The Forgotten Brilliance Of Paul Simon’s Album One-Trick Pony

OneTrick Pony

Album artwork used for review purpose only. All Rights Reserved © 1978 Columbia Records

In the 1960s, Paul Simon struck a chord with the world of music listeners through the songs he wrote and recorded with Art Garfunkel. They displayed a wise-beyond-their-years perspective on life, much in the way Bob Dylan was able to speak to the populace but with a discernibly more pop-orientated and commercial appeal. By the 1970s Simon and Garfunkel split up and Mr. Simon was free both to write from a more personal perspective and to mature in his songwriting approach at his own pace. The results were there for all to hear on his excellent albums Paul Simon (1972), There Goes Rhymin’ Simon (1973) and Still Crazy After All These Years (1975).

Then in 1978, Paul Simon decided to branch into a field that had previously provided his partner with an alternate career. That would be in the movies. Perhaps influenced by Garfunkel’s success as an actor and having just recently played a cameo role in Woody Allen’s groundbreaking comedy Annie Hall, Paul decided to write and star in his own feature length film One-Trick Pony. It’s a movie based around a middle-aged pop / folk musician’s attempts to find a second wind in his career amid a burgeoning foreign musical landscape of New Wave and punk – a world that was a far cry from the crafty singer-songwriter boom of the late 1960s and 70s.

The movie received a lukewarm response (I loved it) but the soundtrack did a little better due to its hit single “Late In The Evening.” It was a song that traced a child’s musical path to manhood and it’s the opening song both on the album and in the film – one that boasted Latin world rhythms and conversational lyrics and which clearly pointed the way to Simon’s widely-acclaimed 1986 release Graceland. It is unfortunate that this film’s soundtrack did not spark the commercial success of Simon’s previous albums.

“Late in the Evening,” is undoubtedly the most upbeat track on the record. The song’s orchestration defined by dancing horn parts and exotic percussion riffs differs quite dramatically from the rest of the album’s jazzier and more soft rock timbre. Most of the songs on One-Trick Pony have a mid-tempo to somewhat relaxed feel to them that are probably more relatable to the “hip” introspective listener. This is not a bad thing, in fact the more you listen to the record the more beauty and subtlety is revealed in its melodies and harmonic structures. In general, the expertly concise lyrics center on the past and present personal nature of the main character (Jonah) played by Paul Simon in the movie.

On the album’s second track, entitled “That’s Why God Made the Movies,” Simon’s character Jonah reflects on the death of his mother as she gave birth to him. This circumstance shapes Jonah’s life and paves the way for his distant relationships with women and his fear of abandonment throughout the film. The song is a semi-swampy sounding blues (complete with Hiram Bullock’s slide guitar) that incorporates a catchy melody throughout a simple song form – i.e. verse, chorus verse, chorus, middle section (uplifting), guitar solo and repeat of the first verse. Of course Simon’s band (the same musicians seen performing with Simon in the movie) are all top-notch players that lay down solid foundations for all the tunes.

Richard Tee brings his easily identifiable smooth Rhodes keyboard sound to the mix. Eric Gale provides the tasty blues guitar fills throughout. Tony Levin’s confident bass playing meanwhile, locks in perfectly with the drums and of course the drummer Steve Gadd is remarkable. His musical playing alone is a marvel to be heard, and reason enough to own this record. Pure genius!

Though most of the tracks were recorded in the studio, there are also two excellent live tracks on this album. The first one is the title track “One-Trick Pony,” recorded at the Agora Theater and Ballroom in Cleveland, Ohio. It is a funky number with a wide melodic-minor range and some beautiful diminished chords in the chorus. Steve Gadd’s feel is unmistakably assured and really propels this number to its tricky rhythmic ending (think Steely Dan’s “Aja” triplet drum fills). The serious, set- in-the present, and frequently philosophical lyrics are wrapped around a musical tension and release that gives this song extra musical weight. The lyrics show Jonah, as he reflects on his fading life as a footnote musician who is struggling to make ends meet.

Track four, “How the Heart Approaches What it Yearns,” is the subtlest rhythmic piece on the album. It is a delicate straightforward, slow tempo ballad about a past relationship that opens up harmonically into a gorgeous middle section that occurs twice in the song. Paul sings it with much pathos but is never overly sentimental. While all of this passes by and sets a mellow tone across the tune, it is interesting to note that the song is mainly in the odd- time signature of 5/4.  However, the rhythms are so well thought out that one never feels a strict emphasis on the 5th beat like most songs in this time signature. Again, Steve Gadd makes the whole piece flow without missing a beat.

Side One of the album closes with “Oh, Marion.” This sneaky sounding song that opens up with one of Steve Gadd’s most recognizable drum riffs as also heard on Rickie Lee Jones’ 1979 hit, “Chuck E’s In Love.” The lyrics center around Jonah’s thoughts regarding his wife in the movie. The song starts off with a funky feel. Steve Gadd’s placement of the kick drum throughout is amazing, surrounded by offbeat guitar stabs, sprinkled over with Richard Tee’s tasty, extended chord fillers.

