas/Urubamba, and on “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright,” as well as “Why Don’t You Write Me?”

The live cover of “Bye Bye Love” (popularized by the Everly Brothers, natch) is pointless filler.

Trivia:  The album has sold over 8 million copies in the U.S and 25,000,000 worldwide. Roy Halee’s father (also named Roy) was the voice of Mighty Mouse and Heckle and Jeckle in cartoons of the 1940s.

The Best Thing About This Album

That it allowed the act to go out on top of their game.

Release Date

January, 1970

The Cover Art

I like the vertical placement of the text and I like how it is mirrored by having Simon stand in front of Garfunkel. But the image itself is blah. I do sort of appreciate the grainy quality, like its a film still.

Shout Out Louds – Our Ill Wills

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

The whole point of this (dumb, dumb, dumb) project is to examine exactly what it is that appeals to me about each album and band in my collection. But sometimes, the unexamined album is still worth listening to. Or something. I don’t really feel like thinking about Shout Out Louds and Our Ill Wills. Or more to the point, I am not sure there is much to be gained from thinking much about them. Focusing on the lyrics, for example, gets you nowhere, as they often do not make sense, though the line “you and I are rats at Cupid’s table” is one I’ll have to remember if I ever find that special someone. True, they are not singing in their native language but it’s fairly patronizing to suggest the band doesn’t know or can’t do better. I just think they like the way these words sound. And I have to agree. I like the way the words sound and if I read the lyrics, the effort only detracts from the experience. Similarly, I could mix and match with the Cure all day, but why? I want to take this album at face value and just enjoy it for what it is.

What I Think of This Album

Despite the explicit Smiths reference on “Meat Is Murder,” Shout Out Louds once again turn to the Cure for inspiration, as amply demonstrated by Adam Olenious’s puppy dog vocals and the unmistakable Head On the Door-era elements (particularly on opener “Tonight I Have to Leave It,” with its classically Boris Williams drum pattern). This is not a criticism – it works and I like it. In fact, this sophomore album only suffers in comparison to the debut because we know what’s coming this time.

That’s not entirely true, actually. This album deemphasizes the guitars and producer Björn Yttling (Peter, Bjorn and John) instead dresses things up with an abundance of strings and guest contributions from the likes of bandmate John Erickson and Lykke Li Zachrisson. And the tone is significantly gloomier this time. But the strings and the moroseness don’t make this a weaker album, just a darker one.

So this time we get the aural equivalent of sour patch worms:  colorful, bright, and addictive, but with loneliness and sadness at their core. This is best reflected in highlights like sophisticated “Impossible,” with its impressive percussion flourishes, bouncy keyboard line (more Cure) and harmony vocals, and the aforementioned “Tonight.” Similarly, “Normandie” sounds like “Close To Me” on vacation north of the Arctic Circle. And “Time Left for Love” tells a muddled story of catastrophic vehicular death that I think is supposed to be a reminder to love early and often, but whatever – it sounds cool, especially that piano part.

There are some nice surprises, too, such as Bebban Stenborg’s lead vocal turn on “Blue Headlights,” which she wrote (including the “rats at Cupid’s table” line) and which shuffles nicely and features a pristine piano part. Almost title track “Ill Wills” is a delicate, sweet Instrumental. And “Hard Rain” almost borders on lite psychedelia at times.

The Best Thing About This Album

Rhyming “serial killer” with “Caterpillar” (as in, the heavy machinery, not the arthropod).

Release Date

April, 2007 (Sweden); May 2007 (Europe); September, 2007 (U.S)

The Cover Art

Pretty good. The nautical flags (sorry, I mean the international maritime signal flags) spell out the band’s name and then the album title.

Shout Out Louds – Howl Howl Gaff Gaff

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 1)

I haven’t followed this band in the way that I should have – third album Work sort of stopped me cold – and that is on me, because Shout Out Louds (there is no The on the album art, so . . . ) make wonderful music. Formed in Stockholm around 2001, the band consists of three childhood friends – Adam Olenius, Ted Malmros, and Carl von Arbin – and two newcomers, keyboardist Bebban Stenborg and drummer Eric Edman. They had a debut EP by 2003 and Howl Howl Gaff Gaff came out two years later (though a different version with the same title was released in Scandinavian countries in 2003).

