Sunday, July 22, 2012
Box Set Review: Paul Simon's 'Graceland' [25th Anniversary]
Album and Reissue Review
****1/2 [4.5 Stars]
By Anthony Kuzminski
[BUY THE BOX SET HERE]
[Published in conjunction with the antiMUSIC Network]
During 1986 and 1987 the pop music landscape was breathtaking and far more varied than anyone gives it credit for. Many dismiss it for being an era that relished big melodies and crystalline production aesthetics, but what made the latter part of the 1980’s so enlivening was how much divergent and diverse music there was to get lost in. Music was undergoing a colossal change as new genres like thrash metal and rap began to emerge while other established artists infused their sounds lassoing several genres in ways no one had envisioned before, notably U2, Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon, who won the Album of the Year Grammy for Graceland in early 1987. Graceland has largely endured as something more than just one of the first mainstream albums to wholly embrace world music. Simon wasn’t the first to do this, but how he went about doing it is what makes the album and its history so captivating. Up until now, Graceland has always been one of those records that I admired more than loved. It houses a true amalgamation of eclectic music which feels familiar and fresh simultaneously, a rare feat in any art form, but for some reason the album never connected to me as deeply as it possibly should. So why do I find myself suddenly enthralled with the record and its history? The recently released 25th Anniversary 4-disc box set of Graceland has not just re-introduced the record to me, but its accompanying discs present the album in a light never before imagined. This anniversary package is the definitive document on the album with the four discs encompassing its conception, birth and history in one perfect package.
The box set is housed in an oversized package which includes a recreated notepad full of partial lyrics and ideas Simon had for the album. Taking a cue from Bruce Springsteen (who housed his brilliant Darkness on the Edge of Town box set within a spiral recreated notebook), Simon has given us a glimpse into the ideas running rampant in his head as he tried to bring Graceland to life. The notebook is more than a mere souvenir with glorified liner notes, but an actual piece of history. There is also an extensive booklet of pictures with quotes from interviews, bonus interviews and videos on the DVD and a folded oversize poster of the album cover. But the real heft of this set lies in the music and DVD’s. For the purposes of this review, I will break down and review each of the four discs below.
The Remastered Album
Listening to records decades after they were initially released is a tricky proposition. Often, nostalgia directs the experience not allowing us to look past the warm fuzzy feeling it gives us in our heart to see its flaws. That being said, I was floored by the emotions that overtook me when I listened to this new remaster. As I began to listen to the joyful “The Boy in the Bubble”, I was hooked. For a record I haven’t listened to this album front to back in decades and yet I was pulled in. The title track finds middle ground between African rhythms and a Sun Records shuffle. Up to this point, no one had ever been able to intertwine world music with pop music from the Western world. It could be argued no one ever topped what Simon did on Graceland.The bass and chorus of “I Know What I Know” sounds wholly unique but the lyrics come from someone who spent a lifetime around New York while the drums pop through the speakers highlighting the new remastered touches. “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” would have worked with Simon and an acoustic, but the Ladysmith Black Mambazo group take the song into unchartered waters (as seen by the Saturday Night Live performance included on one of the DVD’s). Much credit must be given to the core backing band of Ray Phiri on guitar, Bakithi Kumalo on bass and Isaac Mtshali on drums who form the key band members on half of the album’s tracks. The performances are so freeing and lack any type of ego, that they bring the songs an unadulterated joyfulness to them, something no studio musician probably could have delivered, no matter how talented.
Paul Simon, who received an enormous amount of flack for recording with South African musicians due to the cultural boycott due to South Africa embracing apartheid. This is the focus of the documentary Under African Skies discussed later in this review. It’s a tricky thing to look at Simon as an innocent, because he did intentionally defy the African National Congress. He went to South Africa did more than just record with these musicians- he brought them to London and New York to complete work on that album. If that wasn’t enough he went one step further and launched a tour with all of these musicians in tow. It would be too easy to dismiss Simon because you could make the argument that he brought more attention to these musicians and the music of South Africa than anyone else ever could have. Despite cutting through red tape, more than a quarter of a century later it’s hard to imagine Graceland being the same record without these musicians. Graceland has never sounded better than it does on this new remaster. It appears to have been touched up for the 21st Century without blemishing it and sacrificing the bottom end for increased volume on the MP3. This is a rare album worth the upgrade based on the album alone, but as you’re about to see, there is much more worth seeking out.
