River Of Dreams by Billy Joel

July 6, 2009

River Of Dreams was issued in August of 1993 and is the last pop album that Billy Joel has released to date. Sixteen years is a long time in the music world and whether he ever issues another pop/rock album remains to be seen.

Billy Joel’s life had taken a couple of turns for the worse by this point. He was embroiled with his ex-manager over the theft of large amounts of income plus his marriage to Christie Brinkley would end in divorce within a year’s time. The album came across as very serious which reflected his life situation at the time. What it all added up to was a work that may not have been as memorable as his earlier classics but it was solid throughout.

The first half dealt with the problems that were affecting his life. “The Great Wall Of China” has a nice bluesy feel to it as it deals with his financial situation and legal problems. “Blonde Over Blue” is an ode to the disintegration of a relationship. And “A Minor Variation” just has an overwhelming sense of sadness.

Joel’s psyche improves as the album nears its end. “Lullabye (Goodnight My Angel)”is a poignant song of acceptance as one relationship comes to an end but the one with his daughter Alexa will continue. “River Of Dreams” stands out from the rest of the tracks as it is just catchy pop reminiscent of his best work. It would become his last huge radio hit, reaching Number Three on the charts in the United States. “Two Thousand Years” finds him turning reflective as the line “time is relentless” probably sums up his thoughts at the time. This philosophical statement contains some nice piano work which revolves around some creative percussion.

The only song that rings hollow is “No Man’s Land” which rants against the ills of suburbia, a subject that he was by this time far removed from by virtue of money and status.

The album closes with the aptly named “Famous Last Words.” It is fittingly one last serenade from an artist who had created so many great tunes over the years.

Whether this will be Billy Joel’s final pop music statement remains to be seen. He has not ruled out releasing another album; so his millions of fans can only hope. In the meantime, they will have to be satisfied with one of the more enjoyable catalogues in music history.

Storm Front by Billy Joel

July 6, 2009

The time between studio albums for Billy Joel was lengthening. He had settled into domestic bliss and so it was not until October of 1989 that Storm Front was released. His fans had not forgotten or deserted him, though, as the album quickly rose to the top of the charts in the United States. It was not a consistent release, but it did prove that he could still produce some meaningful and popular songs.

Storm Front also introduced two more classic hit songs. “We Didn’t Start The Fire” was one of the more clever and unique singles to reach Number One in rock history. A world history lesson in just under five minutes, it was frenetic rock ‘n’ roll that was equally creative and interesting, proving to be one of his most popular songs. Yet another Top Ten hit, “I Go To Extremes” can be considered manic rock at its best as Joel checks in with some of the best piano work of his career.

“And So It Goes” is another strong track. This ballad of love gone wrong is a gentle song stripped to the basics, his weary vocal projecting just the right tone of resignation.

There are several other tracks that are above average. “That’s Not Her Style” is a fine combination of rock and blues, featuring some excellent harmonica playing. “The Downeaster Alexa” is another of Joel’s story songs, this one telling of Long Island fishermen; plus his daughter’s name is incorporated into the title. And the title track is interesting for the use of horns to fill out the sound.

While the album contains a few failures as well, it is still a representative album. It’s not my favorite Billy Joel release but it does resonate in my comfort zone in so far as his music is concerned. Your time and money might be better invested in some of his earlier studio albums but in places Storm Front is very, very good.

Kohuept by Billy Joel

July 5, 2009

It was a big deal when Billy Joel toured the Soviet Union in 1987. Very few American artists had been able to crack the Iron Curtain so his series of concerts were historic. And if you were going to play a series of concerts in Russia in the late eighties you might as well record a live album.

Kohuept (or Kohuepm) was a hastily assembled affair as basically they recorded his Leningrad concert. While it is not of the caliber of his first live release, Songs In The Attic, it does present an accurate picture of his concert style at the time. The album has also aged fairly well. Maybe many of the songs were too new or over played at the time but when I listened to the album earlier today it was better than I remembered.

I could have done without the Russian choir’s performance of “Odoya” leading off the album but you are in Russia. Other than that, the packaging, and one song, the concert could have been taken from anywhere in the world.

The real opening is a powerful “Prelude/Angry Young Man” which is a showcase for his piano expertise and vocal prowess. I also liked the simplicity of “Honesty” which is stripped to the basics of piano and vocal.”

The album may drag in a few places but the center of the concert is high energy pop/rock at its best. “An Innocent Man” is extended to over six minutes which allows for some improvisation. “Allentown” is Joel at his gritty vocal best. “A Matter Of Trust” and “Only The Good Die Young,” which are performed back to back, is what his music is all about.

He was touring in support of The Bridge at the time and his performance of “Big Man On Mulberry Street” brings the song alive. The studio version had a big band feel and was my favorite track on that album. While it does not have the full feel of the studio track it still is interesting and at over seven minutes there is room for more improvisation.

There are some misses. “Baby Grand” pales next to the studio version. “Uptown Girl” has some nice harmonies but just cannot match the layered vocals of the original. He seems to be going through the motions on “Big Shot.”

