'Capeman' album shows songwriter at his best Review: Paul Simon's work for the new Broadway musical is both remarkable and beautiful.

November 16, 1997|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

An album, like a good story, should have a beginning, a middle and an end, and it's usually better to take its parts in that order. But if you really want to understand both the strengths and peculiarities of Paul Simon's "Songs from the Capeman" (Warner Bros. 46814, arriving in stores Tuesday), it's better to start in the middle, with "The Vampires."

Like all the other songs on the album, "The Vampires" is actually a scene from Simon's musical, "The Capeman." That's the way it reads on the lyric sheet, with the words reading like dialogue beneath the character names.

Moreover, "The Vampires" makes a pretty compelling read. As ** Hernandez (the Umbrellaman) introduces Sal (the Capeman) to the Vampires, a Hispanic gang from Manhattan's Upper West Side, we get a feel for the gang's chip-on-the-shoulder defense of turf, as well as the braggadocio they wear for protection ("If you got cojones, come on, mette mano," goes their challenge to the world). It's a remarkably lean and evocative piece of writing.

Yet what comes through the speakers is something else altogether.

With Simon handling all the individual parts, we don't get a

sense of dialogue, just of how the language flows. And even that is mitigated by the strutting "plena" beat that throbs beneath Simon's voice, a dusky mix of congas, timbale and stabbing minor-key chords offset by the sweet blare of trumpet obbligatos.

So instead of hearing it as a scene from a play, it comes across more as a jazzy bit of salsa. Granted, there are lines here that don't seem suited to a Latin dance tune -- such as the gloriously profane insult an Irish gang tough hurls at one of the Vampires -- but they're framed with such melodic power that they come across like choruses, almost inviting the listener to sing along.

It's an astonishing feat, and made all the more impressive by the fact that "Songs from the Capeman" is not an abridged version of the show, but a selection of whole scenes pieced together to give a general sense of the story. Imagine a novel whose chapters could just as easily stand as individual prose poems, and you'll have a sense of just how singular Simon's achievement is.

It helps, of course, that Simon tells these stories in the pop vernacular, drawing on everything from Puerto Rican folk music to early rock and roll. "Bernadette" comes on with the slicked-back swagger of a forgotten doo-wop hit; "Virgil" unfolds to the twangy thump of a vintage country song; "Killer Wants to Go to College" carries all the sweet lassitude of a Jimmy Reed blues.

But it's the depth and resonance of the writing that ultimately ranks "Songs from the Capeman" among Simon's best work. It's one thing to have lyrics that discuss the quality of mercy as eloquently as the dialogue in "Can I Forgive Him," quite another to convey those words with a memorably melancholy melody. Simon not only does both, but builds his vocal lines atop a guitar accompaniment of such grace and beauty that it could stand a solo piece.

Songwriting simply doesn't get any better than this.

Pub Date: 11/16/97

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