Jonathan Lethem goes Dick on The Talking Heads, The New Orleans Helsinki Connection needs some new records, and Graceland's still great even though Paul Simon doesn't get it.

Cover image of the New Orleans Helsinki Connection album Paradise on Earth

Jonathan Lethem
Fear of Music
(Continuum)

You could argue that novelist Jonathan Lethem has always been engaged in cultural criticism. His Motherless Brooklyn took the tension between the hard-boiled detective's tense inner monologue and glib patter and literalized it, giving his detective Tourette's Syndrome. In a sense, his entry in the 33 1/3 series - Fear of Music- returns to his fascination with Philip K. Dick as the themes of identity, identity and points of view play out in his examination of the album that he asserts is the end of The Talking Heads. 

Lethem considers the album and how it sounds to him now as well as how it sounded to him as the teenager who first fell in love with it, and how he disavowed it in his collegiate years when he felt he should have outgrown it. He brings these points of view to bear when considering the Talking Heads at their most apocalyptic while trying to decide who or what the album represents - a band? David Byrne? The start of something? The end of something? Fear is overarching theme, he suggests, not just of Music but the song titled objects on side two - Air, Drugs, Heaven and more. 

Ultimately, he's examining this artifact for clues for information about his younger self and why this album endured with him rather than the more defining albums that came before and after Fear of Music. As he pulls at threads in songs to see where they lead, the writing can slow down and get circular, but this is Lethem at play, and the fun is contagious.

New Orleans Helsinki Connection
Paradise on Earth
(Spirit of New Orleans Productions)

When Paradise on Earth gets off the beaten path, it gets somewhere. When the song choices are less standard, it's easier to hear a band that includes such talents as Leroy Jones, Todd Duke, Nobu Osaki and Gerald French, and how good the interaction is within the band. Jones' Latin "Caipirinha da Lapa" moves at a perfectly patient pace and gives everybody room to show their stuff. The more commonplace the material, the more the band's versions disappear into the thousands of versions that have gone before, whether on record or live. Bob French scolded me when I made this criticism in regards to Shamarr Allen's debut album Meet Me on Frenchmen Street, saying that nobody wants to hear anything but the standard-est standards. If that's truly the case, then musicians are faced with a tough choice - live a musical life inside an echo chamber or do what's necessary to make an audience for less standard material. Neither are easy options, and there are people doing both.

In her liner notes, trombonist Katja Toivola writes, "We don't get to play together as often as we would like but when we do, all the pieces just seem to click together, wonderful musical things happen intuitively and the gigs (and recording sessions) are tons of fun." You hear the warmth and the affection for the music and the experience of playing it with good friends. I believe that the band is a joyful experience, but if you're going to ask fans to spend money on a CD, you have to think about what you're offering them. In 2012, asking people to buy a song list this familiar - no matter how well-performed - is asking a lot.

Paul Simon
Graceland 25th Anniversary Edition
(Sony Legacy)

Early this summer, NPR's "All Songs Considered" started the try to determine the great albums we can all agree on, and the hosts advanced Graceland as a possibility. I wasn't buying it until I actually heard the album again and the hits and overly familiar tracks were put back in context. Taken once again as a whole, what's striking is how from music to words, Simon creates music that is simultaneously urban and rural, American and African, pop and folk, and it's at its weakest when its narrowed ("Under African Skies," "Homeless"). The weird Manhattan romance of "I Know What I Know" seems even stranger set to a South African soundtrack, and the country gospel underpinnings of "Graceland" are gently pointed up by ringing, uplifting guitars. 

Also packaged with the album is a DVD of the documentary Under African Skies, which is really uncomfortable viewing. The movie looks back at the recording sessions in South Africa in 1984 during Apartheid, and it brings back the controversy that initially accompanied the album because Simon violated an international ban on cultural exchange to help put pressure on the South African government. The movie makes clear that Simon knew what he was doing and did it anyway. He went to Harry Belafonte for advice, who recommended that he clear it with the African National Congress first. Simon chose not to, then when he asked for their blessings after the fact and didn't get them, saw them as the bad guys. It's embarrassing to watch the privileged white man not recognize that he is the privileged white man and seemingly not question how racial and economic differences might affect the relationships around him. A less problematic look into the recording of the album comes with the last of the bonus tracks, the nine-minute-long "Story of 'Graceland'," in which Simon goes inside the process of building the title track.