Q-Music: solos and sides

  • by Gregg Shapiro
  • Tuesday June 13, 2023
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Q-Music: solos and sides

Simon & Garfunkel, the legendary duo of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, only released five studio albums over the course of their brief musical partnership, but what unforgettable music they made together. Both men embarked on solo careers in the early 1970s, with Simon outnumbering Garfunkel's studio recordings, and surpassing him in accolades with four Grammys (two for "Still Crazy After All These Years" and two for "Graceland") to his credit.

"Seven Psalms" (Owl Records/Sony) is Paul Simon's first album of new material in seven years (on 2018's "In The Blue Light," Simon revisited 10 songs of his he considered underappreciated).

At almost 82, Simon's voice is showing some signs of wear, but his songwriting chops are still sharp. The seven songs, presented as one long suite without separation, feature Bob Dylanesque philosophizing with a touch of David Byrne language play. As serious as Leonard Cohen's "You Want It Darker" album, "Seven Psalms" is a meditation on forgiveness, love, doubt, refugees, the environment, heaven, and a higher power. "The Sacred Harp," a duet with his wife Edie Brickell, is a particular standout.


During her time as lead vocalist with 10,000 Maniacs, Natalie Merchant recorded four major-label studio albums with the band (including 1987's brilliant "In My Tribe") before departing to become a solo artist. Her eight solo albums, including 2015's "Paradise Is There," on which she, like Paul Simon, revisited earlier material, all reinforce her singular talent.

"Keep Your Courage" (Nonesuch), Merchant's first solo album since her eponymous 2014 release, was created during the pandemic, and is, in her own words, "an album about the human heart...that has come to represent not only our source of life but also of feeling."

This theme of resilience gives the album an atmosphere of strength, reinforced by the image of Joan of Arc on the cover. Once again drawing on talented guest vocalists, the album opens with a pair of duets — "Big Girls" and "Come On, Aphrodite" — featuring Abena Koomson-Davis. "Sister Tilly," an amalgam of strong women from Merchant's life is a magnificent mini-epic. Other stunning selections include "Guardian Angel," the love song to Walt Whitman "Song of Himself," a cover of "Hunting the Wren," and the brassy "Tower of Babel."

Natalie Merchant performs September 26, 8pm at The Masonic, 1111 California St. $59-$95. www.livenation.com

Whether performing with his trio, Ben Folds Five, collaborating with Nick Hornby (2010'S "Lonely Avenue"), Music and Nashville Symphony (2015's "So There"), or going solo, Ben Folds' name has always been front and center. "What Matters Most" (New West), bears Folds' moniker but it's really a collaboration with Boston duo Tall Heights, who play on the album, and co-wrote the song "Moments."

Folds, good at playing well with others continues to perfect his brand of piano-driven pop, alternately snarky ("Exhausting Lover," and the political "Kristine From the 7th Grade" and "But Wait, There's More") and touching ("Fragile," "Back to Anonymous," the title cut), enhanced by strings and synths.

Ben Folds performs Aug. 17, 8pm at the Fox Theater, 1807 Telegraph Ave., Oakland. $55-$90. www.thefoxoakland.com

For her solo albums, including "Manzanita" (Hardly Art), Shana Cleveland, of the all-female quartet La Luz, focuses attention on the indie folk aspect of her musical personality. The interplay between Cleveland's lovely vocals and guitar playing and Will Sprott's synthesizer work give songs such as "Faces In the Firelight," "Mystic Mine," "Evil Eye," "Babe," and the light twang of "Gold Tower" and "Walking Through the Morning Dew," a timeless retro quality. This album sounds like it could be from 2023 or 1973, and that's meant as a compliment.

Shana Cleveland performs July 18 at Brick & Mortar Music Hall, 1710 Mission St. $15-$20. www.brickandmortarmusic.com

As indie super groups go, The No Ones are super-duper. The line-up consists of Peter Buck (R.E.M., Minus 5, Filthy Friends, and others), Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, Minus 5, Filthy Friends, and others), and I Was A King's Arne Kjelsrud Mathisen and Frode Strømstad.

In addition to the core group, "helpful friends" such as Debbi Peterson (The Bangles), Ben Gibbard (Death Cab For Cutie, The Postal Service), and out musician Victor Krummenacher (Camper Van Beethoven), all help to raise the star quality of the project. "My Best Evil Friend" (Yep Roc), The No Ones' sophomore effort is a 21st-century power pop update containing strong numbers including "Phil Ochs Is Dead," "KLIV," the George Harrison tribute "George (Song for)," "Throwdown in Whispertown," "Cameo Parkway," and "The After Party."


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