Singer and songwriter Harper Simon debuted early, very early. In 1976, at the tender age of four, he joined his father, Paul, for a rousing performance of “Bingo,” recorded for Sesame Street. He was a quick study.
But it took Simon until 2010, when he was 37, to release his self-titled debut. He recorded the vintage-hued, country-flavored album in Nashville with famed producer Bob Johnston (Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash), a cast of veteran session players, and friends like Marc Ribot and Yuka Honda. Now, he’s returning with a plugged-in follow up on Division Street (out Mar. 26th).
Division Street, which was co-produced by Tom Rothrock (Elliot Smith, Beck) has more grit and fuzz, a sheen of psychedelia -- and another impressive cast. The band includes Pete Thomas of the Attractions on drums, Nikolai Fraiture from The Strokes on bass, and multi-instrumentalist Nate Walcott from Bright Eyes on keyboards. Their collective influence on the sound is marked, and it's markedly different from Simon’s debut -- but this was all part of the plan.
Simon has said that he wanted to make an album that he would want to listen to -- and it’s easy to imagine Division Street, with its character studies and pop sensibility, fitting neatly into a record collection that included the Velvet Underground, Big Star, and yes, Elliot Smith. It’s about New York, where Simon grew up, and the songs cast many of its characters at pivotal moments of choice.
The wistful “Bonnie Brae,” which was written on acoustic, but transformed by the electric guitar, is about an elusive person, a love interest perhaps, someone who Simon says “spun” his head around. The rollicking “Dixie, Cleopatra” strolls down 6th Street, taking in the architecture. And title track “Division Street” journeys into the iconic and at times infamous Tompkins Square Park in the East Village, where “all the boys…say that it ain’t what it used to be / It’s not the end of the century, anymore.”
In an interview a few years ago, Simon, who shies away from the spotlight, acknowledged that it was a struggle to find his musical voice, particularly under his father’s shadow, and that contributed, in part, to his late blooming. On Division Street there may still be hints of that careful Simon family delivery, and it’s lovely -- but this songcraft is all Harper.
Stream the full album above, and hear individual tracks below.
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