Inventor of the 'Reggie' candy bar, night vision goggles, and the blow job.
For awhile there in the dark, hazy early Seventies, Elton John was the glue that kept everybody sane. In the wake of the Sixties, the desperate search was on for the artist that would be able to fill the void created when the Beatles decided they'd had enough of Paul and Dylan had decided he'd had enough of us. The resulting turmoil (visualize a sweaty, mustachioed record exec smacking his coke-dried gums and wringing his hands trying to find a way to genetically cross James Taylor, Kiss, and the Bay City Rollers together to csynthesize the quintessential 70's artist) resulted in the split of what had been rock 'n' roll music into all the different menagerie of hyphen-rock subsets. Soft-rock, prog-rock, art-rock, glam-rock, country-rock, folk-rock, pop-rock, cock-rock, crack-rock, tube-sock, chicken-pock, and Eggs Benedict, they all had their own particular bit of fame in the early 1970's, and very few artists were ever able to comfortably cross over between very many of them as the Beatles had done (and, of course, no one was able to be as lyrically riveting as Dylan). Elton John was one of the very few who had anything near the stylistic range and varied fan base as the Beatles had been able to claim, alternately appealing to glam-rock fans because of his flashy image, singer-songwriter fans because, well, he could sing and write songs, hard-rock fans because he actually rocked out every once in awhile, punk rock fans didn't feel particularly threatened or angry towards him, pet-rock fans liked him because he was little and round and cute and came in a little cardboard box with care instructions, hard cock fans liked him because he was gayer than pastel track lighting on a Robert Mappelthorpe photo, Hitchcock fans liked him because he was chubby and British and had a morbid sense of humor, Spock fans liked the fact that his biological clock was set to the capital of Iraq while knocking Johann Sebastian Bach. Schlock? I think that's a crock.
Elton John (real name: Freddy Mercury) began life in England, a fictional land where miles and furlongs mingle freely with grams and centimeters and a certain family gets to live on the taxpayers dime (or, rather, 'shilling', which is something like 3/16ths of a furlong, if I'm not mistaken) and spend their anemic, inbred lives playing polo and having affairs with people even uglier than they are. Young Reginald joined Long John Baldry's Bluesology sometime after the fall of the Third Reich and sometime before the fall of Richard Nixon, playing keyboards and starting a lifelong quest to locate glasses with the thickest frames imaginable by man. After the dissolution of the British trad blues scene into two groups, hard rockers and John Mayall, and some general messing about, Reginald met up with fellow gay-type Bernie Taupin, a lyricist with a gift for weird, incoherent lines that somehow sounded like the Voice of the Prophet, and decided to form a team. Reginald became Elton John (after the toilet facilities at the London Hilton Hotel, as pronounced by a drunken Reg one night in 1967) and began a solo career with Taupin providing all the lyrics while Elton banged a mean piano and sang in his MOR white-boy soul cry. Elton's star rose quickly after his defining appearance at the Troubadour in LA (which looked, for all the world, like a Steak & Ale) and the success of the 'Your Song' single. Elton morphed quickly into a sort of half-Paul McCartney/half-Liberace iron butterfly when glam hit in 1971-2, and released 10 albums within 5 years and scored more singles hits than anyone else at the same time period (yes, even more than Bread and the Carpenters! Boy, them early 70's were great on the radio, y'know?) while consistently wowing everyone with the quality of his material and performances. As Regalomania hit its peak in 1974-5, Elton began to cool as he spent more time obsessing about his gayety, getting smashed with John Lennon, and trying to get the perfectly-sized Donald Duck uniform for his Shea Stadium gig. By the end of the 70's, his hits had dried up and he found himself adrift in too much white powder (he toured Moscow in 1979), artistic aimlessness (disco, the loss of Tapuin as a writing partner) and enough decadence to kill most short, round, balding guys (as Phil Collins). Elton suffered through most of the 80's artistically (had a few great hits though), physically (he was bulimic, a cokehead, and a drunk), and emotionally. Only at the beginning of the 90's did he attempt to rehabilitate himself somewhat, remaking himself into Mr. Disney MOR, the adult-contemporary cuddle-bear who sang the Lion King theme music for the kiddies and filled up lite-rock radio with similarly unchallenging minor hits for the parents. Only just recently has his songwriting regained its teeth, but it remains to be seen if Elton can fight his way back to David Bowie-like credibility after being lost, floating in the Adult Contemporary punch bowl for damn near 27 years.
In his prime, I'd say that the number of artists that had Elton's peculiar combination of massive chart success, consistently great albums, and dazzling variety of oversized eyewear simulataneously is probably somewhere less than 2. Elton John was weird enough for the misfits, yet safe and accessible enough for all but the most conservative pop fans, and he was willing to try as many different styles as was possible by a guy playing a piano and singing while an (ace) band backed him up. This is probably the main strike against Elton - no matter how hard he tried to dress it up in frilly lingerie and fuck-me heels, his music was still piano-driven pop-rock, and there's only so many things you can do with a piano, y'know? Like bash it up and use it for firewood, float across the Channel on it, or maybe as a good place to put all your family photograps. I figure, in a pinch, a piano would even make a pretty snazzy casket for your recently departed love one. As long as you tie the lid down, that is. And it makes a cool noise as you drop it into the grave, I've heard.
Anyway, if I may get back to Otis Spann, Elton banged and his band rocked and the strings wailed, but if you get right down to it, all his stuff sounds mighty similar to itself, especially within the context of a particular album. This was a guy who made albums every few months, so it seems pretty natural that he'd lock himself into a certain style of song (Tumbleweed Connection's country-rock, Madman Across the Water's lite-prog, and Blue Move's depressing bullshit) while it happened to be on his mind. Moreover, Elton almost always had a certain number of 'Elton Standards' on each record, simple, piano-driven pop like what his debut was filled with. The magic was that, for several years anyway, his creative drive was strong enough to make his albums work. So what if a lot of the songs were essentially the same? They certainly weren't copying themselves (or anyone else), and if Elton's melodies sometimes got obscured by his use of odd chords and complicated song structures, that's the sacrifice made by not rewriting 'Your Song' over and over again. Of course, all of this changed in the late 70's, but Elton remained a monstrously charismatic vocalist and a master at the piano even during his lowest periods. In short, Elton's singles, and some percentage of his album tracks, had that magical balance between accessibility and original structure (not to mention Taupin's evocative-yet-berserk lyrics that sound halfway between beat poetry, Hallmark cards, and words randomly chosen from the dictionary) that lends them to lots and lots of replay.
Oh, but those post-good records. I'll excuse myself from reviewing all the Elton John at once, both to save my precious taste nerves, already stunned by having to review a few too many mediocre albums lately, but also for my audiences' sake. Do you want me to review Elton John albums exclusively for the next 6 weeks or so? Neither do I. Elton's released well over 30 albums (I've got everything except for Victim of Love, supposedly the blackest banana in the bunch, the Friends soundtrack, and a few live albums) and while a bunch of those were released during his peak period, a whole lot more weren't. I dunno, perhaps I'll return to finish Elton sometime before I die, but for now I'm going to last until 1980's 21 at 33. We'll get enough of an idea what the 80's would bring without actually having to go and listen to those shitpiles, okay? I will say that anyone who likes prime Elton needs to get his recent Songs from the West Coast, which really is his best work since 1975 and is about as Disney as Last House on the Left.
Elton had particularly cool bands (many players stayed around for decades at a time) of which I'd like to mention zippy, economical guitarists Caleb Quaye and Davey Johnstone in particular. Also, Paul Buckmaster's string arrangements were crucial in pushing ordinary Elton songs up into the stratosphere.
