When it comes to pop exoticism, few performers can match the musical acumen of Paul Simon. It isn't simply that he has taste enough to seek out Andean folk groups or South African superstars; what makes the difference is that he turns his collaborations into hits, as he has proved from the reggae-tinged "Mother And Child Reunion" to the gospel-fueled "Loves Me Like a Rock."
Still, it was his Grammy-winning 1986 album, "Graceland," that proved his reputation as a taste-maker. As an act of music appreciation, it was a masterstroke, introducing millions to the pleasures of Zulu pop styles like mbaqanga and mbube. But the album meant far more than that because it also spoke to the growing anti-apartheid movement, and that made Simon's efforts seem more important than mere music-making.
Those looking for a similar sense of urgency in "The Rhythm of the Saints" (Warner Bros. 26098), Simon's latest album, are bound to be disappointed, but on a political level, that really isn't the singer's fault. After all, what attracted Simon to Soweto was the music, not the issues, and the same holds true for this album's exercises in Afro-Brazilian music.
If you want to complain about a lack of fire in the music itself, however, be my guest. Because despite his globe-hopping recording sessions and international crew of musicians, what he actually delivers with "The Rhythm of the Saints" is little more than globally-aware background music.
It looks good on paper. For "Can't Run But," Simon contrasts the arty Brazilian percussion of Uakti with the sly blues guitar of J.J. Cale; with "Further to Fly," he superimposes circular West African guitar patterns over percolating South American drums. It's almost as if Simon saw his album as an elaborate dinner party, with his guests painstakingly arranged for the most brilliant contrasts.
Trouble is, Simon spends so much time fussing over the eclectic backing tracks that he never gets around to providing any real songs. Lyrics, yes; a groove, most definitely. But melody? Frankly, most of the album sounds like Simon is chewing over a single, sing-song tune -- the same one, in fact, he used for "You Can Call Me Al."
Except that "You Can Call Me Al," like much of "Graceland," conquered its melodic monotony through the tuneful exuberance its guitar-crazed, harmony-rich arrangements. What "The Rhythm of the Saints" emphasizes, on the other hand, is precisely that -- rhythm. And though its drum-driven sound often presents Simon interesting textural possibilities, it leaves the listener with precious little to hum.