Friday, May 1, 2009

The Art Garfunkel Problem



Simon and Garfunkel: Bridge Over Troubled Water

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I have a challenge for my readers. It is in two parts, and each part is a question. For each question, the challenge is to say the first thing you think of. Don’t think hard about your answers; that defeats the purpose. “I don’t know” is an acceptable answer. Ready?

1. Name a cover version of Bridge Over Troubled Water. If you are my friend Boyhowdy, this is probably easy. But for the rest of us, this is next to impossible. Why?
Because Art Garfunkel, with his soaring vocal, created the perfect performance of Paul Simon’s words. And because the production perfectly emphasizes Garfunkel’s strengths as a singer.

2. Name three hits that Art Garfunkel had as a solo artist. Once again, most of us draw blanks. How can this be? How could this happen to the owner of that voice? And this is not a trick question. Garfunkel did have hits, and plenty of them. But, whereas Bridge Over Troubled Waters is a classic, none of Garfunkel’s solo hits have stood the test of time.

The seeming contradiction between the results of these two questions is the crux of the Art Garfunkel problem. Garfunkel can be an amazing singer. But Garfunkel can also be his own worst enemy.

That voice is a distinct high tenor, There is never a wrong note. The voice is pure, with no scratch or grab. Garfunkel can sound angelic or passionless, depending on the production and the choice of material. His voice can be beautiful and distinctive; it can also disappear into wash of smooth sound. Sometimes, both of these happen at the same time.

Through the years, Art Garfunkel has displayed poor artistic judgment when left to his own devices. He delivers a version of a well known song, whose original version is a gem of emotional expression. Garfunkel’s version washes out the personality of the original, and the production, featuring thick layers of strings and other techniques to smooth the sound out, leave the song sounding passionless. The listener is left yearning for the original.

But Bridge Over Troubled Water really works. What sets it apart? It is a full production, but not an overwhelming one. Given how easy it is too make a bad Art Garfunkel recording, what are they elements of a good one?

The first thing that has to happen is the matching of the singer to the song. Garfunkel isn’t going to give you a gritty performance with emotional highs and lows. If the words of the song do so, the production should emphasize the tension between the performance and the words. Garfunkel can also deliver a calm reassurance, or an earnest declaration of love, but this is an enduring love that has already lasted a while, not the disconcerting power of first love. Strong outbursts of negative emotions are not his strong point, but a cold passionless anger is a possibility for him. Fascination and wonder are states that Garfunkel can do well.

For production, Garfunkel needs room for his voice to breathe. It is a mistake to surround him with to much sweetener. A spare arrangement often puts his voice in a better light. He blends well with other voices, or with an instrumental line played on a single instrument. Bridge Over Troubled Water begins as a simple arrangement, and the arrangement becomes fuller as the emotion swells; this obviously works as well.

Art Garfunkel: She Moved Through the Fair

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She Moved Through the Fair is a traditional song. Garfunkel’s version was recorded with the Chieftains, who provide a spare sympathetic background.

Art Garfunkel: Scissors Cut

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Aside from his work with Paul Simon, some of Garfunkel’s best work was on songs by Jimmy Webb. Even some of these were ruined by poor production choices, but when it worked, as it did on Scissors Cut, the results were well worth it. Webb’s writing, like Simon’s, provided the emotional depth that Garfunkel needed.

Art Garfunkel: Dreamland

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Garfunkel’s voice is perfect for lullabies. Dreamland is a fine of example of how this can work. The song comes from the album From a Parent to a Child, which is just what it sounds like. Although there are some uneven spots, this may be Garfunkel’s most overlooked album.
Art Garfunkel: The Thread

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Finally, I wanted to present an example of Garfunkel singing his own words. Coming in 2002, the album Everything Waits to be Noticed was the first, and still the only time this happened. On the album, Garfunkel teams up with Buddy Mondlock and Maia Sharp to create settings for his words which are smooth, but do not sound like sonic wallpaper.

6 comments:

Dave said...

Ah yes I did own a few of his solo records... a very pop over produced sound, but solid stuff.

Linda - SE PA said...

Interesting! I read, that Art Garfunkle was considering a new duo ___ and Garfunkle! This story came after Paul Simon's recent show in NYC where AG came out for a few songs.

However memorable "Bridge" is and for some, the standard that sets later period Simon & Garfunkle - Art Garfunkle is really not a solo artist. Shake up any way you want and it still doesn't shake out to solo artist.

Shake out Paul Simon and you have a solo artist who works well with many artists and styles of music, an often brilliant songwriter and arranger.

Simon is not the better singer but perhaps a better stylist?

So - the question could be - how does one of the most favored duo's of that time span - each walk a different path? Why one and not the other?

Perhaps, it could be genre... Simon crosses and weaves - Garfunkle is Garfunkle and limited by style and range.

In closing, I say that I have missed Simon & Garfunkle deeply - they are in my top 10. However, as solo artists I hold Paul Simon close to my heart and Art Garfunkle becomes of very little interest.

Darius said...

Linda, I hope you feel free to comment here at any time. This is great stuff, and enhances my original post. Thank you.

Ralph said...

This is a great post. I've often thought about the Garfunkel conundrum myself. I think I agree with Linda--at bottom, Art is a mere singer, while Paul is a stylist, an artist. It's the same problem I've developed with Joan Baez over the decades. In her earliest work, she was a true artist who "became" her characters, like all the other greats, Piaf, Garland, Barbara Cook, etc. Part of the early fascination with her was the way she brought to life ancient life situations and made them come as vital as if they were in today's news. I could name many examples, but "Matty Groves," a boring, repetitive trope if ever there was one, is a dramatic masterpiece in her hands, and with nothing but her voice and some well-chosen modulations on a single guitar. Over the years more and more she let the fabled voice do all the work and she became a mere singer. A voice does not an artist make.

boyhowdy said...

Like the album it comes from, Art's Dreamland is a forgotten delight -- gentle, and perfect for kids. I've got a Mae Robertson cover of this one that's out of this world, but Art's is more delicate, if a bit fragile for deep adult listening.

And thanks for the nod re: covers. But interestingly, though I could name a few fave covers of Bridge by the time I finished this sentence, I'd be surprised if most of your readers hadn't heard the Johnny Cash version from his last years at least once. Other than that definitive cover, though, the remainder of those in my collection (and my collector's memory) are serious obscurities.

Sally_Odgers said...

Art Garfunkel sang "Bright Eyes" from Watership Down, I believe? That was another song and arrangement that seemed to suit his voice. I feel almost ashamed of loving BoTW so much, because it's so obvious a choice... but I believe it's a rare case of the voice and song matching to perfection.