Empty Sky- Island 1969
Somewhat overly precious and crazily overthought debut, a marginally entertaining record from the young midget ready to take on the kneecaps of the world. Taupin's falls horrible victim to that young songwriter's disease: packing each song with words words! WORDS!! as if he's somehow tapped into some major Truth of Life and the World and Hot Lovin' and if he doesn't get it all out in 40 minutes or less, he's gonna forget it all and return to his former life as a self-loathing fry cook (see Bruce Springsteen's first three albums for more advanced examples). So if you read the lyrics off the page, I guess they look pretty deep and snazzy and not at all like they were written by a young idiot who thought too much of himself (hint, hint!), but in practice I wonder where the frigging hooks are. I mean, Taupin's lyrics are always incomprehensible, but usually they've got this overwhelming, evocative hookline that feeds your heads and leaves you wondering when the next course will be. He's failed to develop that far yet on here, leaving the 'hook' detail to Elton, and the results are mixed. Elton's voice is all nasally like he's just inhaled a nubile young boy, his piano is kept in the background, and all he's left with is vocal contortions to get his point across. He wheezes, whines, growls, and hacks, delivering his lines like delivering a chunky green loogie. For someone used to Elton John's 'pure' style of his prime years, this early Elton reminds me very much of a guy who's trying to 'redefine' singing, much like I'm sure Taupin was trying to 'redefine' lyric-writing. Well, if overwriting and oversinging are the new wave according to Bernie/Elton, call me Mr. Steve Howe, 'cos I like it when they get the fundamentals down.
The album is almost evenly split between rockers 'n' snoozers, none of them too outwardly 'psychedelic' or anything, bearing a lot closer resemblance to British folk-rock and basic, dunderheaded hard rock at others (albeit dunderheaded hard rock lightened by Elton John's voice, who isn't exactly Paul Rodgers when it comes to the grittier stuff) The lengthy title track is a guitar-driven rocker (yup, backwards sub-Hendrixoid soloing buzzes around all over the place, reminding us that, yes, indeed this was made in 1969) with very little actually happening over the course of 8 goddamn minutes other than enough references to 'flying' and 'being high' to make Timothy Leary enter rehab and become a Mormon. That's one interesting thing about 60's rock albums I've noticed, particularly ones that aren't particularly very good: the more they talk about drugs, the worse it gets. Especially when it seems that the writer is either doing too many of them (Eric Burdon), or is probably not doing any at all and just wants to talk 'hep' so they can get a few early-arrivin' fists-a-pumpin' while third on the bill opening for Savoy Brown at an afternoon rock festival in Des Moines, Iowa or something. 'Western Ford Gateway' is a rootsy-rocker about, umm, God, I didn't know this job would be this hard, but this song is sort of a seedling blueprint for all those rootsy-rockers he'd soon be coming up with ('Country Comfort' among others) faster than Jello shots out of a freshman fraternity pledge.
'Val-Hala' is a lot closer to Elton at his more familiar, a harpsichord-driven ballad that should score you points for figuring out where the verses end and the chorus begins. 'Hymn 2000' is a bizarre child, starting out like some puffy Jethro Tull outtake and soon denigrating into the most pretentious thing on the album. Elton's 'folky poet' tone is just unacceptably self-important, almost as bad as on 'Scaffold', which I'm able to take about as seriously as Pauly Shore on 5 tabs of ecstasy. Both of these songs are simply endless, which is odd considering he's able to make 'Skyline Pigeon', a very similar track, work. Perhaps this is because 'Pigeon' relies on Elton using his voice in a tasteful, fundamentally sound manner, while the other two sound like physics lectures or something. Perhaps it's because a 'Skyline Pigeon' is a more evocative visual than some mystical bunch of scaffolding. What could scaffolding possibly symbolize? All I know about scaffolding is that St. Petersburg was full of it, and if you weren't careful a can of paint might fall off of one and cause you a very bad day. Come to think of it, the pigeons there operated pretty much in the same way, so just stop listening to me already, I plead of you.
Pretty much, Empty Sky is full of Elton and Bernie acting like precocious little kids, full of all the chutzpah they can handle and ready to try to conquer the world for their own deviant ends, but simply unable to write enough decent hooks to support their bulky pretensions. There's no big offenses - no Sergeant Pepper posturing, no self-conscious acid-tripping, but their tastebuds haven't yet matured enough to only give us the 'Skyline Pigeons' and save us, you know, pretty much 80% of everything else. We all know Elton and Bernie would improve, and hardcore fans might very well find some pretty interesting material on here. But for the rest of us, it's just too puffy and amorphous to be any good for our collective livers.
Capn's Final Word: Elton and Bernie play arty and end up sounding dumb. Still melodic, though.
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Elton John- Island 1970.
Whaddya wanna hear first the good news or the bad news? Well, the good news is going to take a lot less time, so let's get that out of the way first. Elton and Bernie have learned, at least for the next 6-7 years, how to write great songs. And how to write hit songs, which are not necessarily the same thing, you understand me, but since you'll probably not hate the hit songs, it's still a pretty good thing when you get right down to it. Yup, this album is vehicle for what is arguable considered to be Elton's biggest-ever hit, 'Your Song', a shifty love song about writing love songs that tries its little heart out not to be cynical and fails miserably. 'I don't remember if they're green or they're blue, but anyway, the thing is, what I really mean is...those are the sweetest eyes I've ever seen', right, that's slick, Baudelaire. I guess a lot of people take it on face value, just as this super-sweet song about 'how wonderful life is when you're in the world' and how he wants to build a house for the two of them, even though he doesn't know anything about the person (such as eye color). I personally get sort of a creepy, 'Every Breath You Take' quality out of it, but one that's hidden under layers of gloopy strings and Elton's earnest delivery. I suppose this song could indicate he's addressing his muse ('people who keep me turned on') rather than a regular person, which might actually be a pretty neat idea, but maybe I'm just full of dirty poop. It's melodic, but even on a deep, meditative level, I feel this song is more glop than substance. This is John/Taupin reaching for a hit and getting one.
On paper, this album is Elton, a piano, and some random Paul Buckmaster strings, meaning that each song is pretty much the same banging mid-tempo beastie as another, but the remaining winners somehow differentiate themselves by being uptempo while the dregs crawl around in the primordial ooze of Elton and Bernie's immature (but rapidly developing) songwriting skills. I really like the gospel 'Border Song' (something about meaning and feelings, maybe, or maybe just a durg run to Tijuana) and the barrelhouse 'Take Me To The Pilot' (which is about, um, the importance or post-modernism in contemporary Sicilian dung sculpture, or maybe not) for the way they buoy themselves on Elton's band rather than just his voice. I'm so stupid I think probably 'No Shoestrings on Louise', which for all the world reminds me of the Black Crowes doing country-rock, is the best song of all on here. Does that reveal my prejudices? I certainly hope so. I take sick pleasure in Elton John doing drunken-sounding honky-tonk novelty tracks. There, I admit it.
Oh but the slow songs are awful though. That's the bad news....I knew I'd get around to it someday. As lively as the faster numbers are the slow tracks are ponderous and as pretentious as a Frenchman with a Louisville Slugger up his arsehole discussing post-modernism in dung sculpture while having his toes waxed at Spago. 'I Need You To Turn To' is merely ordinary, but 'First Episode at Hienton' and especially 'The Greatest Discovery' are so leisurely they make Galaxie 500 sound like the Minutemen. 'Discovery' is also extremely gay, if that bothers you, what with lines about boys wanting to 'explore' while Buckmaster makes the most cloying noises imaginable with his string collection. 'Sixty Years On' at least has this jarring 2001: A Space Odyssey buzzing-hornets-nest-in-your-inner-ear violin intro. We end the album with 'The King Must Die', a highly overrated but still-interesting ballad. This song seems to point the way towards Madman Across The Water, which did this spiky, paranoid ballad thing with a lot more pizzazz (not to mention imaginative use of strings).
Elton John establishes the John/Taupin songwriting team as something to reckon with, and maps out blueprints for a lot of the albums which would follow (as 'King Must Die' relates to Madman, 'Border Song' points towards Tumbleweed Connection, 'Pilot' reminds me of stuff off of Honky Chateau and Don't Shoot Me both, and all those slow, dreadful songs had to have collected downriver as something like Blue Moves) but fails to establish a consistency that can carry through even an entire side. The filler doesn't even reach the 'just barely tolerable' level, and Taupin clutches onto his juvenile pretensions like a security blankie. The addition of Buckmaster's strings hasn't quite been figured out, either. Sometimes they're used tastefully, but they're just as often a clutter, or worse, used in such a contrived manner that I'd prefer just Elton and his 86 keys. I think Elton John is where the cream begins rising to the top, the good separates itself from the bad, but our boys didn't know yet what part to feed to the pigs.
