Dr. Simon, we presume? The singer-songwriter has gone off on another adventuresome subtropical musical expedition. Even more than Graceland, this collection embodies the pleasures and the problems of Simon’s musical imperialism.
The record certainly seems aptly named at first. It kicks off with a walloping drum avalanche courtesy of Brazil’s Grupo Cultural Olodum on “The Obvious Child.” They’re pounding away with the kind of galvanizing beat we’re familiar with from those fabulous high-stepping black-college marching bands. But this album is not simply a Brazilian drum festival. Simon ambitiously weaves together percussive and instrumental elements from Central and South America and Africa.
The Third World raiments with which Simon is dressing up his pop songs are authentic and lovely but often extraneous. Only the fact that the chord progressions are not always so neatly resolved sets these tunes apart from earlier, pre-internationalized Rhymin’ Simon outings.
To give him his due, Simon’s mix-and-match approach does succeed at times. “The Coast,” “Can’t Run But,” “Further to Fly” and “The Cool, Cool River” are really sublime, rewarding syntheses of styles.
More than the percussive accents, it’s the unusual guitar picking of Vincent Nguini, Kofi Electrik, Georges Seba, Martin Atangana and others that give those tracks their distinctive flavor. As usual Simon’s wan voice, which always sounds like he’s singing into a stiff wind, tends to flatten out some of the potential beauty and drama of his compositions.
His lyrics are excellent, though, whether pointed (“The music suffers/ The music business thrives”) or poetic (“Song dogs barking at the break of dawn/ Lightning pushes at the edge of the thunderstorm/ And these streets/ Quiet as a sleeping army/ Send their battered dreams to heaven, to heaven”).
Even on “The Obvious Child,” the more exotic musical elements are subsumed by Simon’s pretty pop structures. That’s the problem. The veteran craftsman is too much in control. You never get the impression that Paul has truly gone native or even considered it. He’s more like a kid camping under the stars in his own backyard. (Warner Bros.)