Sunday, May 3, 2015

Art Garfunkel - Angel Clare (1973)

Angel Clare, Art Garfunkel's debut solo album from 1973, couldn't have been any more different from the first solo LP of his old friend Paul Simon, which had come out a year earlier.  While Simon's self-titled debut, which Simon co-produced with Roy Halee, was sparse, low-key and introspective, Garfunkel's first album, produced entirely by Halee, was elaborately arranged, grandiose, and somewhat lacking in personal expression.  Garfunkel has an undoubtedly peerless choirboy voice, put to great effect here acoustically as a result of recording Angel Clare in New York's Grace Cathedral, but more often than not he falls into the trap that other naturally talented singers have found themselves in; he indulges his voice without having much to say.
The problem on Angel Clare is twofold.  The song selection is somewhat random, drawing from various composers without a sense of cohesiveness.  Also, the music is at times rather dense and overbearing; a who's-who list of  renowned session players throw in everything but the kitchen sink, and at times you feel like wanting to cut your way through a song the way you'd cut through underbrush in a forest to get to the song's essence.  With folks like J.J. Cale, guitarist Larry Carlton, drummer Hal Blaine, string arranger Ernie Freeman, and former Dominos Carl Radle (bass) and Jim Gordon (drums) all contributing to Angel Clare, it's possible that Garfunkel wasn't sure about where he was going or what he was trying to convey in his singing.
The album's flaws are evident in the first two tracks.  Angel Clare opens with the Paul Williams-Roger Nichols tune "Travelling Boy," with Garfunkel providing a lush vocal set to music that's gorgeously performed but somewhat static.  Artie's attempt at  a country song is inappropriate and completely wrong; Charlie Monroe's "Down in the Willow Garden," a tale of a boy murdering his lover, is overburdened with a lame tempo and a thick mix of overdubs that drown out any sense of subtlety.  The Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia actually overdubbed guitar on this track but was justifiably unimpressed with the result, and while Paul Simon contributed harmonies here - the first Simon and Garfunkel collaboration since their 1970 split - the pleasure of hearing these two sing together again is irredeemably spoiled.  The traditional "Barbara Allen" and Jimmy Webb's "Another Lullaby" are more stately and sound beautiful, but Art's careful, calculated delivery sounds somewhat cold.
Despite the overproduction, not all of Angel Clare is unsuccessful.  Garfunkel can still occasionally get to the heart of a song's meaning here, and when he does, he delivers it convincingly.  Also, in addition to being a strong vocalist, Garfunkel is a skilled arranger, and his work on Randy Newman's "Old Man," in terms of arranging and singing, is commendable; he pays careful attention to the strings while approaching the lyrics with more introspection.  Art offers up moments of inspiration in world music here, and while the results are mixed - his cover of the Ghanaian group Osibisa's "Woyaya" is rather tame and fey - his cover of Van Morrison's reggae-inspired "I Shall Sing" is first-rate, lighthearted pop, though the most interesting world music exercise here, "Feuilles-Oh/Do Space Men Pass Dead Souls on Their Way to the Moon?", cleverly melds a Bach piece with a Haitian folk song.  But without an overall sense of direction, Angel Clare is aimless and confused, with Garfunkel unsure of whether he's still a folk-rock singer or a balladeer.  The ideas that do work, though, indicate that Garfunkel still had a good album in him, even if this isn't it.  The album's best track, the majestic, astonishingly arranged Webb ballad "All I Know," which Art delivers with genuine emotion, makes a pretty good case for Garfunkel's artistry on its own.

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