The first two verses are established in a jazzy, minor key. Then, out of the blue Simon sings the title of the song “Oh, Marion” in a major key.  It’s a striking transition that uplifts the whole vibe of the song. He expertly transitions back into the minor key for verse three. That is followed by a memorable, through-composed scat that Simon and flugelhorn player Jon Faddis perform in unison over the verse changes. This leads to a repeat of the “Oh Marion” major key section, which then transitions, into a jazzy, minor ending with a flugelhorn solo over the top. This outro sort of reminds me a little of the ending to one of Paul McCartney’s lesser-known recordings, “San Ferry Anne”.

On the vinyl record Side Two opens up with the slightly gospel / blues sounding, “Ace in the Hole”. This is a catchy, spirited duet between Simon and Richard Tee and it again was recorded live at the Agora Ballroom. This song about life on the road is in the same minor key as “One-Trick Pony”, but it explores different harmonic tensions in its extended chorus. In the movie the song is given a big production treatment by producer Steve Kunelian (played by none other than Lou Reed). And in the film Jonah hates it. Fortunately, the recording here on the soundtrack album is stripped of that layered orchestration; only the track’s grit remains.

Next on the second side of the album comes the track “Nobody,” a slow and bluesy ballad about Jonah’s intimate feelings towards his wife. Delivered with just the right amount of introspective panache in the vocal, the song is straightforward and catchy. It’s also an excellent avenue for Eric Gale’s bluesy guitar chops. The ambient background harmonies (almost gospel in nature) work well in this lazy tempo context. Musically, the song owes its relaxed feel to Simon’s previous existential hit “Slip Sliding Away.”

The next track‚“Jonah,” is a heartfelt examination of the film’s main character in the movie. The metaphor of using the Biblical story of “Jonah and the Whale” is “Paul Simon clever” and of course clearly expressed. Softly sung with subtle bluesy textures, this track features more of Richard Tee’s amazing Rhodes playing interjected with a sparse use of cello and a string section to pad the sophisticated chords moving in and out of the lilting chorus. Again, Steve Gadd adds just the right amount of kick drum and percussion (a flowing “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” beat) to propel the piece through its ups and downs. This is a beautiful song by Simon, with sophisticated chromatic leanings that are a far cry from his 1972 hit, “Mother and Child Reunion.”

The coolest tune on the album is the unusually piano based (for a Paul Simon song) track “God Bless The Absentee”. The song’s astute lyrics are about the future of being on the road all the time and it’s consequences on family life. The melody against the piano verse vamp is sung with cool resignation and through ascending sophisticated harmonic movement we are treated unexpectedly (twice) to a middle section that is at once stunning and melancholy and that fits so perfectly with the observational lyrics. The harmony descends in these sections quickly bringing us back around to the piano vamp. This is the work of a true master songwriter, one who can take us on a profound musical journey in under three-and-a-half minutes.

Performance wise, Steve Gadd’s hi-hat playing is the delicate work of a brain surgeon and Eric Gale’s guitar solo hits all the right notes with just the right feel. There is also a curious use of woodblock hits in this tune as they serve to accentuate the “C” words – “Cut” and ”Country”. While this may seem like minutia not necessarily worth bringing up to the general listener, I find it interesting that the same woodblock accents also occurs on other Simon recordings, especially in his next album Hearts and Bones (1983).  I wonder what the origin or meaning of this is, if anything (some sort of secret Simon continuity perhaps?) At any rate, this is a song that deserves to be played on repeat.

The last tune fittingly enough is titled, “Long, Long Day,” It is a resigned, weary, and altogether jazzy waltz with a melancholy melody that works beautifully against diminished and flat 5 chords. Lyrically it’s about Jonah coming to grips with the notion that his life in the music world is perhaps coming to an end. Life on the road has taken its toll. Should he cheat on his wife or just head home and be a family man? We never find out. The song builds up to these questions with a duet that also features vocalist pro Patti Austin along side Simon’s own lead. This could be considered the middle section of the track  and it is a doozy. It’s constructed with melodies and words that overlap, intertwine and respond to each other in an almost Broadway type of style. Simon’s vocal here is controlled, heartfelt but never over the top theatrical. Tasty. There is subtlety here in the overall orchestration of simple guitar string bends, Rhodes keyboard, bass, and the sparse use of a string section added to the final chorus. Woodblock (or side stick) once again emphasizes the “C” words of “could”, and “cliché”. The chords used over the last phrase (”It’s been a long, long day”) are a thing of beauty and they resolve expertly what has gone before on this masterful collection of songs.

I remember reading in a few interviews with Paul Simon where he was asked about his feelings towards this album. Surprisingly, he did not think too favorably of it. Of course it is all subjective but for me I find it to be a super cohesive work lyrically and musically and I consider it to be expertly performed and produced. A crowning achievement to his recording legacy, the soundtrack album of this still underrated film certainly proves to the music world once and for all that Paul Simon is certainly not a “one-trick pony.”

 

(Additional editing by Anthony Pomes)

Use of album cover art is protected under the United States Office of Copyright Fair Use Doctrine Section 107 of the Copyright Act that protects the authors right to show the art that is being critiqued in the article.

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