What I Think of This Album

If you are particularly stingy and brittle-hearted, you could say this album is basically a collection of eleven different variations on the Cure’s “Close to Me” and “In Between Days.” And if you said that, I admit I would laugh. And then I would punch you in the throat, you joyless fucker.

This is an exuberant and exciting burst of Scandinavian indie pop, and it may be one of my favorite albums. It’s just so goddamn colorful and radiant. I particularly love the slight rasp in Adam Olenius’s voice. 

Like any proper Scandinavian art, there is a strong element of lyrical melancholy that provides a nice counterbalance to the thrilling sounds and bloodrush delivery. Somehow, Shout Out Louds have created the happiest sad music ever. Relatedly, I feel like this quintet was at least partial inspiration for the Pains of Being Pure at Heart.

The band’s firework energy would mean little if it wasn’t harnessed to strong songwriting. If energy is all you want, I have some football chants you might enjoy. No, SOL’s brilliance is in their ability to also craft charming melodies with an immediacy that makes them feel like long-lost classics and to arrange the songs in a way that keeps you engaged and craving repeat listens. 

The keyboard work of Bebban Stornborg (particularly on “100°” (I had to research how to do that degrees symbol and I am fucking stoked that I found it)) is undoubtedly critical, perhaps even responsible for the sound of strings (there is no string section credited but that doesn’t mean anything). Beyond that, drummer Eric Edman (and guest drummer Stellan von Reybekie) is nimble and adept. There is well-placed feedback, fuzz bass, xylophone, wah-wah guitar, melodica, some kind of glockenspiel or something, and a lot of other little touches that add sparkle and glitter. 

As this album is cobbled together, there are multiple producers and mixers, but one of them is Björn Yttling of Peter, Bjorn, and John.

This is low key one of my favorite albums.

The Best Thing About This Album

The exhilaration.

Release Date

October, 2003 (Scandinavia); May, 2005 (International)

The Cover Art

You know what? It’s not bad. If this was the cover of a book in my elementary school library, I would totally read it. The shade of green and the placement of the text on my copy is a little different (i.e., more of a forest green and left justified (but not the Gaff Gaff line))

The Shirelles – Greatest Hits

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

As much as I like the girl-group genre, there are some large holes in my collection. I own the One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost and Found box set, but that’s all rarities and obscurities. I have the Phil Spector Back to Mono box set as well, though I am not sure how complete of an overview it offers of the Ronettes or the Crystals. My Motown box set has some Marvelettes, Martha and the Vandellas, and Velvelettes but again, is not comprehensive. I own no Shangri-Las. For the record, I have never liked Diana Ross’s voice and have no intention of getting a Supremes comp. But I am glad I own this Shirelles album. Formed while they were still in high school in New Jersey in 1957, the Shirelles were Shirley Owens, Doris Cooley, Addie “Mickie” Harris, and Beverly Lee. They were signed to a contract by Florence Greenberg, a literally bored New Jersey housewife who, in her mid-forties, decided to go into the music business and started the label Tiara Records. Not the first girl-group, but probably the first girl-group that found major success, the Shirelles worked with Luther Dixon to craft their unique sound. Dionne Warwick sometimes stepped in for absent members for live performances. Harris died in 1982, and Cooley passed in 2000.

What I Think of This Album

This extremely bare-bones budget CD is nonetheless adequate unless you are a very hardcore Shirelles fan. It is disappointing that there is zero information included in the booklet, but hey – it’s got the songs.

The album runs through twelve Shirelles songs, not in any particular order, spanning the years 1958-1964. As far as I can tell, all the chart hits are here:  “Soldier Boy;” “Dedicated to the One I Love;” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow;” “Mama Said;” “Foolish Little Girl;” and “Baby It’s You.”

Notably, both “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and “Tonight’s the Night” concerned losing one’s virginity, which was risky subject matter back then. “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” was a Carole King and Gerry Goffin song. Burt Bacharach was one of the songwriters of “Baby Its You.” King Curtis played sax on “Boys.”

Florence Greenberg ended up running labels that released:  “Louie, Louie;” “Twist and Shout;” and . . . uh . . . “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head.” The Shirelles sued her when they learned that a trust fund she had promised to set up and keep for them did not exist. She passed away in 1995.

Luther Dixon wrote many of these Shirelles hits, as well as “16 Candles.” He died in 2009.