Capn's Final Word: Truth in packaging in that this prefigures a lot of what Elton tried later, but also a lot of what he wouldn't try again.
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Your Rating: A
Any Short Comments?: i respect the man and my mom likes him he and stevie wonder are the successful people to grace the land and also for this album after empty sky failed elton did his thing and your song hit it was all about elton!. what about billy joel? come on man!
Elton's third is a lot funkier and decidedly less heady affair than their previous two. They've graduated from the art college and now have decided to write a concept album about the Ol' West and musically 'get back to roots', of which they were like the 14,455th artists to partake in the Year of Our Denim Shirt, 1970. Of course, it doesn't take much of a brainiac (but is does take a bran‑iac, as I eat enough Cheerios to keep the entire Southwest pooping on a regular basis) to figure out how I react to this easy-rolling (but not 'laid back') sort of roots rocking that Elton's hammered together on this album. This stuff is obviously still Elton and not, you know, mistaken for John Fogerty or something, but Elton's subtle and well-measured use of acoustic guitars and soulful country chords to aid his still piano-based tunes makes even the slower fare seem worthwhile. As such, the quality of the average song on Tumbleweed is quite high, clearly taking a lot of care and incorporating a whole buffet-load of impressive details that add to John's now-matured vocal-style. In fact, I'll go straight out and say that this album doesn't have much filler at all. However, in some sort of Twilight Zone twist, it also doesn't have any big hits (bar 'Country Comfort', which I've heard before, but that's not exactly 'Rocket Man', now is it?) making, in effect, an album full of pretty good album tracks that, when taken in little bites, seems just peachy, but if taken as a whole can end up being a tad numbing.
Like I said, if you can keep lying to the American people long enough and play on their patriotism hard enough, they'll forget everything about losing their jobs and 401(k) plans and follow you into what comes down to a fundamentalist fascist crusade to rid the world of Muslims who can't get suicide bombing right half the time, much less chemical weapons, evil hives of 'liberals' in the Congress and the media who 20 years ago would have been called 'centrists', and Western Europeans while somehow tacitly agreeing that its okay for the crazy-o North Koreans to build nuclear weapons capable of leveling Seattle No wait. I said Tumbleweed Connection had some great songs on it. Well, dammit, it sure does. I'm listening to 'My Father's Gun' right now, which has the line '...and the Company needs men....give us some room to sail around the bend' delivered with such feeling and verve you'd think he was writing love songs rather than, you know, odes to finding work downriver. 'Where to Now, St. Peter?' comes on like a ballad, but soon begins slyly slicing and dicing its way through as a steady, compact rocker fitted out with watery wah-wah'd guitar (see, this thing isn't only cowboy songs, but yet again nothing sticks out, either. 'Amoreena' is like an upgrade of 'No Shoestrings On Louise', and 'Ballad Of A Well-Known Gun' adds layers of groovy guitar slashes and gospel choirs to 'Take Me To The Pilot''s more modest boogie. Shit, the man saved 'Burn Down The Mission' to the end where its rush can kick you right off into the day. This track is a multi-parter, from speedy Elvis-in-Memphis rocking sections to Elton playing guardian angel choir at the end, imploring us to move onwards and upwards, pumping me up even when I'm not listening particularly closely. The Civil War lyrics are a bit misguided and hokey (as if they were taken out of Birth of a Nation or, verily, Gone With The Wind), but writing a huge blow-out song like this is a pretty huge undertaking and Elton and Bernie don't insult us at any point.
Tumbleweed simply lacks the really strong tracks that would make it a true classic instead of an overlooked gem, something that Elton and Bernie wouldn't let happen again for some time. For the near future, Elton's albums each contain at least a handful of hugely successful singles, and most of them have their share of filler. too. Tumbleweed has neither, but is rather Elton's first real 'album' - of a piece, thematically coherent (if not lyrically), and part of a unified vision formed by the two songwriters. I certainly can't call them 'immature' anymore, but I can still call them 'incomprehensible' (Taupin's words are more convoluted than James Joyce on speed), though this is probably one of their most literal pieces of work ever.
Capn's Final Word: Elton and Bernie shine within their rootsy concept, yet don't show off by making any obvious hit songs. Maddeningly consistently very good.
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Madman Across the Water- Island 1971
By my count, contains the highest number of drop-dead Elton John classics on any album outside of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, but that one was a double, so it's like, cheating 'n' stuff. If any album established Elton and Bernie's real songwriting reputation, it's Madman, which establishes the duo as the new Rocky and Bullwinkle of bizarre, beautiful modernist hit songwriting, just like Elton John established them as conventional, dull songwriters with 'Your Song' and Tunbleweed Connection established them as respectable rock songwriters. But it's gotta be 'Tiny Dancer', 'Levon', and 'Madman Across The Water' which lays down the funk and gets the rest of us alternately boogieing, making sweet love, and feeling our jaws drop at the pop perfection that are these three gems. Granted, the rest of the album isn't that great, certainly not to the level of Tumbleweed's crafty album tracks, but that first side provides so much of a whollop that I doubt anyone's gonna demand their money back. Stylistically, this is a return from the rootsy funk of Tumbleweed towards a slicker 70's studio-shined sound, and although a pedal steel may poke it's head up every now and then, this is very much an album built on Elton's piano, his rhythm section, and Paul Buckmaster's surprisingly agile strings. About those strings, when thinking back to Elton John (I really don't remember any strings of much importance on Tumbleweed) I remember a bunch of corny, gloppy, soundtracky stuff like what you'd expect a string section to be used for. Here, the strings on, say 'Levon' use what I swear are horn charts! They bounce all around like a Mexican with his ass on fire. On the title track they're almost like ice-picks into the eyeballs, just subtle, painless but infinitely meaningful little jabs into the frontal lobes. Fantastic work. Call it 'proggy' if you want, but I think that's a mighty misguided statement. This isn't use of flashy technique or 'experimentation' at all...this Buckmaster guy simply knows exactly what works for Elton's songs. I wouldn't be surprised if he were a jazz guy at heart.
Anyway, back to the songs. John seems to fall in love with characters on Madman, if its writing sweet odes to new lovers on 'Tiny Dancer' (kinda also a rock 'n' roll road song, if you listen to it, making it's appearance in Almost Famous make a certain amount of sense) or using Biblical references to describe the generation gap on 'Levon'. 'Levon' also has the chilling line 'he was born a partner to a pawn on a Christmas day when the New York Times said 'God is dead, and the war's begun'. That's one cold bitch, but not as bad as the relationship between ol' Hay-zoos and Levon, who seem destined to end up alienated fro each other. Of course, lots of the lyrics to both of these songs are symbolic 'n' stuff (how else would you explain lines about 'blowing up balloons all day' and 'taking a balloon and going sailing, leaving Levon far behind'). I think they're uncommonly affecting, both of these songs, and both have a richness of detail that seems to be lacking from a lot of Elton's later work.
'Madman Across The Water', though, is just a kick in the balls. This is definitely one of Elton's most effectively strange and disconcerting songs, and also one of his best. Elton sings at his most disturbed as the band simmers low, and as he hisses lines like 'I can see...very well, there's a boat on the reef with a broken back' it's easy to believe that John is, in fact 'so insane'. Layers begin to form in the music, like Elton peeling away and discarding the pretensions that he'd built up over the first three albums of his existence. It's an alternately liberating and painful exercise, but he's in control at all times. Man, what a performance...this is exactly what they mean when they use the phrase 'devastatingly beautiful'. 'Is the nightmare black, or are the windows just painted, will they come again next week, can my mind really take it?'....shuddddeerrrrrrr......
