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For Paul Simon, the world is his sound stage

African blues, Indian drumming, Old Hollywood strings, bluegrass harmony — even wildebeests — are present on 'So Beautiful or So What.'

April 19, 2011|By Mikael Wood, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Complex, perhaps, but not overstuffed: For all its structural ambition, one of "So Beautiful or So What's" virtues is the effortlessness with which Simon seems to deliver the material; it's almost certainly the lightest album about death you'll hear this year.

That's a quality that's attracted a new breed of young indie rockers to Simon's work — guys like Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig, who recently recorded a version of Simon's song "Papa Hobo" for the film "Ceremony," and the members of Grizzly Bear, who collaborated with Simon in 2008 for a performance at New York's Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Gabe Witcher of New York's avant-roots string band Punch Brothers plays fiddle on "So Beautiful or So What" and describes Simon's influence on him and his peers as "all pervasive."

"There's so much diversity in what he does, but it comes across as very natural," Witcher says. "For us it just seems like a reflection of the times we live in."

According to Simon, that's more or less the point.

"All sounds are musical once you start to listen," he says, recounting a break he and Ramone were forced to take one day when a tree near his house began dropping chestnuts on the studio's roof. "They were making so much noise we had to stop. But then I said, 'You know what? We should record those chestnuts.'"

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