The Beatles included covers of “Boys” (sung by Ringo!) and “Baby It’s You” on Please Please Me.

The Best Thing About This Album

 Fucking all of it. The vocals. The songwriting. The arrangements. ALL. OF. IT.

Release Date

1991

The Cover Art

I can’t believe I actually found this cover online. It’s awful.

She & Him – Volume Two

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

My friend Brian hates Squeeze. I find this strange, though not because I am particularly invested in defending Squeeze. I do happen to think they have some great songs, but I really couldn’t care less about the band. And that’s my point. Squeeze seems like one of the most generic, inoffensive, fundamentally faceless bands there is. She & Him, despite their pedigree, has Squeeze beat at this particular no-win game. She & Him generate exactly zero passion on my part. They’re fine. I like their songs. But I couldn’t bring myself to say I love them even if it meant a lifetime of financial security for me and my children. I can’t imagine anyone loving this band.

What I Think of This Album

Volume Two is significantly better than Volume One, as if the debut had been a test balloon of some sort that, having not been brought down by hostile seagulls or red-eyed right-wing militia members, convinced Zooey Deschanel (in particular) that she could actually do this.

Deschanel offers up a very strong set of songs, and M. Ward also seems more at ease and willing to provide a bit more color than last time. Again, it’s all very light and lovely, cheery even when the subject matter is blue, taking everyone back to a time when we didn’t know that Phil Spector was a terrifying maniac.

From the wondrous opener “Thieves” to the Latin/county mashup “Lingering Still” to the clever reliance on Greek mythology in “Don’t Look Back” to the country-soul of “Home” to the straight country of “I’m Gonna Make It Better,” She & Him create a warm and welcoming universe where heartbreak is just the lemon in the lemonade. Also, not every song is countrified – “In the Sun” is jazz-disco.

Even the covers work this time, helped along by the fact that they are much more obscure than the ill-advised Beatles and Smokey Robinson efforts of the first album:  NRBQ’s “Ridin In My Car” and “Gonna Get Along Without You Now,” a song from 1951 whose most famous version is by Skeeter Davis in 1964 (though the Lemonheads and Bad Manners also covered it). Neither of these songs comes with enough heritage to overwhelm She & Him, and their versions are able to breathe and even thrive.

The Best Thing About This Album

The increased sense of confidence.

Release Date

March, 2010

The Cover Art

Pretty cool, and this time the figure has (partial) facial features, so it’s not nearly as nightmare-inducing.

She & Him – Volume One

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 1)

M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel met in 2005 on the set of an independent film for which they performed a duet. They bonded and she sent him some of her demos and they decided to work together, beginning recording on this debut release barely a year after they first met.

What I Think of This Album

It is easy to come into this predisposed against it as a crass vanity project. But this isn’t Don Johnson’s Heartbeat album on Epic. Zooey Deschanel’s name and face are absent from the art, and it’s on Merge. And, for what it’s worth, she has a really nice voice, can write a good song, and doesn’t surround herself with a bunch of high-priced hired guns in the studio.

Comprising ten originals and three covers, the album – whose title communicates confidence, if nothing else – is overwhelmingly charming and pleasant without being groundbreaking. Deschanel, true to her Hollywood roots, is capable of conveying various emotions well, usually accompanied by sunny melodies supported by neo-Spector arrangements. M. Ward, for his part, is unobtrusive and appears more than willing to cede the spotlight. Songs like the weepy “Sentimental Heart” and the rollicking and flirty “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?,” as well as girl-group number “I Was Made for You” are emblematic of the overall strength of the album.

The covers are where I have the most trouble. It is in these moments that the whole project seems irretrievably precious. The Smokey Robinson and Beatles covers are at best unnecessary and at worst, border on embarrassing. But the cover of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is even more problematic. I’m not sure who was involved in the decision-making on this, but it seems fairly distasteful to have a white bread movie star singing an African-American spiritual (though this misdeed has been committed many times over, including by Bing Crosby and Eric Clapton). It’s an unfortunate way to end an otherwise very enjoyable affair.

Guests include Rachel Blumberg of the Decemberists and Mike Coykendall (Devotchka).

The Best Thing About This Album

Deschanel can sing. No doubt about it.

Release Date

March, 2008

The Cover Art

I love the font and the watercolor. The featureless face is creepy as fuck.