So 'Razor Face' sticks out like a sore thumb among the other three classics on the first side, it's still mighty good, another character study. It's just tons more generic and lacking in that true melodic kick to put it's potentially powerful chorus over the top. Side 2 is a lot more problematic, as 'Indian Sunset' apes 'The King Must Die's wordiness, but adds aimlessness...you really ought not be wishing for all the frigging Native Americans to hurry up and die already to finish the song quicker, should you? This strikes me as a thematic leftover from Tumbleweed which somehow seemed to make the cut for Madman due to its paranoid tone. Oh, but it's also infected with full-blown Suite-it is, because why should you settle for having only one underdeveloped melody when you can have three? Or four? Yup, this is the song that really slows down the record after the first song drops us off the edge of the cliff, and though the strings are, once again, just breathtaking, the constant stopping and starting never seem to lead anywhere. Except, you know, a bunch of dead Indians. As if we didn't have enough of them cluttering up the lawn already.
Gosh, though. I'm more relieved than Carol Brady after a negative pregnancy test that the rest of the album is at least better than that. Has some lighter moments, too, the last of which we heard way back on 'Tiny Dancer' at the very leadoff. 'Holiday Inn' is another one of those cliched road songs that artists always write when they've been on tour too much, but we can count on Elton to at least make it interesting, and he comes through with a 40 of OE and a snazzy arrangement featuring a neato mandolin. The relaxed vibe continues with the throwaway 'Rotten Peaches' but is stomped to death by 'All The Nasties', another generic piano-banger torch song featuring a classical choir. It's nearly a return to the worst of Elton John, one of those cloying and incomprehensible 'big-sounding' songs that employs not a piff of the razor-faced sharpness of the first side (plus, the 'Oh my soullllll' outro chant doesn't come near to the 'na na na's of 'Hey Jude', which it's obviously trying to steal thunder from). But just when you might pass off the second side completely, 'Goodbye' brings out the butterfly-knife once again and begins to slice through your arm ever. soooo slllloowwwwlly. Elton finally uses one of his killer melodies on something slow (not to mention deliciously short)....and the results are like a silver bullet at midnight. Ker-plow.
Capn's Final Word: Yeah, Elton's on his way with some of his sharpest songs ever. Loses cabin pressure after the first leg, but the high lasts the whole way.
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Chateau - Island 1972.
Real cute record, an easy-flowing and seemingly effortless response to Madman, which sometimes came off a bit on the heavy-handed side. Honky Chateau remedies all that with a fresh smile and some good-timey charm, but I wouldn't be so completely brain-dead as to call it lightweight. These songs are absolutely just as well-constructed as the ones on Madman, and even better, the quality doesn't fall off halfway through like $7.99 fake-chrome rims on a Yugo. Though Tumbleweed hinted at it, this album just comes right out and shows that Bernie and Elton weren't all about trying to jerk tears and trying their darndest to come off as 'intellectual'. 'Honky Cat' alone is silly and infectious enough to poke a big ol' hole right through that notion, Holly Hunter. The true beauty of this record is that the hardcore stuff is still to be found, deep deep down in many of these songs. Often there's a dense nut of emotion buried under a lot of upbeat melodies, just waiting to be uncovered. I dunno, an easy one is 'I Think I'm Gonna Kill Myself', which jacks up the cheese and cheek factors up so far you don't know whether you're dealing with the goofiest ever case of gallows humor (the reference to requiring Bridgette Bardot to come and visit him every night as a condition of his postponing the inevitable self-deletion is awfully funny) or another case of the Madman Across The Water giving us another razor-sharp barb through all of us who are part of making Elton a showbiz 'thing' ('I'd like to see what the papers would say about the state of teenage blues'). 'Rocket Man', which at face value almost seems like 'Space Oddity 2' can be deciphered as a longing for escape from the doldrums of everyday life and the roles that you play ('I'm not the man they think I am at home'). But 'Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters' isn't just pretty words to say, either, it's another love song to the muse and the city of New York and all the crazies therein. The true magic is that the music to these songs, far from being as idiosyncratic as that on Madman, makes magic out of the commonplace...the melodies are at their absolute peak here.
So maybe 'Mellow' is pretty much exactly what it says it is, along with 'Slave', another bouncy 'Tumbleweed'-y throwback, and 'Salvation' is almost so slight as to be easily ignored, these are still good songs. If they sound like ground already covered, that's because they are, but the body is still solid and the engine's still hummin and there ain't no cracks in the leather, so why not just take another spin around the block if it works so well? 'Hercules' is the second cat on the album, just an enjoyable 50's-rock tossoff to finish off the record with another shit-eating grin. Even though these songs might be 'lighthearted' and 'laid back', they're essential to the feel of the record. Not too many albums are deft enough to leave you feeling happy (guys who write happy songs often turn out to be suicidal freaks...take Brian Wilson fer example) while still leaving you feeling like you haven't just heard a half-effort kind of record. Maybe Bernie was hiding a whole lot more nasty, whiny shit underneath all this bouncy gloss, but I sure don't detect it (other than what I already discussed above), and I doubt you're gonna do so either. It's possible I'm going a little overboard heaping praise on an album that ends up being fairly slight, but I can't get over the genuine quality of this record. Elton and Bernie really, really did their best work here, and they made it sound effortless. Honky Chateau is simply a good time, with some of the best songs Elton and Bernie Taupin ever put on tape ('Rocket Man' has got to be in the Top 3, 'Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters' is right up there).
Capn's Final Word: Just a strong, happy, resilient work. If that isn't enough, just go ahead and punch yourself five times in the face. HARD.
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Your Rating: A
Any Short Comments?: great laid back record. He would get much (too) serious later. My faves are "rocket man" (impossible to get tired of it), "mona lisa..." (beautiful) and "I think I'm gonna kill myself" (dark stuff...sort of)
"slave" and "salvation" (why didn't he use that steel pedal guitar more?)are good too.
my 2nd favorite elton album, but it can't touch the next one...
Alan Brooks Your Rating: A
Any Short Comments?: Did Elton write 'Rocket Man' before Bowie wrote 'Ground Control To Major Tom', or whatever the song was titled?
(Capn's Response: Nope. Bowie did his
I'm Only the Piano Player - Island 1973.
The lightest and least distinguished of Sir Siton Dong's (I've not been calling him a 'Sir' like I should have been, have I? And since I have such overwhelming respect for what a crotchety old senior citizen who happens to be part of an inbred, hemophiliac family of Limey scone-munchers, I guess I should start. But I won't. It's an awfully odd country when a guy like Elton John can be named a Knight when the only Lance he's ever stabbed anyone with happened to be the third dancer from the left in the 'Sad Songs Say So Much' video.) of his Super Gonzo Period Albums, this is also the first one that really doesn't make any significant advances over it's predecessor. Perhaps it was Elton's totally wacky recording schedule (two albums, one of them a double, in 1973, after releasing 5 in the preceding two years. So one of those was a soundtrack and another a live album...if frigging Linkin Park were releasing albums at this frenetic pace, they'd probably melt into little puddles of ooze.), but Don't Shoot bears the mark of an artist who has begun to freewheel...while it covers the bases hit-wise ('Daniel' and the super-silly 'Crocodile Rock', which is about as distinctively Elton as you can get), often the rest of the tunes are mass-produced Berneltons, rolling off the London-area assembly line to be detailed to an acceptable shine by Elton's band and sent on their way to sell bazillions. Elton goes for smooth pop polish on Don't Shoot, never once even trying to match the lethal wit he displayed on Madman. Shoot almost feels like a sequel to Honky Chateau, but lacks the dense layers of melody and meaning of that record. Of course, it's easy to get snippy and forget that the table is still loaded with fine cuts of melody and generous slices of memorable lyrics...for someone who's been starving themselves it still looks like the feast of the Gods. But for those of us jaded enough to have been at last week's dinner party, it looks a mite bit lacking.
The graceful opener 'Daniel', which may remind some of Madman's opening two character ballads, is the best track here. Besides being my wife's favorite song ever in the history of creation (other than maybe Radiohead's 'Paranoid Android'...eclectic tastes she's got, hrm?) is a sweet little ode to, I guess, somebody's brother who has undergone some personal tragedy. Bernie's lyrics are surprisingly gentle coming from someone who wrote 'Levon', and Elton's delivery is subtle and in good command. I don't find it as tasty as, say, a cross between 'Levon' and 'Tiny Dancer' might've been, but the melody is wicked pisser and the bittersweet aftertaste indicates there's more power in there than what I might've estimated.
