Simon and Garfunkel – Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme

Simon and Garfunkel – Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme
Released October, 1966

Simon and Garfunkel were school friends who grew up together in Queens, New York. They formed a duo called ‘Tom and Jerry’ in their youth but found fame as Simon and Garfunkel in 1965 with their single ‘The Sound of Silence’. Their career really took a turn for the better, after their music was featured in a highly successful film ‘The Graduate’. In the early days, Simon and Garfunkel were influenced largely by the work of the Everly Brothers, and sought to recreate the sound that the brothers had. Their beautiful close harmonies reflect this influence.

“Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme” is the third of four studio albums released by Simon and Garfunkel. It was released in 1966 and takes its name from the second line of the very popular song, – and coincidentally track one of this album – ‘Scarborough Fair/Canticle’. When most people hear the name Simon and Garfunkel I’ll bet that the first thing that pops into their head is the chorus from ‘Scarborough Fair’, I know that’s how it works for me! It’s a song that has pretty much become synonymous with the name of Simon and Garfunkel. ‘Scarborough Fair’ is actually a 16th century English folk song and was not actually written by Simon and Garfunkel, which I’ll also wager most people wouldn’t realise. It’s a whimsical and dreamlike song, with beautiful harmonies and counter melodies weaved throughout.

I didn’t really like track two, ‘Patterns’. It was a bit too ‘spoken word’ for me and I kept skipping it because quite frankly it annoyed me. And moving right along. The next is ‘Cloudy’, a song that was interestingly co-written with Bruce Woodley from Australian folk band The Seekers. The following track, ‘Homeward Bound’ is so damn catchy! It has this country sound to it and I can’t help but think of some yokel driving a pickup truck down a dirt road, listening to it on their radio. The song was actually written about catching the train home on a cold winter’s day in England so it’s hard to believe that Paul Simon was able to achieve such a ‘sunny’ sound.

‘The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine’ was a song name that had me intrigued. Turns out it’s a social commentary on advertising in New York City and also takes the obligatory stab at hippies and the Vietnam War. One of my all-time favourite Simon and Garfunkel songs comes next, ‘The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feeling Groovy’). For all it’s sugar-coated grossness and suitability for chick flick movie montages, it’s still such a catchy and light hearted song that I can’t help but like it.

Musically, the most notable point of interest in Simon and Garfunkel’s music is their harmonies. The album only plays for just under 30 minutes, which was a nice change. You can see that Simon and Garfunkel were not so much songsmiths as wordsmiths. Their lyrics are quite poetic to the point that sometimes you can’t figure out the cryptic meaning behind the songs.  ‘The 7 O’Clock News’, the closing track of the album, is haunting and confronting. It’s a song made of two layers, achieved by an overdubbing of the Christmas carol ‘Silent Night’ and audio recordings from simulated readings from the 7 O’Clock news that pretty much summarise the state of affairs in the US in 1966. At the time it was highly relevant and would have held a special place with loads of listeners.

As a whole, the album is enjoyable and refreshing. This tid bit from the liner notes, written by Rolling Stone Magazine’s co-founder Ralph Gleason, pretty much sum up how I felt about “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme”: “The pristine beauty of the voices, the delicate inevitability of the structure of the songs (both the lyrics and the music), the range from deepening seriousness to joyous exuberance… is overwhelmingly impressive”, and to top it all off, the album artwork is quite beautiful.