Del Shannon – Greatest Hits

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I don’t remember the first time I heard “Runaway” and I am almost positive it took a little bit after that before I knew who Del Shannon was, but I was familiar with the song by the time I was seven. I didn’t think much about Shannon again until the news of his suicide in 1990. Shannon was born Charles Weedon Westover, and after a stint in the Army, he worked a series of jobs in Michigan, most consistently selling carpeting, when he joined a local band as a guitar player, later taking over the unit when the leader was dismissed for drunkenness. He took the stage name Charlie Johnson and, most importantly, recruited local musician Max Crook into the band in 1959. Crook was a musical wunderkind who had invented an analog synthesizer he called the Musitron (based on the existing Clavioline). Crook also got the band noticed after he mailed out recordings, and after he and Westover signed to the Bigtop label in 1960, Westover was persuaded to adopt the stage name Del Shannon. Shannon had hits into the mid-60’s, and was particularly popular in England. He made some forays into country music and attempts at a rock comeback – he eventually worked with Jeff Lynne as well as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Dave Edmunds, and the Smithereens, and was rumored to become the replacement for Roy Orbison in the Traveling Wilburys – never quite succeeded. He wrote the Peter & Gordon hit “I Go to Pieces.” He was the first U.S. artist to cover the Beatles, in 1963. He also helped a young Bob Seger get his career off the ground.

What I Think of This Album

I can only hope that for many years to come, every week or so, some kid hears “Runaway” and becomes captivated and either contemporaneously or later, further explores the music of Del Shannon and helps to keep his memory alive. 

Rhino thankfully presents these twenty tracks in chronological order. It helps to appreciate what Shannon was up against, as “Runaway” was his first and biggest hit, a song he was never able to top even as he wrote and released several other excellent singles. And as the liner notes take pains to emphasize, Shannon should not be lumped in with the teen vocal idols of the 60’s because he was a rocker, from his songwriting abilities to his skills as a guitarist to his modern-looking thematic concerns of loss, rejection, and regret. 

“Runaway” is a monster track, immediately grabbing you by the ears with the dramatic, Latin-esque guitar and piano intro, the pumping sax, Shannon’s lyrics efficiently describing bewilderment and agony, building to his gritty prechorus vocal, and THEN you get to Shannon’s falsetto and THEN you get the space-age Musitron part, which is somehow both disorienting and perfectly complementary, and holy fucking shit! This is a masterpiece whose only flaw is that it is way too short.

“Hats Off to Larry” is a fantastically bitter and biting tune, which in seeking to repeat the success of “Runaway,” also features a critical falsetto part and the haunting sounds of Crook’s Musitron. The chugging “So Long Baby” is another surprisingly sophisticated tale of psychosexual drama, with easily the best kazoo solo in rock history. “Hey! Little Girl” rounds out the four Top 40 Hits Shannon had in 1961.

Other highlights include “Cry Myself to Sleep,” which is very obviously the basis for Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock.” “Two Silhouettes” is an excellent story of betrayal. “Stranger In Town” is compelling and creepy. “Show Me” has some hints of surf rock to it, while “Sister Isabelle” borders on lite-psych, with a surprisingly soulful vocal. 

As the liner notes point out, “Little Town Flirt” has the same opening lyric as the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale” and “Keep Searchin’ (We’ll Follow the Sun)” is the precursor to all those Springsteen songs about how we gotta get out of this town (though with a falsetto outro that Bruce could never have pulled off).

Max Crook’s story is interesting in its own right. Born into a musical family, he built his own recording studio by the time he was fourteen and the Musitron around the age of 23. In addition to working with Shannon, he recorded instrumental songs under various guises including the name Maximilian. He passed in 2020.

Fun facts: “Runaway” was recorded in A but the producer sped the recording up to juuuuuust below B-flat; Shannon recorded a new version of the song in 1967 with half of Led Zeppelin (Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones) and Nicky Hopkins; the Misfits covered the song; Echo & the Bunnymen reference it on “Over the Wall” and Tom Petty references it on “Running’ Down a Dream.”

The Best Thing About This Album

“Runaway” is the, you can guess it, runaway winner.

Release Date

1990

The Cover Art

I like the early ‘60s lettering and color scheme and the not-at-all-convincing smile on Shannon’s face speaks to the dark themes he explored in his songs.

Proudly powered by WordPress | Theme: Baskerville 2 by Anders Noren.

Up ↑