SIMON & GARFUNKEL Live From New York City, 1967 (Columbia/Legacy)

"Live From New York City, 1967" is taken from some recently rediscovered tapes of Simon & Garfunkel's January 22 hometown performance at the Lincoln Center. (As Artie quips at one point, "Wow…Carnegie Hall!".) It presents the duo at arguably their simplest and starkest outside of the "Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M." album: two voices, one guitar and the early flourishings of one of the most consistent songwriting craftsmen of the last 40 years. Predictably it's fabulous, a far more fitting live tribute than the unhappy MOR plod of "The Concert In Central Park", and fantastically well recorded as well, down to the occasional creak and rustle of the crowd sitting behind the stage or Garfunkel drawing breath before singing. More importantly, the duo's intricate harmonies are fastidiously picked out.

The songs assembled here are drawn mainly from "Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.", "Sounds Of Silence" and "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary And Thyme", a chronology that saw them shift from making "exciting new sounds in the folk tradition" (as the cover of their debut claimed) through slightly brutal-sounding and opportunistic folk rock to their first stirrings of elaborate studio experimentation and perfectionism. Even performed acoustically, on a level playing field, the shifts in approach are obvious, with Simon punishing his guitar to compensate for the missing backing band dimension on "Blessed" and contemporaneous single "A Hazy Shade Of Winter". The only eyebrow-raiser in the setlist is "You Don't Know Where Your Interest Lies", which would later be the b-side of "Fakin' It". Simon introduces it as "a song I almost finished", and it lives down to such a dismissal, an unconvincing attempt at the kind of withering put-down The Rolling Stones specialised in at the time. Almost as disappointing is the rendition of one of Simon's most complete songs, "For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her", which is pleasant enough but drags badly behind the version that originally surfaced on "Simon & Garfunkel's Greatest Hits", with its jagged avalanche of a guitar solo and some of Art's best singing.

As an experiment, I passed "Live In New York City, 1967" to my Pa for further analysis, a contemporary Simon & Garfunkel fan who nevertheless found the recent reissues of "Sounds Of Silence" and "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary And Thyme" were spoiled by the clutter of electric instrumentation. Surprisingly, this wasn't entirely to his taste either, complaining somewhat cryptically about the different emphasis placed on lines in these versions, and bridling at Garfunkel the mouthpiece's limelight-hogging grandstanding. "It's not as good as "The Paul Simon Song Book"", he complained, basking in the luxury of actually being able to remember what Simon's long forgotten 1965 debut sounds like. For anyone less addicted to hairshirt minimalism, though, "Live From New York City, 1967" will do just fine.

SIMON & GARFUNKEL Bookends (Columbia/Legacy)

This Legacy reissue finally does some measure of justice to the importance of Simon & Garfunkel's fourth studio album. The original CD issue was plagued with uninspiring sound (including some curious clicks during some of the album's more elaborate moments), a barren booklet with the printed lyrics that accompanied the vinyl version excised and a cover that looked like a poor photocopy. All have been handsomely corrected here: the album has been remastered into its finest digital incarnation yet, the packaging is gloriously complete to the extent of reproducing the poster included with original copies of the LP and the cover photograph reveals a wealth of hitherto unseen detail, although, being noticeably lighter than that on my circa 1970 vinyl copy, a purist might argue against such visual tinkering.

The album opens with "Bookends Theme", perhaps the most deceptively simple piece the duo had ever recorded, just 32 seconds of cyclic acoustic guitar melancholy. It crashes straight into "Save The Life Of My Child" which, conversely, was undoubtedly their most elaborate production yet: a distorted Moog synthesiser, hallucinatory gospel interludes and even an acid flashback to their own "The Sound Of Silence" conspire and contort around a lyric in which magic realism pulls the rug out from under the media. If "Save The Life Of My Child" was tabloid hysteria, "America" was the road movie, where a Greyhound, a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner's pies are the keys to the country. From ecstasy to alienation in three minutes, it's still astonishingly affecting even 35 years after the fact. "Overs", in stark contrast, is just voices and acoustic guitar, but deployed in a completely different manner than on previous albums. It's a winding thread of cool, bluesy, jazzy dislocation - no verse/chorus structure here, just a rolling shrug of lyrical disquiet. To some commentators the album's bte noire, "Voices Of Old People" is Art's tape collage of reminiscences of residents of the Uniform Home for Aged Hebrews and the California Home for the Aged at Reseda. Enhancing the album's documentary feel, I don't skip it even though I now can. The discordant orchestrations of "Old Friends" might exploit the pioneering work performed by The Beatles on "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (as does the near-uninterrupted suite of songs construction of this first side of the album) but here they have a sense of purpose, evoking the dashing rush of distant traffic and the uncertain vortex of approaching death. Finally, the "Bookends Theme" returns, this time with lyrics, Simon sagely advising listeners to "Preserve your memories/They're all that's left you".

