Harper Simon’s debut recording Harper Simon is a quirky mix of polished
modern pop studio creations (occasional hints of an Aimee Mann or Jon Brion
influence), alt-country rockers, and folk ballads. To his credit, he wasn’t shy
in inviting his famously talented friends and family to the party: father Paul
Simon, Petra Haden (daughter of master jazz bassist Charlie Haden), John Lennon
and Yoko Ono’s son Sean Lennon, legendary Bob Dylan producer Bob Johnston,
chameleon 1st call guitarist Marc Ribot, British artist and Turner
Prize nominee Tracey Emin (her cover art is titled “Get Ready For The Fuck Of
Your Life”), and a host of storied old-school Nashville session artists all
The short opener “All To God” (under two
minutes) is a reworked Shaker hymn: “No,
I never did believe/That I ever would be saved/Without giving my all to God/So
I freely give my whole/My body and my soul/To the good Lord/Amen.” The
Shaker hymns are heartfelt, beautiful, and spiritual works by a deeply peaceful
and religious people. Are we to take this as an avowal of religious faith from
Simon? It’s a bold move as an opening statement on a limelight folk-rock debut.
Whether sincerely religious or not, it’s the only cover tune among nine other
Simon originals. Opening reverentially with a lightly strummed acoustic guitar
and delicate falsetto voices, Simon quickly adds distorted electric guitars
bringing an eerie edge to the already dark, minor key tune.
The more representative “Wishes And Stars”
follows and is an easy tune to like with its breezy, ambling country-folk vibe,
catchy melodies, and hooks that stick like glue. The lyrics are heartfelt, yet
add up to somewhat disconnected observations on fortune and self-satisfaction.
The tune’s catch-phrase “There are more
wishes than stars” is an excellent turn of phrase and an insightful
observation. But in the context of the tune it’s not clear what it pertains to.
It would be easy to simply label it a free-floating observation but it doesn’t
feel intended that way. The lyrics seem culled from bits of unfinished tunes
each deserving their own separate follow through. The lines “I’m not too certain about many things/I’m
not so sure who I am” bear witness to this while still, ironically, being
engaging and well written. If Simon were to write an entire tune focused on
this specific lack of identity it would likely be an excellent one.
Interestingly, the mandolin line ending the solo section of “Wishes And Stars”
is a direct lift from Bob Dylan’s “I Want You” and is likely an influence of
working with producer Johnston.
Of many enjoyable tracks, the imaginative folk
waltz “Ha Ha” may be the best. Co-written by Haden, Harper and Paul Simon, it
strikes the right balance of humor and self-deprecation (as does “Tennessee,” another
track co-written with his father). It gives off the light-headed, open horizon
feeling at the beginning of a punch-drunk love affair: “Ha ha ha/Laughing is all I do/But you’ve only known me since I’ve been
lonely/So you don’t believe it’s true.” The tune spins out sophisticated and ornately detailed harmonies and
melodies (string section included) camouflaged by its lyrical and instrumental
playfulness. Petra Haden shines here on vocals and puts it over the top. Her
role recalls the similarly meta-linguistic contribution she made on the film
score to the wildly underrated and unfairly maligned Hurlyburly.
While overall a promising debut and very
enjoyable listen, some of these tunes feel like they’re holding back; like
confessionals that don’t quite confess. The listener is left with the sensation
of watching for the other shoe to drop and having to wait for the next
recording to get the full picture. The view is good so far, but feels
The closing “Berkeley Girl” is hard not to hear
as a direct tip of the hat to his father’s more straight forward 60s/70s, NYC
folk-bohemia touchstones. This indulgence should not only be allowed, but
encouraged. It’s one of the best tunes on the record and though it’s the most
obvious in its influence, it’s also one of the most personal.
Tracks: “Tennessee,” “Ha Ha,” “Berkeley Girl” JOHN DWORKIN