As the word of the day is Pop! here in Eltonville, much of Don't Shoot is simply bouncy, buoyant, and 50's-derived rock-pop. 'Crocodile Rock' is the obvious example, but I enjoy 'Elderberry Wine' and 'Midnight Creeper' nearly as much. Elton's attempts at Teddy-boy toughness are a bit ridiculous on 'Creeper' (his giddy nostalgia on 'Crocodile Rock' fits him like a pair of control-tops, though), and both of these songs seem to last about a verse or two too long, but if Elton's doing tourniquet-tight runs through quick 50's rock, I'm most likely gonna wanna get on board. Same with 'Have Mercy On The Criminal', which digs up the old corpse of the Madman Across The Water for an 'I Want You (She's So Heavy)' grind through the desolate wastelands of...um....something. Bernie's still about as comprehensible as Teddy Kennedy on OxyContin at a Boston College frat party when it comes to lyrics, and he's lucky to have Elton as his interpreter. Otherwise, good lord...we'd have frigging chaos, mister. And if you put chaos into pop music, well, you're most likely gonna end up with fifty Partridge Families and a couple dozen Three Dog Nights before you're gonna score a Big Star, you know? Not following me? Neither am I.
Okay, misses include 'I Think I'm Gonna Be A Teenage Idol', which is just self-referential glam-rock boingy funk jive that can't hold 'Bennie and the Jets' drink while it has a piss. 'Teacher I Need You' is too lightweight and cutesy even for this album, the redneck-baiting 'Texan Love Song' is poorly conceived and not a bit funny, and 'Blues for Baby and Me' is gone without a trace. When Don't Shoot fails, it fizzles rather than exploding outright, so I'd predict that most of you would simply pass these songs over in your brain. Really, though, if you don't find a bit of delight in jouncy 50's songs, Don't Shoot isn't gonna pack much smoke for you. Consider that Honky Chateau does the lightweight thing better without sacrificing substance, and Madman and Yellow Brick Road (not to mention Chateau) hit infinitely harder, and it's not difficult to see than Don't Shoot has to fall somewhere in a 'second tier' list of Elton's work. But that's alright...he's got shitloads of work that doesn't sound anywhere close to this good, and I doubt anyone else could've still scored so highly when sustaining Elton's freakish early-70's schedule.
Capn's Final Word: Soft and light and a modest pleasure, but Elton's obviously overtaxed.
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More erratic than Gary Busey having a seizure, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road has everything. Everything including nearly an entire record full of unqualified classics, many of them his biggest-ever hits and some of his most original and full-bore rock tunes. Everything, including complete failures that make Elton look even more foolish than he tries to look already. Everything including long stretches of filler that feel so padded even the Rolling Stones are getting jealous. I have a sick time trying to come to grips with this record...on one hand, I need, I crave the highs provided by this evil and devious demon, but I fail every time to make it through the whole thing. The second record is as barren and crippling as the first album (well, 3/4ths of the first album) is energizing and fiery. For every ingenious use of his talent-stacked band on the first section, there's a counterpart which squanders everything on a non-riff and some mindless glam boogie. Of course, some of the mindless glam boogie is more equal than others ('Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting'), but that's like choosing which of the Baldwin brothers you'd get the least amount of pleasure out of seeing fall off a cliff. Anyway, who obsesses about the worst part of an album like this when you have this glittering, gleaming diamond right in front of you, waiting to be taken to the prom and sloppily groped after getting intoxicated on some stolen bottle of Mad Dog? It's just be-yoootiful, man.
This album starts off with the album opener to, um, end all album openers. Or something. Anyway, the instrumental 'Funeral for a Friend' sneaks in, sighing chilling breezes and foreboding disaster, a glam-prog masterpiece of almost-cheesy B&W horror film and torch song flavors mixed in ever-shifting dynamics that build to a manic pace. Elton's piano entry is almost regal in it's command, and he takes control of this song like he's been conducting it all along. The guitars tangle, the mood shifts from melancholic to drunkenly nostalgic to angry as fuck, right to the bursting point. I'd certainly like this to be played at my funeral, give some of the folks who I hate and would still show up there a bit of a step back, I hope. Following a seemless transition to 'Love Lies Bleeding', the song becomes the most convincing rocker in all of Elton's career (don't even mention 'Bitch Is Back'...that song is fucking limp compared to this mad dog on the loose), thanks to the diamond-plated lead guitar work by Darryl Johnstone and, of course, Elton's maniacal pounding. Elton's smart enough to let it breathe, though, dropping back into a Who-ish synth solo in the middle before letting Darryl tear the motherfucker apart on the outro. Wotta song...the best on here for sure.
As if to rub our collective noses in his ability to turn on a dime, John and Bernie give us probably the most well-known song of their career, a disappointingly reverent ode to Marylin Monroe (better than frigging Princess Diana fer chrissakes) based on some grittingly cheesy chords, some very hunky backup choruses, and Johnstone's power-ballad lead guitar. Of course, the song fucking rules despite its death-grip on accessibility and (in my opinion) silly hero worship, and I'm sure you all know how good the melody is. But really, when compared to real classic ballads from around the same time, like, say 'Imagine', this song isn't anywhere close.
Elton's best genuine glam rock song and the best song on this album, 'Bennie and the Jets', follows, yet another effortless classic, sounding relaxes and taut at the same time. Elton's off-kilter rhythms keep it endlessly interesting, and Bernie's wise and winking stab at glam-rock plastic keeps a precarious balance between Elton as Glam King and Elton as Guy who is Too Smart to Be A Glam King. The giveaway for me is the hilariously mistimed crowd noises (they break into applause, like, whenever the band hits an especially well-tuned E-Minor chord, rather than on the solo break....it's just a little fun poked at a drugged up and clueless early 70's audience). Take it how you wish...Elton cultivated his glamminess more and more around this time, and every good glam guy needs a theme song. Funnily enough, he casts off his gold lame suit with the very next song, 'Goodbye Yellow Brick Road', which is the best song on the album. I see this as Elton's last glance back at his intellectual folkie/rocker past, (exemplified with the unshaven, piercing stare on the Honky Chateau cover) and while he's supposedly leaving the decadent fame promises of the 'yellow brick road' behind in the song, he'd soon jump in with both nostrils and kill off this kind of sweet sincerity nearly for good. It's as if Bernie was trying to reel his friend back in from the edge, and while Elton's classic vocals on this song (some of his very best...just try to sing along, it's impossible. One of my most embarrassing moments ever was attempting to sing this song at a Russian karaoke. They nearly revoked my passport and sewed my mouth shut, and for good reason. We had it on videotape, but I fed the evidence into a woodchipper like Steve Buscemi in Fargo.) dazzle, it seems the man didn't know quite how autobiographical the song was. It's massive, a true classic of keeping your integrity in a world that rewards selling out.
The album can't help but let down from here, and it does. Of the remaining songs on album one, only 'Grey Seal' (originally written in 1970) and 'I've Seen That Movie Too' are pretty good. 'Grey Seal' is a fantastic chorus in search of a convincing verse (the funk outro is just thin trash, too), but wins by wrapping up the classic line 'tell me Grey Seal, how does it feel, to be so wise?' in heapin' helpings of synths and guitars and strings to delirious effect. 'Movie', a smoky torch song in the vein of 'Have Mercy On The Criminal', is a tad long, but at least has a point, which is to burn it down slow and set up Johnstone's excellent backwards guitar solo while Buckmaster's strings tug at the ol' heartstrings like a bottle of Jack downed following Ol' Yeller's demise. 'This Song Has No Title' lacks anything resembling a point, and 'Jamaica Jerk Off' seems specially designed to make Elton look like a grinning white jive-bozo in need of a good beating at the hands of Bob Marley.
