Friday, July 30, 2010

July 30: Paul Simon, "Kodachrome"

Artist: Paul Simon
Song: "Kodachrome"
Album: There Goes Rhymin' Simon
Year: 1973

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To find musical success at any point in a performers career, even if only for a few months, is one of the most rare occurrences when one looks at the percentage of artists attempting to achieve this goal.  Even bands labeled as "one hit wonders" have beaten incalculable odds, and this feat only becomes more impressive if a band is able to score a second hit song, or even a second acclaimed record.  Therefore, when one looks at the entire history of recorded music, it is almost unfathomable when one considers the improbability of an artist or band being able to make a life-long career as a musician.  Standing high atop this list of seemingly inexplicable success stories is an artist who has been recording hits for more than fifty years: Paul Simon.  As one of the foremost songwriters and composers of the last century, his list of hit songs is massive, and many of his compositions shaped an entire generation.  From his years as half of Simon And Garfunkel to his iconic solo work that defines "Americana" to his innovations in blending African and other polyrhythmic sounds into the folk format, few artists have had as much and as long lasting an impact on the musical landscape as Simon.  Due to this massive amount of recorded work, it is almost impossible to single out an individual track as his "best," but one can make the argument that few of his songs stand as iconic and recognizable as Paul Simon's legendary 1973 single, "Kodachrome."

Throughout his entire career, one of the most intriguing aspects of Paul Simon has been his ability to craft musical arrangements that are full and complex, yet never get too loud or in any way overwhelm the listener.  This delicate balance is how Simon managed to bring a bit of pop, if not rock sensibility to the folk sound, and it is due to his efforts that all three of those genres progressed as they did.  In many ways, "Kodachrome" exemplifies this idea perfectly, as it is based around a winding, comparatively fast-paced acoustic guitar progression, and filled with a number of instruments that give the song a vitality unlike anything else previously recorded.  Matching the tempo perfectly, the drumming gives "Kodachrome" an uncanny sense of movement, as the opening and verses almost sound as if there is a horse galloping across the track.  This mood is further enforced by the piano that moves to the front of the track during the bridge section, and it gives the song an almost "Western" feel that again separates it from the rest of the genre.  This fantastic blend to styles becomes all the more impressive in the final part of the song, when the entire group doubles the pace, and it is during this part where the song becomes more pop, if not rock than anything else.  The consistency of the song is never lost, and the fact that it is able to do so with such a seemingly odd musical arrangement serves as a testament to the talents of Simon and it is much the reason that "Kodachrome" has endured over the decades.

Along with being one of the most accomplished composers and arrangers of the last century, Paul Simon also possesses one of the most simple, yet instantly recognizable voices of that time period.  Never pushing his vocals to even a yell, Simon embodies the folk style of singing, yet there is a strong sense of a pop approach present on a number of his songs, including "Kodachrome."  Yet it is this base in the folk sound that makes his songs so appealing, as the straightforward, honest tone in his voice makes them easy to relate to, and often brings his tales a sense of authenticity.  On "Kodachrome," this idea that the words are taken directly from his own life rings through clearly, and one can easily make the case that this song contains many of his most memorable lines.  Truth be told, one would be hard pressed to find a more iconic opening phrase than, "...when I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it's a wonder I can think at all..." and it is due to this universal sentiment that the song has persevered over the decades.  Yet this same line was edited out for the "radio friendly" version, and the BBC refused to play the song due to the trademarked name of Kodachrome.  As the song progresses, each new verse offers a fresh thought that heightens the laid-back, reflective tone of the song, and it all works perfectly into the overall concept of the "photograph" holding the memories of the past.

While there are many songs that stand as pivotal moments within the career of Paul Simon, one would be hard pressed to find a more defining song in his catalog than his 1973 hit, "Kodachrome."  The song, which rose to the second spot on the singles charts, captures a number of situations and feelings that are beyond universal, and Simon's ability to put these moods into words is the key aspect that has made him such an enduring musical icon.  Though penned nearly forty years ago, the fact of the matter is, all of the sentiments found within "Kodachrome" ring just as accurate and true today as they did in 1973, and this ability for his music to transcend generations is yet another reason why Simon is held in such high esteem.  The way in which he injects brilliantly subtle double-meanings into his lyrics, like the line, "...I can read the writing on the wall..." supports the idea that one need not be overly complex or use flashy words to be a top-notch lyricist.  Taking this same idea of subtle complexity and crafting his music in much the same fashion, Simon took the base of the folk sound he had perfected over the previous decade and fused it together with a pop sensibility and a rhythm and energy unlike anything previously heard from any genre.  It is this ability to intermix so many genres with such amazing results that defines the career of Paul Simon, and one can find everything there is to love about his distinctive, iconic sound in his classic 1973 single, "Kodachrome."

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