With an air of Elliott Smith about it, “Bonnie Brae” feels delicate even when rocking hard.
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.
Brilliantly re-arranged to highlight the original’s strange and moody lyrics.
So it seems that Chamberlin guitarist Ethan West was driving down the New Jersey Turnpike one day, not exactly in the best mood, and heard Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al” on the radio and was struck all of a sudden by how strange and brooding the lyrics are, despite the upbeat vibe of the music. He and the band, with a history of covering unexpected songs, decided to try to rearrange the things accordingly. And boy do they. These guys kill right away with their conversion of the original’s bouncy synthesizer riff into a wailing guitar (0:13), distilling Simon’s four full, cheerful iterations into a lead line that takes us through the motif just one and a half times, leaving us edgy and unresolved. Singer Mark Daly dives into the lyrics—previously sung so drolly by Simon—with a moody disquiet, sounding like an outtake from the first Counting Crows record.
Everything falls into place from there; this version has an instant, enviable inevitability about it. I love the effortless tension the band introduces in the chorus, as the familiar but still inscrutable line “If you’ll be my bodyguard/I can be your long-lost pal” is sung not with a wink and a skip as Simon did it but with a kind of harrowing plea (starting at 1:08), as a gathering drum beat sets up a stretching out of the word “long” that mirrors the original but in an utterly transformed context and culminates in the return of the central instrumental motif, now an unmitigated howl. Don’t miss as well how the band converts Simon’s cheerful “na-na-na-na” break into a slowed-down, cleared-out instrumental in which the percussive bass line in the original becomes a ghostly, intermittent clatter of drum sticks. If everyone affected cover songs with this much skill, no new songs might ever more have to be written.
Chamberlin is a five-man band from Vermont that was founded in 2010. They have released one album and two EPs to date, the most recent release being their Look What I’ve Become EP, which came out in September. “You Can Call Me Al” is a separate song, newly released. Thanks to the band for the MP3. You can download above the usual way, or visit the band’s SoundCloud page for streaming and/or downloading and/or commenting directly to the band. Be sure also to check out the band’s web page, where you can listen to the entire EP, download a song from it, and find tour dates for its fall tour, just underway.
I’ve had this song in the listening pile for a few weeks and maybe it’s the (finally) receding snow that has allowed me to open my ears and enjoy this merry, warm-weather-inflected bit of lovingly crafted faux Latin pop. Perhaps I didn’t quite realize how aggravating the song was previously making me, its breezy narrator imagining his imminent escape to island living. No matter the narrator is literally in prison; the metaphor hit home (Seriously: “I want to see some green/Get me out of this place”).
But spring appears to be springing, however slowly. It’ll be May before all the parking lot piles melt around here but grass is at long last visible and this week I’m charmed by Rouse’s bright, Paul Simonesque romp. And I at long last listened closely enough to understand that the point is the guy’s infectious optimism, not his present confines. Should’ve featured the tune weeks ago. Anyway, musically, yes, the echoes of Simon are clear and, even, are emphasized by the singing voice Rouse adopts. (Listen to the way he sings the word “convicted” at 0:35–that’s an homage, no way it’s not.) But let’s of course remember that Paul Simon himself was borrowing existing styles and rhythms, and Rouse, a transplanted American who has lived in Spain for five years, knows the original sources very well by now himself. If you want to see just how well, check out the Spanish-sung “Valencia,” which has been quietly available as a free and legal download via Vanity Fair since the fall.
Both songs are from the album El Turista, which is set for release next week on Yep Roc Records. The “I Will Live On Islands” MP3 is via Spinner.