Compared to the first half, Disc 2 just seems ordinary. The lyrics take a turn towards the ultra-misogynist (not the sexy, Mick Jagger kind, but a sickening one), the band's energy dies to a flicker, and Elton starts playing sssssllllllooooowwwww.....I don't know who'd ever like the endless nodder 'Sweet Painted Lady', but I can tell you who'd hate it, and that's anyone who ever read the lyrics. It's not that they're about whores, it's that they're putting whores down for what they do, as if they needed any more criticism. 'Dirty Little Girl' is even more explicit in it's sniping hatred of the female race, nearing Frank Zappa levels of unnecessary meanness. The whole line about 'cleaning the oyster to find a pearl' is about as stereotypically homosexual as you can get. I mean, talking shit about the 'Evil Woman' has been part of popular music ever since Og left Bog back in the Paleozoic, but this seems different. And worse. Considering that neither Elton nor Bernie would ever have had any desire to meet with this particular sort of 'sweet painted lady', I can't help but feel like these songs betray a deep hatred for women. You know, that sort of thing that homosexuals don't like to advertise. It's as if, in their attempt to be 'shocking', they're proving that the worst male chauvinists certainly aren't rednecks, they're gays, and the whole thing kinda disturbs me in a bad taste in my stomach sort of way. All over a couple of songs that, at best, should be considered a sad mistake. 'All The Girls Love Alice' rocks a little better, and its teenage-lesbian theme at least isn't mean-spirited, but it's still stupid. Three 'dirty girl' songs in a row, and women are somehow not supposed to take this as an affront? Bleah. Leave it alone, Bernie. You apparently lost some twink to a real woman and now you can't open your mouth without spilling a puddle of bile on our shoes. Just shut up about it.
The remainder of the album is forgettable glam rock and a few gloppy ballads. The only memorable track is 'Saturday Night', relying once again on Johnstone's creamy-metallic guitar to raise an otherwise unremarkable metal track to something approaching greatness. Elton is also pretty snazzy playing the role of a drunken, brawling football-punk that he most clearly is not, but at heart, this song has little of the pizzazz of earlier rockers, including 'Love Lies Bleeding'. Still, that song is miles beyond little pieces of nothingness like 'Your Sister Can't Twist' or 'Social Disease'. As the album limps to the close, the greatness of the first side remains a distant memory, sullened by too much ugliness and not enough effort with the melodies.
It's extremely tempting to split the grade, but that's simply cheating...Elton must've intended this thing to be sequenced like this, more out-of-balance than Gerald Ford with an inner-ear infection, so this is how I have to judge it. He knew the best songs were on the first record, and either he A) didn't understand that he couldn't just structure this thing like Madman Across the Water and expect momentum to carry the listener through the dull stretches or B) honestly didn't think there was a bummer stretch at all. Whatever his mistake, Yellow Brick Road isn't quite snuffed by its evil twin half (boring songs abound, but really bad ones are pretty rare) but it certainly suffers. Someone tempted to pick this one up rather than another choice only because it's 2 CD's on one, therefore a better deal somehow, deserves everything they get. And if you see it for a dollar because it's missing the second disc, by all means grab it. You now have the best album in Elton John's collection in your hot little hand, and you should feel extra sexy for the rest of the day and score with lots of hot chicks or beautiful boys, depending on the angle of your particular dangle.
Capn's Final Word: Ranges from Rolls Royce to Yugo. And the trip is a long one. Probably worth the journey.
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Caribou - Island 1974
Even more smarmy than last time, Caribou shows Elton at his most glam-cracked. Elton was flying high on crushed Yellow Brick powder, No longer relegated to different records, good taste now mixes freely with bad, often within the same song, and one begins to resemble the other until we've just got one big drag-queen ball of a mess. To try a less gay-baiting metaphor, I'd say the whole thing bears resemblance to a massive head-on car collision with multiple injuries and lots of broken glass. It's scary and sure will fuck some lives over, but you can't turn away, and it's often anything but boring. But it's just as often not really too good, due to Elton's attempts to keep it unconventional. One example being that Elton brings the mighty Tower of Power horn section on board for this one, a group of guys halfway between Chicago's horn section and the Grambling University Marching Band. They lend a goofy, bombastic tone that puffs up while letting you in on the big joke simultaneously. Elton's performance is as erratic as his concurrent social life (mostly spent getting wasted and kicked out of clubs with John Lennon in LA), and he can turn from angelic choirboy to demented muppet in 10 seconds or less or your money back. Obviously our boy had taken his fateful steps down the Mellow Yellow Highway...those of you looking for the sharp, realistic Elton of a few years back are going to be mighty disappointed, but if your idea of Elton John is the guy with the huge glasses and feather boas pounding the piano over some sleazy lounge-rock, Caribou is custom-made fer ya.
Major flags go up for me when I hear 'The Bitch Is Back' described as the best song on the album. It quite possibly is, but I still don't much care for it. How does that bode for the rest of the album? It's wayyyy too conventional musically (besides taking a page or two from the Stones' 'Bitch', which no one ever seems to notice), especially considering that it's really just a rewrite of 'Saturday Night', and it doesn't even rock too hard until the speed picks up into the chorus. I suppose the 'I'm a Bitch, I'm a Bitch, The Bitch Is Back, Stone Cold Sober, As a Matter Of Fact!' hookline is apt, except for the 'stone cold sober' part, which isn't very bloody likely. The Tower of Power horns, providing Vegasy power throughout, are just cheesy enough. But really, is this one of Elton's best songs, or even one of his best rockers? A second-tier greatest hit, I say. I also enjoy 'Don't Let The Sun', which hearkens back to the old days of denim pants and deep-closet sexuality, is another nice pleasure, but nothing that pushes the album that much higher.
The rest of the album is filled with near-misses, complete misses, and total fuckups. 'You're So Static', a horned-beasty of a rocker, seems to pride itself on being as flailing and unhinged as possible, besides featuring a weirdo watery effect on Johnston's guitar that always reminds me of my teeth being drilled into by a poorly maintained dentist drill. It reappears on several songs (I'd guess it's a spinning Leslie coupled with a flange...either that or Elton got some macho leatherboys to come in and swing the Marshall stack around as fast as they could go.) On the other hand, 'I've Seen The Saucers' is pleasant, but feels stale and overadorned. 'Pinky' is limp MOR balladry, weakly echoing similar junk on Honky Chateau and Don't Shoot, 'Saucers' goes down without a trace and 'Stinker'...mother fuck! Why would you ever name an obviously crappy-ass boogie doodle 'Stinker' unless you somehow know you're laying down the widest swath of bullshit since the last time Pat Robertson opened his big fat mouth? With a name like 'Stinker', it has to be good. But it isn't. So our time is ruined. Fucking Elton. 'Solar Prestige A Gammon' is, what...French? Resembling the worst stupidity of 70's European Lawrence-Welk pop, this is a real low point in Elton's career. This is Elton pretending to be someone who sucks butt, actually trying to be this guy, rather than simply failing to be good. What's next, Reg? Some sugar in my gas tank and a few go-rounds with my Mom? Elton simply isn't having much luck coming up with anything memorable on this record, and the resulting mishmash is one huge quagmire of horns, sloppy piano, lookit-me guitar, and...well, some darn good rhythm section work. If there's something that can be gained by this record, it's having a close listen to the rhythm section do their particular bit of damage while the other folks just bash their head against the brick wall. Heartening, but unlike the Rolling Stones, here the drummer doesn't run the show. The gaggling junk-closet geek on the cover is, and he's not pulling it together. In fact, it's flying apart at every corner, and it'd take one final act of will to pull it together just one more time.
Capn's Final Word: A glammy, scummy mess that shows how crystal-encrusted Elton's brain was in 1974. There's still enough gas for a hit, but the leftovers are to be missed.
Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy
- Island 1975
NOT as good, even after a bazillion happy and contented listens, as Elton's cleaner and more clearly focused works of 1971-1973, but still one solid album of well-crafted pop, and one that feels important, even if it's just about as pointless and incomprehensible as Elton/Bernie at their worst. How weighty this album can't be underestimated, because if Cap'n Fantastic didn't feel as if it were such a significant record, with reach and every song ratcheting up the density, right up until 'Philadelphia Freedom' takes us out on a lightweight, stupid-ass-fun groove at the end, I think this album could very well be unbearable. The concept is ostensibly the relationship between Elton and Bernie as friends and songwriters, but I find that pretty hard to actually get, mostly because I refuse to dig out the tome of lyrics and get my hair all mussed up. The best songs are pretty clear, anyway, and everything else fits the usual 'sounds good, too convoluted to figure out' pattern of 90% of their songs since 1970. Yup, Elton and Bernie set out to make a Big Record, or at least their own particular fuzzy vision of one, and while they seem to have succeeded critically, I'd say that they could've made a better album if they'd just lightened up a smidge.
