Monday, November 1, 2010
Artist: Elton John and Leon Russell
Title: The Union
While it would be a stretch to say this is a rock n’ roll album, it would be an even greater stretch to say this is a blues album. However, undoubtedly Oklahoma’s Leon Russell’s career is based upon many a blues flavor and if, as he purports it, Russell is John’s biggest icon, perhaps there is sufficient room for Elton John to rest awhile under the big tent of blues music. That being said, this is an album which could fit nicely in some roots music radio playlists… so perhaps Blueswax readers will already familiar with this album.
In the late ‘80’s and into the 1990’s rock hierarchies of performers were coupling up to energize flagging careers. As radio melted down into the gloppy, highly niched audio conundrum that we hear today, artists that had sold millions of albums were being dropped by labels no longer interested in artist development. These labels needed sales and anything on the cusp soon found itself sans label in an industry that was being nullified by advancing technology. So artists like Santana recorded with Rob Thomas and gandered the massive album, ‘Supernatural.’ Usually these all star outings were big on glimmer and low on critical content. They were crap. Around the change of the millennium Elton John teamed up with a very soused Billy Joel and together they toured the world keeping alive a flame that seemed to be rapidly diminishing. Times seemed dire. Today “Ellie” has used his slightly tarnished career to team up with an idol from his youth, Leon Russell, whose career had seen better days. Together they have compiled an album that is fated to earn hills of accolades while invigorating each individual career.
If the quality of art is compounded by its complication, as noted thinker and PBS commentator Mortimer Adler suggests it is, then this really could have been a beautiful outing. While the roles between saved and savior blur, together Leon Russell and Elton John’s album, produced by today’s soup d’jour uber-producer T-Bone Burnett is okay. The album’s 14 songs are four songs too many and would have made two very nice ‘solo w/guest records.’ However, for reasons that defy overt simplicity, this is near arduous length of oblique yet interesting collection of over-produced songs. Said simply, it’s good but it is not great. Will these songs ripen? Only time will tell.
The opening track, “If It Wasn’t for Bad” is a classic piece of Elton John arranging that harkens to his noted ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ period. This song feature Stax star Booker T. Jones and was written by Russell. ‘Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes’ features Taupin’s somewhat vapid temporal lyrics disguised as meaningful. I mean, really, a song using $800 shoes as a metaphor; yawn. On ‘Hey Ahab’ John gives his go at being guttural, giving the listener his best blues growl. It is not until the album’s fourth track, the Civil War expedition, ‘Gone to Shiloh’ that the music nears honesty in its roots and feel. Neil Young lends his vocals and sings the second verse of this ballad. The vocals of Russell and Young mix well. When John’s vocals sing the 3rd verse the listener is set in a wonderful audio landscape. Each man’s vocal adding a depth and contrast that works quite well. ‘Monkey Suit’ is an up tempo ‘Rod Stewart’ boogie that provides a level of energy to the album while giving it an obligatory sing-along.
This is a nice Sunday morning album by mature songwriters that are beyond looking for success while relying a bit too hard on sentimental clichés. For some listeners this is going to be a touchstone of pure brilliance; an audio landscape that ties together nostalgia with the contemporary. Like many musical outings the listener has to agree to believe. Roots radio might consider ‘A Dream Come True’ for airplay. Once again though, what starts out as promising eventually gives way to over-layered production that all but smites the song amid background vocals, cowbells and tap-dancing percussion and a regretful tempo shift. Ugh. It is an album you want to enjoy, badly, but Sir Elton is like an enabling spouse that sickens the music by forcing his presence into each and every crevice. Perhaps Sir George Martin could de-Spector this album someday.
You can take the boy out of Vegas but…