Having mapped out the cyclical journey of human existence from birth to death in the space of one short side of vinyl, the remainder of "Bookends" released the pressure, being mainly a collection of previously released singles, the oldest of which, "A Hazy Shade Of Winter", appeared nearly 18 months prior to the album's release. The sole new song, "Punky's Dilemma", had been performed by the duo at The Monterey International Pop Festival the previous year. But what binds these songs together is the astonishing and consistent level of craftsmanship and attention to detail they display, each fascinating like an intricate Chinese puzzle. Some may be familiar from subsequent cover versions, but neither Lemonhead nor Bangle have recaptured the eloquence of these perfectly constructed miniatures. As evidence of Simon's compositional maturity, consider that what once was "a freshly fallen silent shroud" is now just "a patch", leaving rather more syllables free to do something other than describe snow. And if the metaphorical backbone of "At The Zoo" is stretched marginally beyond breaking point, it's still great fun, and a fine end to what, for me, is the finest 30 minutes Paul or Art ever put their surname to.

Except these days it doesn't end there, this reissue being fleshed out further with extraneous tracks. "You Don't Know Where Your Interest Lies" is rescued from a life of obscurity as the b-side of "Fakin' It": finding Simon at his bitterest, this half-formed song veers from thumping (for them, anyway) rock to lounge lizard jazz and back without really finding a happy home with either. Its omission from the original album doesn't seem like a tragedy, in retrospect. Finally, an alternate version of "Old Friends" shows how much of the song's structure was already in place before the orchestrations were ladled on top. But surely some other treasures could have been exhumed from the vaults to fill the 45 minutes of unused space on the disc.

SIMON & GARFUNKEL Bookends (Sundazed)

Due to a combination of factors (the spindle of my new gramophone having less tolerance than the centre hole of my 40-year-old copy of Bookends; my reluctance to drill out the latter to make it fit; the appearance of Sundazeds reissue of same) I now own three copies of this magnificent album.

Bookends critics point to the fact that its half pretentious song cycle and half previously released singles. Id counter by pointing out how the extended conceit of lost youth draining down the plughole of old age anticipates Dark Side Of The Moon, and suggesting that the breathtaking sonic adventure the duo and producer Roy Halee brought to both their singles and albums should see them ranked alongside the five Beatles and Brian Wilson.

The melancholy calm of opening fragment Bookends Theme is soon shattered by the searing synth of Save The Life Of My Child. It still sounds futuristic, and also samples, albeit somewhat hamfistedly, the duos own The Sound Of Silence. America remains one of the most heartbreaking songs ever written by anybody, simple as that; even the jazzy guitar lines and nonchalant wordplay of Overs are doomed to sag in its wake. Jimmy Haskells orchestral arrangement for Old Friends places the duo in their most elaborate context yet, before Bookends Theme returns, this time with lyrics that intertwine passing time and fading memories.

The singles on the flipside are hardly filler, either. The laconic rock of Fakin It is almost like a prep-school Steely Dan, featuring a theatrical appearance by the future Mrs Beverley Martyn and a percussive outro that foreshadows the world music colourings of Simon & Garfunkels next album. Punkys Dilemma is sardonic easy listening, A Hazy Shade Of Winter an urgent tumble of verbiage and At The Zoo hardly subtle, but fun nevertheless. Then theres the small matter of the evergreen Mrs. Robinson.

For me, neither Simon nor Garfunkel ever made a better album than Bookends, and Sundazeds reissue is an honest attempt to do it justice. Whatever the cover sticker says, it doesnt operate in the rarefied audiophile air of reissues by Classic, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab or Analogue Productions, but thats the difference between an 18 record and a 25 record. Unfortunately, though, this release is something of a fumbled opportunity. With the Sundazed catalogue already boasting vinyl versions of the entire Byrds and Bob Dylan mono discographies, and the mono version of Bookends being something of a must-hear in record collecting circles, the fact that this reissue is merely stereo apparently at Simons behest is a bit of a shame.

Paul Simon