There's really only two hits, 'Freedom' and the glorious estefan ''Someone Saved My Life Tonight', and 'Saved' wasn't a big ol drop in the bucket or anything, so you'll probably find yourself wading through another album full of quality album tracks just like way back on Tumbleweed Connection. Now, the difference between having a 'hit' and an 'album track' on Tumbleweed was probably pretty transparent, as it was probably pretty doubtful that any of his rootsy hoots would've really wrapped up the imagination of the average AM radio listener, but here the difference is clear - the hooks just aren't as good on the album tracks. They're there, all present and accounted for....this isn't one of those albums like Caribou that seems like it's been clearcut of decent melodies, but the quality just isn't as high on 90% of these songs. Now, I love 'Tower of Babel'...the viciously pointy 'Jesus don't save the guys in the Tower of Babel' line seems drug right out of 'Levon'. Most of the tracks are simply good songs that don't make the jump to being great...hard to fault, but still lacking something special. I don't need all of my favorite Elton songs to have been hits (though it often turns out that way), but it'd be quite a jump for me to say I particularly remember most of these tracks, much less consider them part of Classic Elton. But I do remember them being good, and isn't that okay?
And a few I remember being great. 'Someone Saved My Life Tonight' is the emotional peak of the record, a dizzying height brought on by Elton relating the story of his breakup with a girlfriend (yup, this was back when he was still trying his darndest to acquire a taste for fish). The song is just Elton, piano and band sighing along reservedly, but Elton's voice is simply transcendent. As he hits the 'butter-FLIES are FREE to FLY...fly away, far away, bye bye' peak, it's enough to bust your heart out into a million pieces. It's probably the last ever song where Elton expresses his true feelings clearly, and it's a doozy. The guy dances so close to the edge of just spilling the beans to the world about the depth and breadth of the advanced fucked up mental state he was in at the time, but his professionalism holds him together. Still, he's straining at the seems, and the effect is profoundly touching. '(Gotta Get Me A) Meal Ticket' is the rockin' response that follows, a middle finger sent skyward to all this misty-eyed sincerity, a cynical bash through some rudimentary rock 'n' roll that's closer to Aerosmith than ABBA that acts as a cry of defiance from the 'bottom line' where Elton finds himself. It's pretty much what Ray Davies was trying to say on, fuck, like 3 or 4 of his 70's albums, all wrapped up in one 3-minute tune.
I also get a kick out of Elton's friendly cover of 'Lucky In The Sky With Diamonds', (recorded with Mr. Vladmir Ilyitch himself) tacked onto the end as a special track along with 'Philadelphia Freedom'. Elton extracts all of the jolly pop bounce from the song, every ounce, and turns the thing into an ode to eccentricity rather than hallucination. 'Freedom' is a real turning point to Elton as he turns almost completely conventional. This, and his retarded, rudimentary duet with Kiki Dee on the next record, nailed the last few spikes into his personal vampire. There's not one even stitch of irony on this song...Elton's just a smilin' guy diggin' the flutes and faint disco feel as he goes boppin' off down the Yellow Brick Road for good...
Capn's Final Word: The last real Elton John album for a loooong time, but that's no reason to get all squishy just because it's got a 'concept' and a flashy cover.
Rock of the Westies - Island 1975
A completely ridiculous and paper-thin record, rushed and totally out-of-character, but one that at least has its share of gutsy, lowbrow pleasures. Westies was recorded at yet another low point for Elton as he finally came to grips with being gayer than a chartreuse banana, but spent months outdrinking the Allman Brothers and wringing his hands over announcing such a potentially suicidal thing publicly. Everyone loved the eccentric, flamboyant, flaming, flouncy, be-dazzling, well-groomed, feminine, younger brother of Liberace when they somehow thought he was straight (God, do you realize how fucking blockheadedly naïve people were even 30 years ago? What, did they think they were living in some sort of bizarre, dayglo Leave it to Beaver rabbit-hole or what?), But how would they take him when he came out and admitted he was gay, and not Bowie/Iggy/Lou Reed 'play gay' way that was meant to shock, but ragingly and genuinely homosexual in a way not seen since Rock Hudson installed his first backyard pool. Rock of the Westies seems to be a knee-jerk reaction to this ambiguity; he slams out his hardest-rocking bunch of tunes ever, ones that bear very little resemblance to anything since, well, ever. It's the equivalent of having F. Scott Fitzgerald write a book of dirty jokes, but Fitzgerald was probably genius enough to come up with some winners, just like Elton's talented enough to pull off this foray into Stonesy rock basics. The piano is definitely relegated to background duty on everything but 'I Feel Like a Bullet (In The Gun Of Robert Ford)' (Robert Ford being the guy who allegedly, with his brother, was invited to a dinner at Jesse James' house. Jesse, of course, had a huge price on his head, and when he walked off to refill the whiskey glasses or something, Robert shot the fucker right in the back like a big pussy. He received his reward but his reputation was ruined, and not many years later, he himself was killed. Don't say I never taught you anything. Stick around and I'll relate how to make a working water bong out of a hollow plastic leprechaun and the joyous methods of popping a stubborn dislocated shoulder back into place).
Lots and lots of the songs, though, simply rock out. And while Elton's not necessarily AC/DC on the hard stuff, he's certainly not Angel, either. He bases his rock on boogie riffs that he can bang his piano along with, if you've heard 'Meal Ticket' or 'Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting' you know what I mean, so songs seem to roll rather than lurch. Guitarist Caleb Quaye returns from several years away, and his rougher, grittier style compares to Darryl Johnston like James Williamson compares to Ron Asheton, Ron Wood compares to Mick Taylor, or Wild Turkey compares to Southern Comfort. I personally find Caleb's style a lot less distinctive and interesting, but I'm all for a bit of dirtyass riffage if that's what's called for. Of the basic rock tracks, 'Yell Help' is nicely funky, a little slice of Southern rock sludge featuring nice guitar interplay, 'Grow Some Funk of Your Own' (the second, smaller hit off of this one after 'Island Girl') is too close to cannibalizing 'Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting' for my tastes, 'Street Kids' is probably the most effective use of the band's strengths (not to mention Elton's piano), 'Hard Luck Story' is rote, and 'Billy Bones and the White Bird' is a frigging loony take on the Bo Diddley rhythm like you've never imagined. Scoring surprisingly high on the rock factor, these songs are, without exception, darned lame lyrically and quite often goofier than Charles Nelson Reilly on half a balloon of nitrous. They're also fun, but don't plan on sitting next to this record dissecting all the hidden layers for the next six months.
The non-rocking tracks are equally lame lyrically (compared with Captain Bombastic and the Brown Dick Leatherboy, this album sounds like somebody suffered a debilitating stroke in the lyrics-writing centers of the brain), but try lots of cool things in their own bumbling, fumbling way. The number one hit 'Island Girl' is nicely snappy glam-disco, miles from the dense quality of his '73 singles, but a simple joy, 'Robert Ford' recalls Elton John or Tumbleweed in it's melodicism, and 'Feed Me' rips Steely Dan so effectively I begin to wonder if maybe Elton wasn't having simultaneous affairs with Donald 'Duck' Dunn and Michael McDonald around this time. Probably not (please don't sue me)(fags).
The closing duet with backup singer Kiki Dee, who was trying for a breakout solo career, 'Don't Go Breaking My Heart', signals the end of Elton John as anything resembling a serious artist. This isn't Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, this is Captain and Tennille, and it's simply sad. Kiki Dee's voice is whitebread and soulless, and Elton's performance seems perfunctory and phoned in. 'When I was down, I was your clown...' needless to say this isn't Bernie Taupin doing the writing. He'd be around for a year or two longer, but Elton's willingness to do this sort of cat vomit (anything for a hit! Got a producer's dick for me to suck?!?) probably soured Taupin's opinion of the guy for several years, as Bernie seems to have all the artistic integrity in the marriage. This is crass corporate pop of the worst stripe, and even if Westies isn't exactly Abbey Road, it's still miles more respectable than this particular Aquafresh moment.
