Her 1975 album, Playing Possum, came out just ahead of her first greatest hits collection. The mid-1970s found Simon entering a challenging period as the singer-songwriter era was less popular than it had been. Artists like Carole King, Cat Stevens, Gordon Lightfoot and even James Taylor were forced to shift gears as musical styles were changing and quiet, autobiographical songs did not have the same appeal.
The prior year, Simon had released Hotcakes, which featured two big singles, “Mockingbird” with Taylor on vocals, and “Haven’t Got Time For the Pain,” both very successful releases. The rest of the album I found to be weaker and of less interest.
Playing Possum, with it’s racier cover, added a bit more of a punch than Hotcakes. This would be the last album with Richard Perry at the controls. If you look at the album credits, the players are a virtual who’s who of anyone recording in L.A. at the time, that’s one of the benefits that Perry brings, he brings the party. Perry helped to shape Simon’s sound and provide arrangements that magnified her songwriting and already thunderous voice.
Simon wrote or co-wrote eight of the ten songs on the album, and they may not be her best, but they brought great emotion and a playful attitude. The album reached number ten on the Billboard chart and featured three singles but only the lead single, “Attitude Dancing” performed well, reaching number 21.
Simon’s career would go up and down and back up over the next 20 years. She would changed record labels, producers and musical styles, and have success writing for film. Her success would be in spite of not touring. She would perform live a few times and record these for release, but she was not comfortable as a touring performer. Her success was quite remarkable considering how quickly musical tastes changed and how much harder it seemed for women to keep a career going into their middle years. Simon managed to hold onto her core audience.
Playing Possum tracks:
Side one The stronger of the two side, with the exception of “More and More.”
- “After the Storm” – 2:47 A jazzy arrangement, a gentle song, very playful. Perry provides her some strings and horns, Lee Ritenour adds tasteful guitar work.
- “Love Out in the Street” – 3:40 One of the more interesting songs on the album, Simon wrote it as a big vocal performance, and she doesn’t disappoint. It has more than a hint of R&B, and great Andrew Gold guitar solo.
- “Look Me in the Eyes” – 3:34 A playful, sexy song. Gentle arrangement with acoustic guitars and electric piano. Great vocal arrangement and performance by Simon.
- “More and More” (Mac Rebennack, Alvin Robinson) – 4:02 The weakest track on the album, Dr. John has written much better songs.
- “Slave” (Simon, Jacob Brackman) – 3:54 Probably my favorite song on the album. I can picture this song on the album, No Secrets, it has that kind of vibe. The song soars with Simon’s vocal ability. Great guitar solo by Lee Ritenour. Big orchestral build up. Might have been a good single.
- “Attitude Dancing” (Simon, Jacob Brackman) – 3:52 One of Simon’s better songs. Perry gives it a big, jazzy arrangement with strings, woodwinds and background singers.
- “Sons of Summer” (Bill Mernit) – 3:05 A basic arrangement of piano and Simon, accompanying herself on vocals. A melancholy song. Very effective, Simon can carry a song like with this.
- “Waterfall” – 3:31 Didn’t get much traction as a single, a gentle melody which Simon handles effectively with her multi-tracked vocals, with background singers including Taylor.
- “Are You Ticklish” – 2:26 Sounds like a show tune. An interesting change of style, but does not fit the album.
- “Playing Possum” – 3:57 A story song, of simpler times. Perry gives it a country-folk arrangement. This would have fit on any of Simon’s earlier albums.
If you want a better album, No Secrets is her best, but on Playing Possum she shines through songs that are almost as good. Simon had a great musical partnership with Richard Perry, I was sorry to see that end. Future producers never quite captured her style or talent in the same way.