Albums I Missed in 2011 (1st edition): Paul Simon and Panda Bear

I’m catching up on albums I haven’t formally reviewed. Two that have particularly grabbed me so far this year are Paul Simon’s So Beautiful or So What? and Panda Bear’s Tomboy.

So Beautiful or So What by Paul Simon

Paul Simon fell off my radar screen in the late-1990s. Last I remember, his musical, Capeman, bombed. After that, poof. Then, in 2008, I discovered his 2006 album Surprise and was, well, surprised by how good it was. Five years later, he’s continued that trend with So Beautiful or So What?, a collection of ten exquisitely crafted songs of life and love sung in Simon’s whimsical and delicate voice, with folk, world, blues and gospel influences. It’s a sharp reminder of why Paul Simon is one of the all-time great songwriters.  

The opening track, “Getting Ready for Christmas Day,” is a standout with Simon trading verses with a sermon of the same title recorded by the Reverend J.M. Gates and his congregation in 1941. “Rewrite” is another highlight with a strong African influence, particularly in the bass line and accents from a kora. (The lyrics will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever tried to rewrite a story!) The title (and closing) track also has a great feel, driven by a repetitive African electric guitar signature and percussion as Simon ponders nothing less than the meaning of life itself, ending with a rumination on Martin Luther King’s death.  

Other highlights include the lovely piano-based ballad “Love and Hard Times” and two gospel/blues-flavored tracks, “Love Is Eternal Sacred Light” and “Love and Blessings.”  

Tomboy by Panda Bear

I don’t even know how to describe Panda Bear (the performing name for Noah Lennox). Words like “experimental” or “electronic pop” or “ambient” don’t begin to capture his music. Imagine a heavenly choir whose voices fly over (and often through) complex electronic effects and ambient noise, and you’ll start to get the vibe.  

The songs on this, his fourth album, are by turns ethereal, joyous, or moody. “You Can Count On Me” is a soaring opening, voices swooning as if from a choir bay over electronic soundscapes. His harmonies are often in unusual chord formations, and there’s a strong element of repetition, almost like a children’s round. “Slow Motion” and “Drone” are good examples.   “

Surfer’s Hymn” is well named, and perhaps my favorite track, a joyous paean with a chorus that swells and drops like a wave. A simple classical piano chord opens the moody “Scheherazade.” As the chord sounds continuously, Lennox’s voice wanders above it, washed through waves of echo and effects. It’s as moody and affecting a piece of music as you’ll hear.  

Great music for a darkened room, perhaps with candles flickering.

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