Capn's Final Word: He may have been falling apart faster than a Chevy after the warranty expires, so why is he making one of the tightest (if thinnest) rock albums of his career? Bizarre.
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Blue Moves - MCA 1976
It's not simply that it's a double released at a time when Elton John's grasp on making a single LP of good material was about as tenuous as Katherine Hepburn performing cataract surgery, it's not simply that it's the album in which Elton stops being a young, exciting guy and starts being an old fart, it's not simply that it's as dull and vague as it's cover, as depressing as its title, and as thin as it's slipjackets,or that Elton's relationship with Bernie Taupin was nearing the breaking point, or that Elton John is a short, bald, gay man with a shiny head and a big, poop-eating grin who hoovers up Peruvian Harvest Dust like a German Shepherd on a porterhouse steak. It's all of these things. Maybe it's also working for MCA that did it, like Ronnie said. After years upon years of kicking himself in the ass to make great music and darn good albums, Elton finally lets the wheels coast on Blue Moves, which seems to consciously announce his departure from teenage popdom once and for all. Blue Moves wants to be taken seriously, from the adult contemporary, 'Don't Go Breaking My Heart'-derived slime like 'Crazy Water' to the weird, deadpan gospel of 'Boogie Pilgrim' to the pretento-classical instrumentals that kick things off...everything Elton is doing is whatever he doesn't do very well. No, wait, I fucked up...Elton does do adult contemporary well, 25-odd years of trying have at least shown he's a couple of steps above Rod Stewart and a good mile ahead of Kenny G and Michael Bolton, but that's akin to praising a Ukrainian concentration camp guard for not getting blood on his uniform while he beats the shit out of the prisoners. The Ukrainian really needs to be at home, tending his pigs and drinking vodka instead of delightfully engaging in evil and horror, and Elton John needs to be playing pop rock, not out committing himself to the lite-rock radio tastes of 30-something divorcee secretaries the world over.
Not that the secretaries of the world have much use for this, an endless, depressing pleasure cruise through Elton's rock-bottom blahs. This is the anti-Westies, this is Elton wallowing in the poop of his self-loathing and then describing the smell to us at great length while his band plays some safe inconsequentiality or another in the background. So much for confidence, so much for mastery. Instead of sounding important, Elton sounds lost in his new old-fart digs. It's as if he's started down a road he never really considered the consequences of. His band follows like a patient old puppy down into the doldrums, slightly wary but, hey! Master's never let us down before! Wrong-o. Even though Elton's band at this time has both Caleb Quaye and Davey Johnstone playing guitar, and for the most part their talents are completely squandered. For every tasteless discofied jam song like 'One Horse Town', which at least has audible guitars on it (besides being one of the two or three bones thrown to the 'rock fans'), there's long stretches of tracks where the boys do nothing but fade into the wallpaper.
The album does contain slight traces of the things that made us love Elton in the first place, and it's really hard for me to call it a total loss. The vocals are outstanding throughout, from the impossibly high notes on the otherwise miserable hit 'Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word' to the good bit of soul he gets up on 'Boogie Pilgrim', probably the most enjoyable track on the album as the guitarists engage in a slide duel and Elton cracks his one and only smile on here. Many of the tracks are simply dull and forgettable, not outwardly bad, and it's just the volume of mediocrity that begins to truly wear on the listener. And wear it does...my MP3 collection seems to be missing three tracks (wanna take bets that I'm gonna go and track them down? If so, I've got a bridge you might be interested in...) the addition of which would push the this album to well over CD-length. It's already a tired enough listen as it is, so there's no doubt in my mind that making it through more of this jive turkey would only push my opinion lower than it otherwise is. Blue Moves is simply not an album most of us will find much interest in.
Capn's Final Word: Dull, overly serious, and long. The triple threat of a beckoning nap.
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Like a melodic version of Blue Moves, this album continues Elton's trip far, far away from the fun and games of his early-70's work. His Single Man is a lot more comfortable in its new set of starched clothes than he ever seemed on the last one, and though he still sounds like he's constricting himself, at least he apparently doesn't mind so much nowadays. A Single Man, if anything, is John attempting soul, which is a new trick for the old dog. Partially, this may be because Elvis and Bernard finally snapped the umbilical cord, and the songs here are written by a certain Gary Osbourne. You can hear it, too...the lyrics make sense. And they're twice as boring as the '70-'75 work, and only half as boring as Blue Moves. It's still mighty bizarre to hear Elton sing things that sound, you know, sorta conventional, after hearing him follow Bernie to the Oort Cloud and back.
This one makes game efforts at presenting some decent songs, only to turn right around and step right in a big, steaming pile of 'Part Time Love' or 'Big Dipper', which has got to be the gayest song of Elton's early career (and I mean that in an 'uncomfortably campy' way, instead of just saying 'uncomfortably campy', which would've been too long. I'm also not saying I know precisely how gay Elton and Bernie were feeling when they wrote each and every one of their songs I've reviewed. Hell, 'Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting' might be about putting on fishnet stockings and singing Judy Garland songs at the top of your lungs, for all I know. All I wanna say here is that 'Big Dipper' is so flamingly campy that it makes me wince. That's all.) Or how Elton throws away everything he ever knew about rootsy lite rock (Tumbleweed Connection, anyone?) for 'Georgia', just a bunch of pro-forma cowpoke cliches and singalongs. And only Elton and his therapist know what he was thinking about when he decided the ridiculous disco-rocker 'Madness' needed a spot on this record.
But...Christ! Elton can still put a spit-shine on a throwaway idea and still have it come out sounding great. Elton's ability to take an ordinary song and musically twist it just a little bit is exactly what makes 'Reverie/Song For Guy' sound like a gorgeous, long-lost Yellow Brick Road outtake rather than the eleventh straight mid-tempo piano hooptie-doo honky wank. I'll take an instrumental featuring nice swooshy synths over Elton's nicely skewed chord banging away over and over again any day...if it sounds immediately like Elton John instead of like Elton John trying desperately not to be Elton John. And if that bothers you, just tell yourself it's embryonic ambient music like what Brian Eno was screwing around with on Discrete Music or the contemporary Music For Films. Even better is when Elton makes the real songs a little bit special, like maybe the featherweight 'Return to Paradise', which is probably what he meant by 'Jamaica Jerk-Off' back on Yellow Brick Road and just couldn't get right for another 5 years. 'I Don't Care' is similarly pleasant, but 'It Ain't Gonna Be Easy' takes it...it's got a coiled fist under its silk exterior, a faintly bluesy howl from precisely where Elton found himself in 1978...lost, angry, and confused. On an album whose low points outnumber the highs, this is the kind of gem we search for.
But, as we all know, this was pretty much it for the old Elton. What hadn't been obliterated by Blue Moves was now at the mercy of outside lyricists and Elton's rapidly degenerating sense of melody. If the glimpses of the young Elton can still be spied every now and again on A Single Man, it almost seems like a slip of the stonefaced, conservative mask he insisted on wearing. From here on, things get mighty dangerous. It's a whole lot easier to find landmines than gold nuggets, so we'll leave this road for right now....
Capn's Final Word: Elton sounds as comfortable as he looks on the cover, but at least he sparks off a couple of good flashes here and there. Well...there, anyway. Elton says goodbye for good.
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Phyllis Your Rating: D
Any Short Comments?: This was the first album Elton did without his lyricist Bernie Taupin. It is an utter disappointment. Elton's lyrics are embarrassing. The melodies are very lacklustre as well without the inspiration of Mr. Taupin words. I can't believe the reviewer rated this album higher than "Blue Moves". Although "Blue Move" (a double album) would have fared much better as a single album--I prefer any of those songs to the totally uninspired sad excuse for songs on "A Single Man". If anything, this album proves once and for all how crucial Bernie Taupin was to Elton's success.