His version of “Back In The U.S.S.R.” is competent but he is not The Beatles but then again it was an obvious song choice. The pop version of “The Times They Are A-Changin’” show that he is really not Bob Dylan and his intent to make a statement about The Soviet Union of 1987 is very dated today.

Kohuept is enjoyable and presents his music live in a unique setting. It remains a somewhat ignored album in his catalogue but is decent enough to deserve a listen every now and then.

The Bridge by Billy Joel

July 5, 2009

I have to admit up front that The Bridge is not one of my favorite Billy Joel albums. While it contains three strong tracks and one very good one, the rest of the material falls into the average range which means not terrible but rather just ordinary which is not what I expected from him at this point in his career.

This was his first studio release in three years but sandwiched in between was his Greatest Hits Volume I & Volume II album which sold 21 million copies in The United States and that was a hard act to follow. People had become used to hearing his very best material and so this album paled in comparison.

The Bridge is a far cry from his last studio effort, An Innocent Man. The simplicity of that album is left behind and now his music appears to be in transition which makes this release one of the least cohesive of his career.

Still when Billy Joel is good he is very good. “A Matter Of Trust” is as strong as anything in his catalogue. Now remarried with a daughter, this rocker is a joyful tune celebrating his new family situation. This hit single may have been over played at the time but now remains a song that has aged well. “Big Man On Mulberry Street” is my favorite song from this album. It has a jazzy, big band feel and is a musical direction I wish he could have explored a little more over the years. “Baby Grand” is a love song to a piano. What makes the track unique is the duet with Ray Charles. He was an idol of Joel’s and the song has an easy going feel to it.

“This Is The Time” is almost as good as the first three. It is a catchy piano and guitar song that contains an emotional vocal.

The other five tracks do not work as well. “Running On Ice” has a frenetic feel to it and never really gets into a groove. “Modern Woman”, which was also issued on the Ruthless People soundtrack was a top ten single but sounds very 80’s and dated today. “Code Of Silence” is interesting for the Cyndi Lauper involvement but not much else.

“Temptation” is a ballad that does not compare with his best work and “Getting Closer” finishes the album on a mundane note.

The Bridge has some high points that are worth savoring but overall is one of his weaker albums. There are a lot better places to visit when exploring the music of Billy Joel.

Greatest Hits Vol. 1 and 2 by Billy Joel

July 4, 2009

Vary few artists ever release an album that sells a million copies. Too sell more than that is extraordinary. Greatest Hits – Volume I & Volume II by Billy Joel has sold 21 million copies in The United States raking it at number 7 all time and that my friends are a lot of albums.

During a three year hiatus between studio releases The Columbia Label did what many labels have done in the past to fill the gap and that is to issue a greatest hits album but it is doubtful that even the most ardent Billy Joel fan expected this type of commercial success. He was already a star but this re-packaging of his best and most popular material from 1974-1985 would propel him into the upper echelon of music superstars.

This review is of the original release which was on vinyl and early CD. Subsequent reissues have added songs and changed some of the tracks substituting live for studio and lengthening and shortening some of the songs but the basic strengths of the album remain intact.

Joel’s studio albums during this time period ranged from very good to brilliant and always provide an interesting listen when explored as a whole. These songs may have been removed from their original context but they are so good that it does not matter. Also while Joel sold tens of millions of studio albums he was also known as a singles artist at a time when that mattered and had a large number of hits that received massive radio airplay.

The 21 tracks are, for the most part, presented in chronological order. This is always a good idea as it shows the development of the artist’s music and vision.

Most of the songs need no introduction even for the most casual music fan. “Piano Man” (1973), “Just The Way You Are” (1977), “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me” (1980), “Pressure” (1982), and “Uptown Girls” (1983) are only a sampling of his prodigious output. Throw in such classics as “Only The Good Die Young,” “Tell Her About It,” “My Life”, and “Don’t Ask Me Why” and you have an album with not only no weak tracks but of one highlight after another.

The original album concluded with two songs that were new in 1985. “You’re Only Human (Second Wind)” and the under the radar but beautiful “The Night Is Still Young” were fine additions and strong album closers.

Given its huge commercial appeal one can ask whether it is one of the top ten best albums of all time. The answer is no but it can be said it is one of the more enjoyable listens. 21 million people can attest to that fact.

An Innocent Man by Billy Joel

July 4, 2009

An Innocent Man was everything his last release, The Nylon Curtain, was not. It was populated with catchy, upbeat songs with wonderful harmonies. It was and is a great listen from the first track to the last. It was also a huge commercial success selling ten million copies in North America along with spawning an amazing six hit singles.

While this album contains original material it was a tribute album. Billy Joel would honor the artists and styles of music that had influenced him since his childhood days.
My personal favorite is the Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons type song, “Uptown Girls.” The lyrics are about a working class Joe and the upper class girl which looked ahead to his marriage to model Christie Brinkley. It has a wonderful fifties doo-wop feel that is just pop music at its best.

