The Second Disc

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Review: Art Garfunkel, “The Singer”

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The first-ever 2-CD anthology of the collected works of Arthur Ira Garfunkel is titled The Singer (Columbia/Legacy 88725 45816 2, 2012).  In a life and career that’s also seen Garfunkel as an actor, poet, author, athlete and student, “singer” seems the most apt appellation.  Indeed, he is not just a singer, but The Singer, in longtime service to the art of the song.  Garfunkel was an anomaly in the young world of 1960s rock, leaving the songwriting to his partner Paul Simon while still lending his voice to a generation as a purely interpretive vocalist.  It’s apropos, then, that this set bookends Simon’s 2011 Songwriter.  But the other half of “Simon &” has continued to create and sing, long after the duo’s break-up.  He has now compiled, sequenced and annotated this collection’s 34 songs (including two all-new recordings), making for an invitingly personal, disarmingly intimate journey in music via hits and deep tracks alike.

The non-chronologically-sequenced The Singer opens with “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” written by Paul Simon and recorded by Simon & Garfunkel from the 1970 album of the same name.  Though The Singer should go a long way in reminding listeners of a sometimes-overlooked solo career, Garfunkel smartly acknowledges his much-dissected relationship with Paul Simon head-on with the opening selection of “Bridge.”  All told, their enduring partnership has yielded eight of the tracks here (nine, counting a non-S&G track on which Paul appears), or a little more than one quarter.  The songs on which Garfunkel served as muse for Simon’s deepest ruminations still form the backbone of both men’s discographies.  “Bridge” has been rightly lauded as a valedictory for the 1960s itself, but its most remarkable gift to culture may be its undiluted power to inspire in the face of crises.  But where to go, then, from a vocal that’s one of the greatest in the entirety of popular music, on a song so ingrained in our consciousness that it’s still impossible to believe it was written just over 40 years ago?  Does Garfunkel give up his best at the very start?

We answer that question, and more, after the jump!

The singer follows it with “All I Know” from the pen of Jimmy Webb, a songwriter who could more than hold his own with Simon.  But this isn’t the familiar hit single version, with its majestic piano by Larry Knechtel intentionally echoing that of “Bridge.”  Instead, Garfunkel has opted for a stripped-down version with just Webb at the piano, recorded in 1993 for an earlier retrospective, Up ‘til Now.  The song is even more elegiac than “Bridge,” and more frank, as well: “I bruise you/You bruise me/We both bruise too easily/Too easily to let it show/I love you and that’s all I know.”  Webb’s haunting lyrics encapsulate the yin and yang of life and love, tempering reality with hope: “But the ending always comes at last/Endings always come too fast/They come too fast…but they pass too slow….” or “It’s a fine line between the darkness and the dawn/They say in the darkest night, there’s a light beyond…”  That latter lyric could describe Simon and Garfunkel themselves, couldn’t it?  Paul, with the sullen, cynical image and raw vocals to match, joined in perfect harmony with Artie, cerebral yet possessed of an ethereal voice that couldn’t help but sound hopeful and reassuring.  Webb’s all-too-human yet still poetic lyrics on “All I Know” were delivered in 1973 by Garfunkel in one of his most emotional performances.  On the 1993 recording, the voice is less full-throated but more wizened; in other words, more bruised, but with more life lived, and loved.  In both recordings, one realizes the full range of Art Garfunkel’s crystalline voice: resonance, strength, emotional directness.  Webb’s “Scissors Cut,” “In Cars,” “The Decree” and “Skywriter” are all similarly sympathetic, and he’s represented here almost as much as Paul Simon.

There’s little to no gap between each song on these two discs, with tracks making unexpected and often intriguing segues.  (“O Come All Ye Faithful” into “A Heart in New York,” anyone?)  But the music of Garfunkel’s childhood returns again and again.  The Forest Hills, New York-born singer paid homage to the creators of the Great American Songbook when he revisited Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s “I Only Have Eyes For You” (No. 1 AC, No. 18 Pop, 1975), Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Loesser’s “Two Sleepy People” (1973), Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” and Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “Some Enchanted Evening” (both 2007).   Whereas Dick Hyman styled his arrangement of “Two Sleepy People” as traditional jazz, Garfunkel and producer Richard Perry brought a modern sheen to the Rodgers/Hammerstein and Lerner/Loewe material.  But the voice at the center remained the same; Garfunkel honored the compositions while subtly altering them to his unique abilities.  For a rare chance to hear the singer in much less lyrical mode, just press play on Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Waters of March,” with its almost mantra-like melody unlike anything else in Garfunkel’s catalogue.

Of course, Garfunkel himself introduced a number of standards into that esteemed songbook himself, and Simon & Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” and “The Sound of Silence” (both included here, the latter in its original, acoustic album version) fit into that category.  But the music of his youth wasn’t all standards.  His own, early sound was greatly influenced by the great street-corner singers, harmony duos and vocal groups that were edging traditional pop to the fringes of the charts.  Hence, Garfunkel raised his voice to salute Percy Sledge on “When a Man Loves a Woman,” joined with friend and contemporary James Taylor for a lovely reading of The Everly Brothers’ “Crying in the Rain,” and with both Taylor and Simon for a scrappy run through Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World.”  (“Don’t know much about history…”  That trio could have fooled me!)  These songs provide a rich tapestry of Garfunkel’s own musical education as it evolved.  With the inclusion of so many familiar songs, The Singer shows an artist carrying the torch of the great interpretive singers of generations past, not solely introducing songs but reintroducing them as a song stylist.

