Harper Simon - Division Street (Review)
Review by Jack Foley
IF HARPER Simon’s eponymous debut album was comprised of vintage-sounding country folk tunes reminiscent of his father’s work, then sophomore effort Division Street broadens out that sound into more psychedelic, rock-driven territory. It’s every bit as engaging.
Simon himself says that the aim when recording was to “make the kind of rock ‘n’ roll record I would want to listen to myself”. The challenge proved “incredibly difficult”.
“I felt challenged and inspired by the idea of making a modern psychedelic folk-rock album, a Tom Rothrock production like XO, but then the Velvet Underground and the Stones kept entering in,” he recalls. “Elliott Smith was very influenced by The Beatles but my guitar playing is more influenced by Keith Richards. And I kept wanting to emphasize more lo-fi elements.”
Co-produced with the aforementioned Rothrock, the ensuing collection of songs does, indeed, rock your socks off and encompasses many of the elements that either Simon held originally dear or strayed into.
There’s a bigger, fuller, sometimes thrashier sound that fans may have been expecting too.
Dixie Cleopatra, for instance, rocks hard and contains some robust guitar work that’s a million miles removed from the country-folk of old. While Nothing Gets Through has the sort of slacker vocals married to vigorous riffs that The Dandy Warhols excel at (especially when accompanied by lyrics such as “looking for a place to get high”).
Thematically, Simon says the songs represent “a snapshot of a character at a pivotal moment”, during which they “could go this way or that way on the metaphorical Division Street“. And each story is worth hearing, albeit with the hazy vocals sometimes hard to decipher, especially when Simon cranks up the guitar sound.
But perhaps the finest moments of this excellent album emerge when Simon reins in the psychedelic tendencies and lets the sharp melodies really shine through. Album opener Veteran’s Parade is a fine example of this, hooking you in to the ‘new sound’ from the outset, while title track Division Street combines some excellent hooks with a laidback set of vocals that even channel Velvet Underground and Jesus & Mary Chain in places.
Eternal Questions, with its organs thrown into the mix and Jeff Lynne leaning guitars, is a belter, too, that has a bittersweet vibe about it that’s utterly addictive, while ‘99 has a happy go-lucky breeziness about it that feels like a summer anthem in waiting (despite some playful vocals about the awkward nature of early romance).
When slowing down the pace, too, Simon reaps big rewards. Chinese Jade has a quiet charm about it that recalls Rogue Wave. It contains a tremendous sense of reflection that’s both melancholy and endearing, especially once the subtle string arrangements kick in.
Just Like St Teresa also tip-toes into folk territory, with some gentle strumming to accompany another heartfelt moment.
The album is rounded off, too, in exemplary fashion with the gutsy rocker Breathe Out Love and the epic Leaves of Golden Brown, which slow-builds to a tremendous finale. It’s perhaps the best evidence of the way Simon’s latest album brilliantly mixes the soft with the hard and lyrical intelligence with feel-good melodicism.
Division Street finds Simon progressing nicely. It’s a really great album that exhibits timeless qualities.
Download picks: Veteran’s Parade, Division Street, Eternal Questions, ’99, Chinese Jade, Leaves of Golden Brown