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The sound of the 1960s, digitally revisited

Newly remastered survey from Simon & Garfunkel reveals sonic pleasures
/ Source: msnbc.com

Time, time, time, see what’s become of us: The leading edge of the baby boomers is nearing retirement age; the vinyl records they danced, protested and loved to are as much scratches as songs; and the vanguard of hip, literate ’60s folk music, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, born three weeks apart, each turn 62 this year.

As musicians, Simon and Garfunkel have remained at or near the top of their game; even now, in the autumn of their lives, long reconciled to being separate creative entities, they’ve resurfaced as the collective that permanently changed the sound of American music.

Modern technology has also had a hand in preserving that sound — lucky for us.

Almost two generations after the duo’s first album, Columbia Records has re-released all five of S&G’s original albums in “The Columbia Studio Recordings 1964-1970” (Columbia/Legacy) an exhaustive five-CD box set — the music digitally remastered for today’s more acoustically critical listener; the packaging, archival but informal, lovingly presented for anyone who wants a survey of some of the finest lyrics and music created in that distant decade.

Escape from vinyl era's sound
For listeners new to the Simon and Garfunkel sound, and for those reared on the crystalline clarity of music in the digital age, the new digitally remastered S&G catalog may be no big deal. With no frame of reference, it may be hard to see, or hear, what the shouting’s all about. It’s a new experience, and a revelation, to hear this timeless music without the sonic anomalies that were the bane of the vinyl era.

None of this would make any difference if the albums in question — “Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. (1964), “Sounds of Silence” (1966), “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme” (1966), “Bookends” (1968) and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (1970) — weren’t such great music to begin with.

In those five records, Paul Simon, a singer of rueful, wounded mien, and the songwriter-guitarist of the duo, crafted songs whose comprehension of the wonder and melancholy of modern times made them a soundtrack for those times. Garfunkel, Simon’s musical foil, was the other half of the equation that made it all work, his tremulous tenor the soaring, celestial yin to Simon’s ironic, earthbound yang.

Beginnings in high school
We tend to associate Simon and Garfunkel with the end of the ’60s. In fact, they were singing together since the ’50s, high school. “Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.,” their first record, was released in the fall of 1964, hard on the heels of Beatlemania in the United States.

The album, a mix of traditional folk songs and early, lesser Simon works (“Bleecker Street,” “He Was My Brother”) was not received well. One track, though, had promise: “The Sound of Silence,” an earnest, listenable but not yet remarkable folk song.

The album “Sounds of Silence” was the beneficiary of a reworking of the namesake song. Credit “Wednesday” producer Tom Wilson (perhaps intrigued by Bob Dylan’s electric adventures at Newport in 1965) with taking the original “Sound” track, and overdubbing electric instruments and drums.

The result was S&G’s first major hit, a tough, muscular anthem whose emotional power is made greater by the song’s recent remastering.

Simon finds his voice
“Silence” the album has several other gems.

Simon was finding his voice as an incisive social diarist; such tracks as “Blessed” (his brittle retrofit of the Beatitudes), “A Most Peculiar Man” and “Richard Cory” revealed his ability to invest folk music with the edge, bite and irony the times demanded.

With “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme,” the duo truly hit its stride. The digitally reworked version of this album highlights the delicacy of Simon’s guitar work, and its interplay with harpsichord, bells and other instruments; all seem brighter and clearer than on previous releases.

All the better to enjoy what to that point was S&G’s most stylistically diverse, creatively assured record: Witness the harmonic latticework of “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” the unabashed joy of “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy),” the lush sorrow of “The Dangling Conversation,” or the wild goof on the Dylan mystique in “A Simple Desultory Philippic ...”

A song cycle of the times
What followed was, for many, the archetypal Simon and Garfunkel album. “Bookends,” released in April 1968, still haunts and persists, a true product of a turbulent, chaotic era, but one that channeled that turbulence and chaos into a record that truly defined the period.

Its best tracks — “Mrs. Robinson,” “At the Zoo,” “America” and “Fakin’ It” — stand up as evocative aural snapshots, while a sound collage of “Voices of Old People” imparts a powerful documentary feel.

The result was an at-times brilliant song cycle, a jaunty, heartbreaking, ironic, sober meditation of life between the bookends of youth and old age.

In an era rife with conceptual albums — the Kinks released “The Village Green Preservation Society” the same year, the Who would release “Tommy” the following year, the Beatles had birthed “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” the year before — “Bookends” worked largely because its conceptual nature wasn’t worn on its sleeve. It didn’t hit you over the head with thematic unity; the stories of “Bookends” were joined in what was almost a subtle, deceptive, stream-of-consciousness style.

‘So long ... ’
By the time “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was released, in early 1970, Simon and Garfunkel had been together for more than a dozen years and, apparently, subject to their own dangling conversations.

Each had accumulated other interests, and the strain of such a long relationship — they started singing together as Tom & Jerry at Forest Hills High School in Queens, N.Y. — began to take its toll. (It’s been said that the lilting bossa nova of “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” was Simon’s farewell to Garfunkel, a one-time architecture student at Columbia University.)

“Bridge” would be their masterwork, and it’s here on this album that the digital remastering process makes its biggest statement. The group recorded “Bridge” with a variety of instruments and sonic devices. More crisply than before, you can hear this inspired dabbling on “El Condor Pasa,” a luminous reworking of a Peruvian folk melody; the body blows of “The Boxer”; the lapidary harmonies of “The Only Living Boy in New York”; the frisson of “Bye Bye Love” performed live; and the track “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” as spiritually powerful and emotionally uplifting a song as has ever been recorded.

‘Bonus' missteps
For all its encyclopedic glory, this omnibus collection has its gaffes. Several of the previously unreleased tracks are only “demo” versions of songs already on the album — songs long committed to the popular memory. As such, it’s hard to see what they add to this collection beyond their status as “bonus tracks.”

And three of the extra tracks, traditional songs recorded in 1970, are appended to an album released in 1966. Besides being chronologically out of place, they don’t enlarge much on our sense of Simon’s songcraft.

But these are the minor missteps in a collection that will endure, both as a songbook and a historical document.

You can’t help but notice this group’s uncanny creative intersections with some of the most pivotal tragedies of modern American history. Simon began writing “The Sound of Silence” in November 1963, shortly before President Kennedy was assassinated. “Bookends” was released in April 1968, the day before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was slain.

It’s the kooky, dangerous, dramatic power of that time, that era when anything could happen (and probably did), that resonates throughout this collection.

“Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts,” Paul Simon would write years later. And he was right. These days, with facile pop chanteuses, headbangers and the boy bands of the moment stalking the land, it’s a joy to find a time-tested alternative, to take refuge in music that speaks to any generation, music that — decades after it first hit the airwaves — can still move you to laughter and tears.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This review first appeared on MSNBC.com in August 2001, and has been updated.