A paradox (according to most dictionaries that show up on Google) is a seemingly contradictory phrase that, upon investigation, is actually cohesive and true. In this light, Harper Simon’s second LP, Division Street, is wholly a paradox: descriptions that come to mind include “crisply lo-fi,” “cleanly hazy,” “naïvely seductive,” and “gently rough”. Naturally, these might seem a bit mixed up – but with a good listen, Simon’s latest release reveals itself to be a consistent collection of folk-pop tunes.
A closer look at the makeup of Eternal Questions, the album’s sixth track (and one of its best), might offer an explanation. On the track Simon delivers a breathy, simple, low-in-the-mix vocal quality found in Real Estate’s recent work. His melody, however, is uncannily reminiscent of the kind of winding melodic turns Blitzen Trapper made excellent use of on Wild Mountain Nation and Furr. That is, until the chorus, when he hints at a bit of clean, simple, power-pop. The track pairs a surging guitar and drum drive with rock organ; fuzzy production with spotless vocals.
But the song sounds defiantly like the product of a single, non-schizophrenic brain. The opposing elements gel in the cool, thick clutter of sound to form a song that is easy to digest and rather pleasant to listen to. And it’s not the only time this works. Opening track Veteran’s Parade kicks off with a messy, jangly rock groove that opens into a pristine, Death Cab for Cutie-like verse melody. The B-section of its chorus is especially exciting – the track releases into a beachy, arpeggiated guitar groove, and Simon’s lyrical image of taking a “mercenary position” is cleverly spun.
Similarly, the gentle dissonance (and, again, the Transatlanticism-era Death Cab melody) of Bonnie Brae fits energetically over the song’s distorted, guitar-rock shuffle. And, in this vein, Simon gets his hands dirty with some lyrical punk in Nothing Gets Through. Elsewhere, on Chinese Jade, Simon’s vividly local lyrics swim in an atmospheric vapor of rolling acoustic guitar strums and soft drumming: the song is pensive and compelling, making modest but pointed use of ambient, soundscape production.
Other than on these five tracks, however, Simon’s originality does not quite come through. Title track Division Street borrows a groove from the caverns of Arcade Fire’s sophomore album Neon Bible, and its melody does little to make it fresh. ‘99, too, sounds uncomfortably like a run-of-the-mill Surfer Blood song, with at most maybe a little more of a folk sound. While Leaves Of Golden Brown plays craftily around with psychedelic classic rock, the track never quite compounds into a single, satisfying listen. And, though one hesitates to mention any relation of Harper Simon to his father, the great Paul Simon (Division Street should stand on its own and not under any kind of family shadow), Just Like St Teresa sounds eerily as though Harper Simon had been listening to a little too much Simon and Garfunkel.
Perhaps, then, Division Street finds Simon in the midst of finding his own voice. Sure, Simon still relies too heavily on his influences, and the album is not entirely successful. But on Division Street, Harper Simon does not simply splice together collages of other people’s good songs. Rather, he exhibits a unique talent for conflating those often disparate songs into a new, unified feeling. And for that, he deserves at the very least some serious attention.