The Bonus CD
The two audio CD’s are not full of an immense amount of bounty like some reissues of late, however, while alternate mixes and even a live album or acoustic versions would have been nice (Amazon.com has an exclusive five-track live CD from Spain included with the box), what is included I so spot on and perfect, you can’t help but think anything else would have been superfluous. The bonus disc has demos for “Homeless”, “Crazy Love” and “You Can Call Me Al”, an alternate take of “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and an early version of “All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints”. While the second disc may appear to be slim, it’s startling to hear. “Homeless” is a bare demo with his vocals and an acoustic guitar and is a stark contrast to the final product that wound up on Graceland. An extensive sequence in the documentary featuring the demo can be seen as they show the evolution of the song. While appearing as a bonus cut on an earlier reissue, it has added weight here due to the documentary. The early version of “All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints” has an accordion, heavy rhythm guitar and what sounds like what may be a drum machine. There is an instrumental demo of “You Can Call Me Al” and “Crazy Love” which are both missing the breezy punch that group gave the back of the track. This is an important lesson to take from this collection and this review. Sometimes, it is worth you time and energy to craft a song and push it along as far as you can. There is something to be said about not simply releasing your first draft. The final track is “The Story of ‘Graceland” which finds Simon narrating anecdote and stories about the making of the album, which stands alone from the documentary.
Graceland: The African Concert
This concert film was a main stay on the VHS Music Video Charts in the late 1980’s when music home video releases were reserved only for acts whose record sales were in the millions. Amazingly, the concert is receiving its first release on DVD. It’s a wonderful representation of this album in a live environment and is notable for taking place in Zimbabwe which was a homecoming of sorts for musicians Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba who left South Africa and had not returned until this tour. The concert doesn’t contain the encores of Simon and Garfunkel songs but is otherwise a complete record of what the tour was like back then. I’m not sure as to what level of mastering was done in bringing the film to DVD. While it looks good, much of the footage looks dated, however, it’s watchable and while there are no bonus features, it’s integral to the overall story of Graceland as Simon showed the world he could do more than create a record merging the music of clashing cultures, but he took it on the road and invigorated the world further in an audience that appears to have no cultural barriers.
Under African Skies Film Review
The most integral part of this reissue and box set is the new documentary, Under African Skies which was directed by Oscar nominee Joe Berlinger whose credits include the Paradise Lost trilogy and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. The film completes the circle of the box set and the album. It’s a revealing and riveting look at more than just the Paul Simon and his music but the trouble he encountered by breaking a cultural boycott by going to record with musicians in South Africa. More than twenty-five years later, this may seem to be a minute detail, but the apartheid regime of South Africa was a very big deal in 1986. The repercussions as a result of going there, recording with the musicians and then touring with them led to bomb threats and repeated controversies throughout the tour. To the credit of the film, it does not shy away from any of this. It faces it head on and it’s why this is more than your standard documentary. The film shows vintage footage of Simon recording the album and it’s paired with new interviews and rehearsal footage of where he reunited with the Graceland band last year. The current day rehearsals and performances while nice to see, don’t service the film as strongly as the archive footage paired with new interviews, which trace his creation of the songs that appear on Graceland. One element of the documentary I found fascinating was how Simon recorded the basic tracks with the musicians in South Africa without having any lyrics. I’ve always been in awe of anyone who writes music first and saves the lyrics for later because this increases the workload and makes the job ten times harder. He spoke about how “Graceland” was just a word he put in place until he could change it, until he realized it wasn’t going away and how the music took him on a journey he could not have foreseen. One never imagines how much time, energy and hard work goes into creating music. More importantly, it shows how determined Simon was to create something truly lasting.
One of the aspects of this box set that is so downright staggering is how it encompasses the entire journey of Graceland. The demo disc captures the songs at their birth, the album is in many ways a toddler, on the live concert DVD we are able to watch these songs find their footing and expand to limits and boundaries beyond the record and finally on the gripping documentary Under African Skies it covers the thirty year history of not just the songs, but Paul Simon’s journey, struggle and redemption. Watching to the documentary and the bonus cut of “The Story of ‘Graceland’ (Told by Paul Simon) makes you appreciate the album in ways not imaginable. This is a tall order for a top-five record who won the Grammy for Album of the Year. To me, Graceland isn’t so much an album where Paul Simon took a detour, but a collection of songs representing the possibilities of pop music. There are new and inventive ways to tell a story and sometimes a voice and acoustic guitar will suffice, but sometimes you have to spice up the recipe to capture not just acclaim, but a wider audience as well. With Graceland Paul Simon reminded himself (and us) that great art is created from stepping outside of your comfort zone and taking a chance.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter