The children of rock icons have it rough. It's a rare case that they'll ever be able to get out of the enormous shadow of their parent's legacies, regardless of how talented they are or how divergent their paths are from those of their folks. As the son of Paul Simon and Peggy Harper, Harper Simon joins this difficult club, making significant waves on his own with a 2009 self-titled debut and now sophomore album Division Street. While Simon's voice bears more than a passing similarity to his dad's, the overall feel of his sepia-toned and slightly psychedelic folk-rock has a lot more in common with Elliott Smith's more produced later albums. This makes sense as Tom Rothrock, who produced Smith's pivotal XO, among other things, is at the production helm. The melancholy moods and characters of Division Street seem both less vivid and less tragic than those of Smith's heartbreaking story songs, and the album as a whole tempers what could be a heavy mood with equal parts lyrical whimsy and dreamy lo-fi elements. Stand-out cut "Bonnie Brae" is a great example of this, with the lighthearted wordplay of the chorus recalling early Simon & Garfunkel and tossed-off lyrics like "You came over with a jacket over your shoulder/made you look like Patti Smith" winkingly offsetting the song's stormy undercurrent and sentiments of loss. Likewise, the titular track tells a story about a detached friend with substance abuse issues with hooks so melodic and happy-go-lucky the troubled character sketch seems almost cheery. The softly bittersweet feel of the album carries over into the production as well. Simon is backed by an all-star band including Nikolai Fraiture from the Strokes on bass, Elvis Costello's Attractions drummer Pete Thomas, and affiliates of Bright Eyes, Wilco, and Feist, all turning in flawlessly precise performances. Rather than making the obvious choice and presenting a polished, high-definition production of this star-studded cast, Simon instead wraps his songs in blankets of muted analog saturation, dialing up distorted drums and losing details to a murky, larger whole. It's an interesting choice and one that ultimately benefits the album. The waterlogged reverb treatment on almost every element of "Chinese Jade" somehow bonds the instruments to the multi-tracked vocals. A more conventional production mode would have rendered the song, and much of the album, sterile and flat. The lo-fi effects, bright performances, and Simon's beautifully heartsick songs culminate in a lovely place somewhere between the dull glow of Elliott Smith's early home-recorded albums and the wide open arrangements of Beck's Sea Change. Some moments it's hard to ignore how much he sounds like his father, and at times, the genuflection at the altar of Elliott Smith gets a little too doe-eyed and derivative, but the strengths of Simon's songwriting and the atmospheric production keep these concerns in the background of a colorful and evocative bigger picture.
Division Street Review
by Fred Thomas