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Hip to Be Square

Alas, poor Simon and Garfunkel. At a time in music when it was more important to be hip than to be good (sound familiar, kids?), they were so collegiate, so pop that they could never really be cool. True, that didn't much affect their sales (Simon and Garfunkel were among the most successful acts of the 1960s) and there were plenty of folks who insisted that the pair was cutting edge (Mike Nichols put "Mrs. Robinson" on the soundtrack of his film The Graduate in part to show how with it he was), but to the arbiters of style, that didn't matter. Tie-dye was hip. Dope was hip. But Simon and Garfunkel? Not hip at all.

What a difference a few decades can make. These days, tie-dye may still be around, but it's become tired-dye. People now smoke pot on the sly. And when was the last time you smelled incense burning anywhere but at the local head shop? Simon and Garfunkel, though, endure -- in memory, if not in joined fact. And their new three-CD box set, Old Friends, still evokes vivid memories of that late-'60s era. Maybe it does so because they were good -- and at their best, damned good. Perhaps these two nice Jewish boys from Queens, New York, with a taste for melding folk music and Brill Building pop with literature and poetry were onto something more than they were given credit for.

At the time of their emergence in 1964, Simon and Garfunkel had to contend with two looming shadows: Bob Dylan, who set the standard to which all of Simon's early songwriting efforts would be compared, and the Everly Brothers, whose genetically imprinted harmonies were the model for the singing style of these two "old friends," friends who -- like the Everlys -- would become estranged by the early '70s. They did reunite in 1981, to the delight of a massive audience in New York's Central Park, giving some of their best songs their finest readings. But the nice surprise about Old Friends is how well some -- though not all -- of their work has held up. Maybe it's even matured with age -- ours and theirs.

Having moved into turbulent adolescence with the music of Old Friends as part of my personal soundtrack, I have to marvel at how few of the best Simon and Garfunkel recordings come across as dated, as well as how positively archaic the occasional clunkers now sound. Happily, there's such a bounty in the box set that the chaff can serve its informative purposes but there's still plenty to enjoy.

It's usually the hits that sell collections such as this one, and perhaps the coolest -- yes, coolest -- thing about Old Friends is how robust and canny many of those hits sound when given digitally remastered clarity. On the single version of "The Sounds of Silence" (on which producer Tom Wilson laid a backing track by Dylan session players over the original acoustic version) through "I Am a Rock," "Homeward Bound," "Scarborough Fair/Canticle," "A Hazy Shade of Winter," "At the Zoo," "Mrs. Robinson" (a far-too-overspun song that nonetheless still bursts with freshness here), "The Boxer," "Cecilia," "El Condor Pasa (If I Could)" to, of course, "Bridge Over Troubled Water," one rediscovers the solid craft of Simon's best songs. But it's the arrangements -- their depth, richness and imagination -- that one hears almost anew. Bob Dylan may have sparked a musical revolution when he all but invented folk-rock, but Simon and Garfunkel were the moderates who institutionalized the notion as a lasting pop idiom. And they did it by mastering the art of recording, something a cut-and-run artist such as Dylan has rarely given much time to.

Though I doubt it's entirely intentional, the three discs here rather discreetly offer distinct chapters in the progression from Simon and Garfunkel to Paul Simon, an artist who occasionally makes records, and Art Garfunkel, a singer who occasionally makes records, acts in movies and recently went on a cross-country walk "to look for America" (the walk may be Garfunkel's, but the line is Simon's). On disc one we find Simon the nascent songwriter, as shown by the previously unavailable demo version of "Bleecker Street" -- its lyrics straight out of a folk-music term paper. But the duo's luscious harmonies redeem the B-minus song, as they do for much of the material from their debut album, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., on which Simon was caught between the poles of meaningful Dylanesque song poetry and the Brit-folk revival, and without much to say for himself. By their next album, Sounds of Silence, he began coming up with modestly smart stuff such as "Leaves That Are Green" and "April Come She Will" to back up the hits.

On Old Friends' second disc, Simon grows more fluid and fluent. The rhythmic fixation of his solo work starts creeping in on "Patterns," and he begins to strike a balance between more contemplative work such as "The Dangling Conversation," "Blessed" and "America" and the nutritious pop fluff of "The 59th Street Bridge Song" and "Punky's Dilemma." On the clunky "Save the Life of My Child" you can hear the stirrings of what years later came to fruition on "Boy in the Bubble." But the experimentalism is also just plain awkward, as is made clear on "You Don't Know Where Your Interest Lies."

The third disc is where Simon's artistic ambitions for the duo find fruition. Every studio track here is a well-crafted and buffed-to-perfection pop gem, and yet lurking beneath the hits is a restless creative soul: slightly alienated and questioning on "Song for the Asking" and "The Only Living Boy in New York," but also searching for new musical inspiration on the previously unissued traditional chant "Feuilles-O," which presaged Simon's later collaborations with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Simon was obviously canny enough to realize that at this point there was nowhere to go with Simon and Garfunkel but down or out. Wisely, Simon chose the latter. One can hear him hinting at his decision on "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright" (which Garfunkel, who studied architecture at Columbia University, primarily sings), and then making the point plain on the duo's belated 1975 good-bye single, "My Little Town," which isn't so much a capstone to their career as it is a slamming of the back door. (Despite reunion shows and tours, the duo has remained defunct as a creative collaboration.)

A hearty serving of live recordings rounds out Old Friends, along with such previously unissued oddities, and I do mean oddities, as these two Jewish performers singing Christmas carols -- which they did quite beautifully, I must add. On the live tracks, the verve and potency of the pair's performances are positively bracing, though Garfunkel's stage raps do veer dangerously close to being unctuous. And it's certainly a kick to hear them deliver picture-perfect takes on such Everlys material as "Bye, Bye Love" and "That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine."

Those two voices in an almost heavenly blend are the thread that binds it all together. The always informative box-set annotator David Fricke reveals here that Simon and Garfunkel often double-tracked their vocals to enhance the infectious combination, yet, as is shown here, their singing in live performance was just as vibrant as on the studio selections. By combining the backwoods harmonizing they nicked from the Everlys with an urbane, literate consciousness, Simon and Garfunkel fashioned a rara avis in pop music -- a distinct artistic signature that roamed through a raft of styles, an approach whose influence has remained persistent, even if few have ever attempted to duplicate their particular approaches and patterns.

Spinning through the Old Friends discs, one starts to savor the multiple meanings inherent in the title (you get the feeling that Art Garfunkel spends hours waiting for Simon to call, which he rarely does; "Why Don't You Write Me," indeed). For anyone familiar with the pop and rock legacy of the late '60s, many of these songs are landmarks, or at least benchmarks, on the road to the future. But more than two decades after Simon and Garfunkel split up, these old friends also play like friends made anew. The reacquaintance reveals forgotten or heretofore undiscovered facets of Simon's songs, the duo's harmonies and their savvy and sophisticated recordings -- which is the best one could ask for from this sort of collection.

Even if Simon and Garfunkel were never truly hip, they nonetheless captured a more populist (and certainly pop) vision of their times than many of those whose freak flag flew more proudly. The bonus to this set is how it proves that Simon and Garfunkel were actually pretty cool, and are probably even more so now. The best tracks here are more than just old friends; instead, they're reliable musical companions that pop out of the past to surprise and delight. In that way, they're more like old lovers who still have some new tricks to show.


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