Just as Dylan borrowed elements of the traditional ballad ‘Scarborough Fair’ for his song ‘Girl From the North Country’ (after hearing English folksinger Martin Carthy’s rendition of it), so too did Simon and Garfunkel. By weaving in elements of an old song of Simon’s called ‘The Side of the Hill’ and renaming it ‘Canticle’, the opening track was born. The lyrics of ‘Scarborough Fair/Canticle’ also gives this album its title and was one of the earliest instances of baroque pop, largely due to its vocal arrangement and use of harpsichord. As pretty as it is, I find it a little bit naff. I’ve got a love/hate thing with Simon and Garfunkel. I swing between loving and loathing their songs, and everywhere in between. I do think that their voices complement each other better than most duos this side of the Everly Brothers though, and that’s proved by the jaunty ‘Flowers Never Bend With the Rainfall’. I shouldn’t like it, but I can’t help smiling when ‘The 59th Street Bridge Song’ kicks in and ‘A Simple Desultory Phillippic’ walks a fine line between stupid and clever with its Dylan bashing/honouring. I’ve never been a fan of ‘Cloudy’ and ‘The Bright Green Pleasure Machine’ is another low point. Although I like the idea, the splicing of the Christmas carol ‘Silent Night’ and a news bulletin comes off as a clumsy attempt at a protest song, and ends the album badly. However, we are also treated to such gems as ‘Homeward Bound’ and the haunting ‘For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her’, one of Garfunkel’s best vocal performances. Apparently Simon wrote it about a belief, not an imaginary girl called Emily. The highlight of the record for me is ‘The Dangling Conversation’; a chilling song about the growing rift between two lovers who no longer know how to communicate.

Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel had quite a tumultuous relationship with many artistic differences throughout their career. It is believed that Simon did most of the writing and was the more talented of the two, however Garfunkel was noted for being a better singer. Conundrum. They would only go on to release another two albums  after “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme”, before finally breaking up for good in 1970. They both went on to have successful solo careers, particularly Simon. They have often reformed for the odd gig here and there and recently successfully toured. Guess the retirement fund was getting a little scant. “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme” is considered to be one of Simon and Garfunkel’s first solid albums. By this I mean it was actually somewhat decent. It was considered by some to be a little straight and sterile considering the psychedelic era in which it was released. On the flip side this meant they had broad appeal and as a result the album had good success both commercially and critically. It was released at a time when folk rock was popular and “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme” certainly fit the bill. But is it any good? Well yes and no. It’s no secret I like my folk music, but this album, well, I actually found it a little boring after five listens. It’s just a little too blah for my liking. Pretty, but blah. The songs I liked I really quite enjoyed, but the others left me wanting more. Favourite songs were ‘Scarborough Fair/Canticle’, ‘Homeward Bound’ and ‘For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her’. It’s no doubt that Simon & Garfunkel had quite an impact on the musical landscape, and individually have continued to do so. I however am pretty happy to be moving onto a new album.

I thought I was going to dislike Simon and Garfunkel’s album much more than I did. Ok, it’s a bit slow going in parts, but it’s got some… I hesitate to use the word “rocking”… upbeat songs that can sure get your toe tapping. There’s one word to sum up this entire album: pretty. Everything about “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme” is pretty. The vocals are always crisp, clear and the harmonies are spot on, and the folky, finger picking style of guitar sets the mood perfectly. My favourite song was ‘A Simple Desultory Phillipic’, which I’m still trying to figure out if it is a parody or a tribute to Bob Dylan. Either way it’s good fan, and they almost convinced me I WAS listening to Bob Dylan (until the end where he tells everyone he dropped his harmonica. Decidedly un-Dylan). For me the other song of mention is the ‘59th Street Bridge Song’, parenthetically inserted, Feelin’ Groovy’. I reckon you’d be hard pressed to be in a bad mood and not be instantly perked up after hearing this song. Uptempo, the major key and the fact it just repeats the phrase “feelin’ groovy” a bunch pretty well guarantees the happiness of the listener. Unfortunately, for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction, and the opposite of ‘Feelin’ Groovy’ comes in the form of the depressing and melancholy ‘Silent Night/7 O’Clock News’. It first comes across as annoying, with the news broadcast playing over the vocals, but when you realise that they’re trying to make a point about the state of the world using a Christmas Carol, it just becomes downright depressing. Folk still is definitely not my thing, but Simon and Garfunkel made it a bit easier to handle. But give me solo Paul Simon any day.

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