Simon & Garfunkel – Bookends – Listening in Depth

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Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises with advice on What to Listen For as you critically evaluate your copy of Bookends.

Musically side two is one of the strongest in the entire Simon and Garfunkel oeuvre (if you’ll pardon my French). Each of the five songs could hold its own as a potential hit on the radio, and no filler to be found whatsoever. How many albums from 1968 can make that claim? 

The estimableROY HALEE handled the engineering duties. Not the most ‘natural” sounding record he ever made, but that’s clearly not what he or the duo were going for. The three of them would obviously take their sound much farther in that direction with the Grammy winning Bridge Over Troubled Water from 1970.

The bigger production songs on this album have a tendency to get congested on even the best pressings, which is not uncommon for Four Track recordings from the ’60s. Those of you with properly set up high-dollar front ends should have less of a problem than some. $3000 cartridges can usually deal with this kind of complex information better than $300 ones.

But not always. Expensive does not always mean better, since painstaking and exacting set up is so essential to proper playback.

The Wrecking Crew provided top quality backup, with Hal Blaine on drums and percussion, Joe Osborn on bass and Larry Knechtel on piano and keyboards.

In-Depth Track Commentary

Side One

Bookends Theme 
Save the Life of My Child

I used to think this track would never sound good enough to use as an evaluation track. It’s a huge production that I found heretofore practically impossible to get to sound right on even the best original copies of the album. Even as recently as ten years ago I had basically given up trying.

Thankfully things have changed. Nowadays, with great copies at our disposal and a system that is really cooking, virtually all of the harmonic distortion in the big chorus near the opening disappears. It takes a very special pressing and a very special stereo to play this song.

America

America is another one of the toughest tracks to get right. The big ending with its powerful orchestral elements is positively stunning on the rare copies that have little or no congestion in the loudest passages.

On virtually every copy you will ever hear the voices on this track are a little sibilant. Modern records are made with what is known as a de-essing limiter. This limiter recognizes sibilance and keeps it under control, because once the cutter head sees that kind of high frequency information, which is already boosted for the RIAA curve, it will try to cut it onto the record and the result will be this kind of spitty distortion.

What’s interesting is that none of the reissues we played managed to control the problem, even though the hgher quality cutting systems they would have been made with should have been able to handle the extra power requirements. The reissues are not only spitty, but the spit tends to be grainy and aggressive on the bad copies, the worst of both worlds.

Adding to the problem on the track America is the fact that it fades in over the ending of the previous track. This means that it’s actually a generation of tape down from the master, owing to the fact that that kind of mixing is generally done from two master tapes onto a third mixdown tape. From there further dubs might even have been made. Who knows how many generations of tape there might end up being between the master and the finished product?

There is also deep bass on the best copies, bass which is usually missing from the most originals and practically all of the reissues.

Overs 
Voices of Old People 
Old Friends 
Bookends Theme

Side Two

Musically this side is one of the strongest in the entire Simon and Garfunkel oeuvre (if you’ll pardon my French). Not a dog in the bunch.

Fakin’ It

On copies that are big and clear but not quite as rich and Tubey Magical as one might wish the vocals here will be a bit dry and gritty.

Punky’s Dilemma

This is probably the best sounding song on side two, rich, relaxed, tubey and smooth. No later Red Label pressing gets those qualities the way the best 360s do.

Mrs. Robinson

This song sounds like it’s sourced from a dub tape. Notice how smeary the guitar transients are. The vocals are a bit better than the guitars, but no other track on this side sounds quite as dubby — to my ear — as this one.

A Hazy Shade of Winter
At the Zoo



Further Reading

…along these lines can be found below.

We have a large number of entries in our new Listening in Depth series.

We have a section foAudio Advice of all kinds.

You can find your very own Hot Stamper pressings by using the techniques we lay out in Hot Stamper Shootouts — The Four Pillars of Success.

And finally we’ll throw in this old warhorse discussing How to Become an Expert Listener, subtitled Hard Work and Challenges Can Really Pay Off.

Because in audio, much like the rest of life, hard work and challenges really do pay off.

Wikipedia on the Music

The “Bookends Theme” that opens and closes side one is played on the acoustic guitar, with no additional instruments. An audio sample of the band’s first hit, “The Sound of Silence”, softly plays during a cacophony of sounds near the end of the second track, “Save the Life of My Child”. John Simon, who was credited with production assistance on the song, created the bassline by playing a Moog synthesizer with help from Bob Moog himself.

James Bennighof, author of The Words and Music of Paul Simon, finds that “textural elements are variously supported by a churning groove, percussive, and distorted electronic sounds” that compliment the song’s subject matter, suicide suburban youth. “Overs” explores a more jazz-oriented style, with a larger selection or chords and looser form than the group’s previous styles.

“Voices of Old People” is a sound collage, and was recorded on tape by Garfunkel at the United Home for Aged Hebrews and the California Home for the Aged at Reseda. The collection of audio recordings of the elderly find them musing on treasured photographs, illness and living conditions.

In “Old Friends”, the title generally conveys the introduction or ending of sections through repetition, and the song builds upon a “rather loose formal structure” that at first includes an acoustic guitar and soft mood. An additional element is introduced midway through the track: an orchestral arrangement conducted by Jimmie Haskell, dominated by strings and xylophone notes. Horns and other instruments are added when the duo cease singing, creating a turbulence that builds to a single high, sustained note on the strings. The song then segues into the final song of side one, the reprise of the “Bookends Theme”.

Side two consists of miscellaneous unrelated songs unused for The Graduate, with many possessing a more rock-based sound than the unified folk songs that precede it.

In “Fakin’ It”, melodies are occasionally deleted to suit lyrics, but the song generally follows a similar chord structure and melodic outline over a “funky rock beat” that sonically references the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows”.

“Punky’s Dilemma” is breezy and minimal musically, with a soft jazz-style percussion and seemingly improvised guitar lines dominated by seventh chords.

“Mrs. Robinson” opens with an “instantly recognizable” pop rock guitar hook that carries throughout the track. The first verse consists only of syllables—”dee-dee-dee” and “doo-doo-doo”—that form stable harmonic foundation. The inclusion of the meaningless syllables arises from the unfinished nature of the song when pitched to director Mike Nichols, who particularly liked the verse.

“A Hazy Shade of Winter” follows a more rock-tinged sound, with a fairly straightforward verse-refrain structure.

“At the Zoo” uses a rock groove that settles into the key of G major.

AMG 5 Star Rave Review

Bookends is a literary album that contains the most minimal of openings with the theme, an acoustic guitar stating itself slowly and plaintively before erupting into the wash of synthesizers and dissonance that is “Save the Life of My Child.”

The classic “America” is next, a folk song with a lilting soprano saxophone in the refrain and a small pipe organ painting the acoustic guitars in the more poignant verses. The song relies on pop structures to carry its message of hope and disillusionment as two people travel the American landscape searching for it until it dawns on them that everyone else on the freeway is doing the same thing.

The final four tracks, “Mrs. Robinson,” the theme song for the film The Graduate, “A Hazy Shade of Winter,” and the album’s final track, “At the Zoo,” offer as tremblingly bleak a vision for the future as anything done by the Velvet Underground, but rooted in the lives of everyday people, not in the decadent underground personages of New York’s Factory studio. But the album is also a warning that to pay attention is to take as much control of one’s fate as possible.