People hoping for Paul Simon to put out another folk-rock album of pretty songs will have to wait a bit longer. He's still in experimental mode. For Surprise, he chose as his main collaborator the English sound sculptor Brian Eno, which to many seems an odd pairing, but the duo makes it work — sometimes to sublime levels. Instead of building a lugubrious bed of synth-driven ambience, Eno decorates the music with sonic touches that make the music sharper and more detailed. Simon's writing is, if anything, more ambitious than before. He stitches together snippets of sweet melodies, juxtaposing them with moments of dissonance and angularity.
For me, Surprise didn't take hold the first time. But once through and I was good to go. At first, Simon's effete singing over the brittle electro-funk of "Sure Don't Feel Like Love" came off as a big nuh-uh. But on second listen ...
This is the kind of album you want to soak up with a lyric sheet. Simon muses about spirituality in a tremulous world, about little pleasures that make life worth living, about family and vanity and God. His words can be sad and funny and poignant, introspective and universal and abstruse.
The album's thematic centerpiece is "Wartime Prayers," which opens with these lovely poetics: "Prayers offered in times of peace are silent conversations/ Appeals for love, or love's release/ In private invocations/ But all that is changed now/ Gone like a memory from the day before the fires/ People hungry for the voice of God hear lunatics and liars/ Wartime prayer/ Wartime prayers in every language spoken/ For every family scattered and broken."
Simon concludes the disc with its most conventional song, "Father and Daughter," an early version of which appeared in The Wild Thornberrys soundtrack. Unrepentantly sentimental, and much the better for it, it's a real eye-moistener.
For all its virtues, though, Surprise suffers from just enough spasms of awkwardness — moments you wish you could go back and fix — that prevent it from being a full-fledged triumph. 3.5 stars Eric Snider
Living with War
Essentially a hippie campfire sing-along with electric guitars, Living with War is sophomoric, clichéd and didactic. It does not elevate the discussion about the Iraq war, and it fails to work as compelling rock 'n' roll. There are those who will call the CD courageous. Me, I'll call it clumsy. Neil Young has penned nine simplistic melodies with obvious, pedestrian lyrics. Here's but one sample: "Let's impeach the President for lyin'/ And misleading our country into war/ Abusing all the power that we gave him/ And shipping all our money out the door." (Discuss.) Making matters worse, Young enlisted the services of a 100-member choir in an apparent attempt to give these tunes an epic flavor, but the vocal ensemble effectively chokes whatever visceral power the music might've had.
Whenever Young releases an electric album, we've come to expect some slash-and-burn guitar — but here, when the ostensibly angry music cries out for it, his six-string work comes off as strangely muted, even timid. It simmers but never boils. These sins could be somewhat forgiven if Young could be counted on to gash our faces with barbed-wire solos, but here again he's circumspect. Perhaps the oddest moment in this clumsy album comes during an instrumental break amid "Shock and Awe": Neil's guitar starts to rev up, to grind a little, and then gives way to a ... trumpet, which merely plays the melody through once. Doesn't exactly make you want to take to the streets. 1.5 stars ES
The Royal Dan: A Tribute to the Genius of Steely Dan
A big band (the tribute-minded Hoops McCann Band) some years ago mined the same vein as The Royal Dan in trying to recapture, reinterpret or otherwise re-create the groundbreaking sound of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. All who have tried have failed. The Royal Dan is populated with '70s-era guitarslingers and session crew: Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, Jimmy Haslip on bass and Ernie Watts on sax (the real highlight on this set). But having the likes of Robben Ford, the truly annoying Al Di Meola, Steve Morse (Dixie Dregs), and Frank Gambale retool the Dan's work mostly falls flat ("Dirty Work" sounds remade for smooth jazz stations). One bright spot: a slow, loping version of "Home at Last," with Jay Graydon's at-times slinky, at-times howling guitar (he took the original solo on "Peg"). www.shrapnelrecords.com 2 stars. Wayne Garcia