Album of the week : Division Street - Harper Simon

It’s difficult to imagine how hard it is to be the son of a music legend. It would probably have been easy for Harper Simon to create a metal or punk band just so there would never be a comparison. Yet the first son of Paul Simon and Peggy Harper (the “silver girl” in that reasonably famous song ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’) took a different route. For his critically acclaimed eponymous debut album he worked with a who’s who of the music world: recording with a bunch of Nashville veterans, co-writing with tried and tested hands - including his father. The album introduced a new talent with a sensitive soul, the kind of artist that they just don’t make any more

But, says Harper, it didn’t tell the full story. In his heart, this finger-picking singer songwriter is a lead guitarist. The guitar seduced him as a child (he appeared on TV, aged eight, playing one with his father) and later soundtracked his teenage life in New York. And now, the guitar is back at the heart of Division Street, Harper’s new album

“I decided this album should pay tribute more to the music that I grew up listening to in New York, and it should be driven by my guitars - my electric guitar playing as well as my acoustic guitar playing,” says Harper. “I didn’t really get to bring my electric guitar playing to the forefront last time; it wasn’t driven by that. But this time, it’s much more about the Velvet Underground and the Stones and New York punk music from the ’70s, as well as acoustic, psychedelic folk rock”

Division Street could be in New York, where Harper spent his formative years. It could be in LA, where he now lives and where he recorded the album. There’s one in each of the two cities. “There’s a Division Street in most every US city,” says Harper. “I more liked the word Division and the metaphor. I began to think that I was often writing about a character that was at a pivotal moment where they could go this way or that way on the metaphorical Division Street: up or down, negative or positive, to the light or to self-destruction”

Warmly ambient guitar and lazy sighs mark an undeniable sixties influence in ‘Veteran’s Pride’ foreshadowing this theme in the rest of the album. Simon’s vocals are relaxed and hazy working alongside the piano to provide the melody over thrashed out guitar and drums. ‘Bonnie Brae’ is chirpy with very English mannerisms; “I heard you say your Christian name was Bonnie Brae”. With warm sighing framing the chorus embodies that lazy 60s galore. Thumping drums and layered abstract guitar compliment Simon’s husky vocals, moving this track into the realms of indie sub culture

‘Division Street’ sounds spaced out, deep bass and piano chords are its skeleton but the gradually built up, screaming blues, guitar solo is the heart of the song. ‘Eternal Questions’ is a jangly, updated Byrds-like composition, with echoes of many other 60s groups. ‘Dixie Cleopatra’ maintains the pace with speedy, dirty guitar, but the chorus really does rely on the song title which is sung in words elongated to fit the music. ‘Chinese Jade’, is a breathy love song, collecting descriptions of moments and observations, is dreamy. Quaint synthesizer and grave cello are used to alter this song from the pack, and are in keeping with its reminiscent feel. ‘99’ chews over a past love affair, long dead and buried, longing for reconciliation. Autumnal references are prevalent in ‘Leaves of Golden Brown’, with notions of broken and soured friendships nestled within the abstract vocals

Yet, there are also several tracks like the gorgeous ‘Just Like St. Teresa’ which could have been on his debut with its graceful acoustic strum and Simon’s floating vocals. This should quickly remind fans why they joined the Harper Simon party in the first place. Even with the more upbeat vibe on Division Street, Simon’s vocal charm is here in full force and don’t be fooled thinking this album is that much of stretch or completely different – it isn’t

Simon co-produced Division Street with Tom Rothrock, who produced three albums for Elliott Smith (Either/Or, XO and Figure 8) and Beck’s first album Mellow Gold. Clearly Rothrock knows Harper’s sound and it shows on this bigger scale. The album was recorded with several notable guest musicians including Pete Thomas from Elvis Costello’s Attractions on drums, Nikolai Fraiture from the Strokes on bass, vocals by Inara George, Feist’s musical director Brian LeBarton playing synths, as well as Nate Walcott from Bright Eyes and Wilco’s Mikael Jorgensen. Harper is, undoubtedly, very well connected. “And I’m very lucky - everybody that we asked to come and guest on the record showed up,” he says!

This array of musical talent only adds to the depth found on Division Street and makes this sophomore outing that much more complete

Buy it here

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March 28, 2013

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