Garfunkel’s blend with Simon is well-known; it’s at its most tender on the wistful “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” and most exciting on the tough, resolutely unsentimental “My Little Town.”   (Garfunkel confirms in his new liner notes that Simon wrote the song for him so “there wouldn’t be too much sweet stuff in my repertoire.”)  But the compilation also affords the chance to hear him with Taylor, Maia Sharp and Buddy Mondlock, Graham Nash and David Crosby, Kenny Rankin, Amy Grant, Leah Kunkel, Toni Tennille and others.  Tennille appears on Bruce Johnston’s “Disney Girls,” a warm slice of nostalgia for the “fantasy worlds and Disney girls” of the era in which Garfunkel (and Johnston) first heard many of those songs he would later record.  A more solemn side is reflected on deep cuts like the folk song “Barbara Allen” in a darkly baroque arrangement, Jimmy Webb’s Biblically-based “The Decree” (from the cantata The Animals’ Christmas) with Amy Grant and a children’s choir, and the traditional “O, Come All Ye Faithful,” with Eric Weissberg.

The purity of Garfunkel’s voice lends itself to a razor-sharp focus as a storyteller; one of the best such moments here comes on Albert Hammond and Hal David’s “99 Miles from L.A.,” a strong candidate for the best song David ever wrote without Burt Bacharach.  Think “24 Hours from Tulsa” in reverse; in that song, a randy gentleman succumbs to temptation just one day away from home.  In “99 Miles,” the singer is just a couple of hours away as he drives in the rain, pining for his love, but something’s amiss: he implores her, “Please be there,” with a tinge in his voice suggesting she just might not be.  Producer Perry adorns the track with a vocal effect revealed by Garfunkel in his notes: “doubling the voice is overdubbing unison on top of the original vocal.  Here, the double slips behind, then increases the slippage.  The effect is a sweeping glide of vowel sounds – echo at 180 MPH.”  “Breakaway,” written by the Scottish team of Benny Gallagher and Graham Lyle, boasts another crisply polished production from Perry recorded during the period in which Garfunkel “was starting to have fun playing star…partying to all hours” in Los Angeles.  It’s a pop delight, with fellow stars, partygoers and supreme harmony purveyors Crosby and Nash on background vocals.

Garfunkel’s rich, lighter-than-air tone is still intact and evident on both of the brand new songs here.  “Lena,” written by Randy Sharp, and “Long Way Home,” written and previously recorded by Maia Sharp, were both produced by Maia.  (Sharp’s latest solo album, Change the Ending, was released on the same day as The Singer!)  A crack band of familiar names supports the lead singer: Dean Parks, Russ Kunkel, Leland Sklar and even another old friend with a soaring voice, Leah Kunkel.  Though Garfunkel’s solo albums are a diverse group, most are marked by the singer’s unerring sense of which songs would suit him best.  These new compositions are no exception.  That said, it’s more than a little jarring to hear Garfunkel tear with relish into a certain four-letter expletive on “Long Way Home” in the role of the “other man” in a love triangle.

The omission of the original “All I Know” keeps The Singer from being a definitive hits survey, and it’s impossible not to lament the other favorites which have also been overlooked.  Garfunkel’s hit revival of The Skyliners’ “Since I Don’t Have You” brought new life to another doo-wop classic. Paul Williams and Roger Nichols’ “Traveling Boy,” in his hands, became a stunningly wistful remembrance of days past.  Jimmy Webb’s clever and infectious “Crying in My Sleep” is one of the best-produced singles in the entirety of the Garfunkel canon, and its absence is acutely missed.  But if The Singer is less than “the definitive Art Garfunkel,” it’s also much more, too: abundant of heart and shimmering with beauty.

Each of Garfunkel’s solo albums between 1973 and 1993, all recorded on the Columbia label, has been tapped for The Singer. (1997’s intimate Songs from a Parent to a Child is the only overlooked solo LP.)  Vic Anesini has skillfully remastered each song; can we have a domestically-released set of full remasters now, please?  The booklet is loaded with photographs in addition to the artist’s own, impressionistic track-by-track musings.  A poem is included on the tray card, another touching reflection and personal flourish from the multi-faceted artist.  Jimmy Webb once pleaded in song, “When the singer’s gone, let the song go on,” but it’s clear that both this singer and his songs will endure.  And that’s all I know.

You can order The Singer here!

Written by Joe Marchese

August 28, 2012 at 12:55

2 Responses

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  1. This anthology is such a wasted opportunity to present a great overview of Artie’s solo work. Nine S&G cuts is nine too many, given how many S&G collections are out there. Meanwhile, where’s “And I Know,” “Marionette” and so many more gems from the yet-to-be-properly remastered Garfunkel solo catalog?Wait for those and skip this!

    Barry Gutman

    August 28, 2012 at 13:02

  2. The very first Art Garfunkel that I was bought was Angel Clare. I love every song on the album. It was an incredible album when it came out in 1973. I was in eighth grade then. I’m so very surprised that there’s only song from this album. What a missed opportunity to re-introduce Art Garfunkel to a new generation of would-be fans since every song on Angel Clare was a gem (and still is).


    August 30, 2012 at 06:26

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