“Bonnie Brae” – Harper Simon
Okay, it’s a first-world problem, but to be the son or daughter of a famous musician seems a no-win situation. Both nature and nurture are on your side, and yet if you dare seek a musical life of your own it’s hard to catch a break from the hive mind. When your mother or father is a landmark figure (Bob Dylan, say; or John Lennon; or, as here, Paul Simon), the kneejerk judgments will always find you lacking in comparison. (But who, pray tell, isn’t lacking in comparison?) So it’s natural for the grown child to want to create some distance from the parent. Especially as they age into full adulthood themselves (the younger Simon is himself 40). And it’s natural for sympathetic and/or hip music writers to want to try to be nonchalant and not even mention the connection (I’ve seen blurbs on Simon that do not mention his father, for instance). This second generation does deserve to be heard on their own, absolutely. And yet: shouldn’t offspring of beloved talents be all the more embraced because of who their parents are—shouldn’t their genetic gifts predispose us to welcoming their musical efforts? It’s a conundrum.
Sometimes, to be sure, the nature part of it is kind of spooky—Dhani Harrison went through a phase maybe 10 years ago when he looked like he just walked off the set of A Hard Day’s Night; and there was that almost too-successfully Lennonesque “Valotte,” by Julian, back in the day. With Harper Simon here, the bond to his dad is un-obvious; given his serious but feathery voice you might instead be inclined to think his father was Elliott Smith. That link is at least semi-purposeful; Division Street, the album on which you’ll find “Bonnie Brae,” was produced by Tom Rothrock, who co-produced Smith breakthrough albums, Either/Or and XO. “Bonnie Brae,” like some of Smith’s work, feels delicate even when rocking hard; better yet, it moves with strength and grace through its entire four-plus minutes—there are melodies and sub-melodies, there are sharp instrumental motifs, splendid guitar work, and there is a brilliant chorus that manages to be subtle and conspicuous at the same time.
Division Street marks a sharp new direction for Simon. His recording debut came in 2008, in a collaboration with step-mom Edie Brickell; they called themselves The Heavy Circles and if it played pretty much like an Edie Brickell solo record, there was nothing necessarily wrong with that (note: they were featured here in January of that year). His solo debut came in ’09, in a self-titled singer-songwriter-y album that was recorded in Nashville and had a bit of an alt-country feel. This one does not. His stated aim was to make a rock’n’roll album that he could enjoy listening to, and towards that end enlisted some significant friends, including Pete Thomas on the drums (from Elvis Costello and the Attractions and/or the Imposters), Nikolai Fraiture on bass (the Strokes), and Mikael Jorgensen on keyboards (Wilco). The album is due out in March on Play It Again Sam Records. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.