“Tell Her About It” would be a number one hit single for Joel. The song is bright and catchy but the music video that accompanied it is one of the most amusing of all time complete with a parody of The Ed Sullivan show.

With a divorce in the past and another marriage on the horizon, “An Innocent Man” is a song about another try at love. It contains one of the purest vocals of his career and shows was a wonderful voice he possessed at this point in his life.

That voice was put to good use on “The Longest Time.” The style was another tribute to doo-wop as he recorded his vocals over and over again and then joined them together into a virtual choir. The song is almost a cappella as there is only a bass and some odd percussion.

“Leave A Tender Moment Alone” should resonate with males everywhere as it deals with the fear of approaching girls. Any guy who has screwed up the courage to ask for a date and been rejected can relate to this song.

“Keeping The Faith” is the perfect album closer as it sums up the musical thesis. He has indeed kept the faith in his musical roots alive.

An Innocent Man remains an album of pure fun and enjoyment. He would return to a more introspective style on subsequent releases. These songs are rarely played by Joel in concert which may be a combination of the production making the music and particularly the vocals difficult to replicate and the fact that his future wife played an important part in its inspiration and now is gone. It remains an album well worth seeking out for no other reason than just to hear some good music.

The Nylon Curtain by Billy Joel

July 4, 2009

Billy Joel issued his first studio album in two years with the release of The Nylon Curtain in September of 1982. It would be a different type of album as it veered away from the enjoyable pop of The Stranger and 52nd Street toward a harder edge both musically and lyrically. While it would sell three million copies in North America it would be one of his least successful albums.

I have to give it to Billy Joel for not taking the safe road here but instead trying a little experimentation. It may not be his most enjoyable album but it remains one of his most creative and certainly most daring.

Three powerful songs form the core of this release. “Allentown” is a gritty rocker about blue collar unemployment. I grew up in an old mill town in New England and can relate to this song as all the textile mills left in the early sixties creating extreme hardship for the community. “Goodnight Saigon” is one of the more poignant and memorable songs to have been written about The Vietnam War. It deals not only with the horrors of war but also the sadness. “Pressure” may not be one of my favorite Billy Joel tunes but it certainly stands out in his body of work. It is frenetic, obsessive, and driven by a repetitive synthesizer sound. It literally creates an atmosphere of pressure just getting through the song. It may have been one of the oddest hit songs of the eighties but it was also memorable.

There would be a few songs that would travel in a different direction. “Laura” is just a pure pop song and may be the most listenable track. It is a piano driven song and the harmonies fit perfectly. “She’s Right On Time” is another piano based tune which intermingles with the percussion and finds him reaching back to his Piano Man days. “A Room Of Our Own” continues the exploration of his roots as it is driven by an almost New Orleans honky tonk sound. The six minute “Scandinavian Skies” travels in a different direct as it is a mixture of musical styles but the lyrical imagery is superb.

The Nylon Curtain may not be the place to start when exploring the music of Billy Joel but if you want a change of pace from his usual pop fare then this is the album for you.

Songs In The Attic by Billy Joel

July 3, 2009

The Stranger made Billy Joel a star and subsequent releases, 52nd Street and Glass Houses, solidified that status by selling millions of albums, each spending more than a month atop the American charts.

1981 found Billy Joel not issuing a studio album, but instead reaching into his past for his first live recording. He gathered together a number of songs from his pre-Stranger days which had not received the public attention of his more popular work and presented them live with performances that played to thousands of fans in Madison Square Garden as well as intimate settings in front of a few hundred. I usually prefer live albums to present one concert with all the good and bad included but Songs In The Attic is an exception as each song forms a part of a cohesive whole. It was a brilliantly executed concept as many of the songs are superior to the studio recordings, essentially becoming the definitive renditions.

I consider two of the tracks among the best live performances that I have heard. “Miami 2017 (Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway)” has an almost supersonic quality and contains one of the more powerful vocals of his career. The events of September 11, 2001 gave the song new meaning and it makes the original version from Turnstiles pale in comparison. “Captain Jack” is seven plus minutes of powerful and emotional rock ‘n’ roll. Piano to drums and guitar, it just builds to one crescendo after another. In the liner notes Joel advises to play it loud and I couldn’t agree more.

There are a number of tracks that are almost as good. The ballads, “She’s Got A Way,” which would become a hit single, and “You’re My Home,” are both beautiful in their simplicity. “Say Goodbye To Hollywood,” which would be another live hit from the album, just rocks along propelled by a strong vocal. The story song “The Ballad Of Billy The Kid” also receives a nice workout.

Songs In The Attic is one of the better live albums in my collection and compares favorably with his studio output. The production by Phil Ramone is flawless which is rare for a live release. Simply put it is highly recommended.

Glass Houses by Billy Joel

July 3, 2009

I must have seen Billy Joel in concert sometime in the early eighties as he began the show with “You May Be Right” and, besides a frenetic performance of “Root Beer Rag,” that’s about all I remember.

When Billy Joel released Glass Houses in 1980, he was in the midst of a seemingly endless run of album and single releases. This album would only continue his overwhelming commercial success, selling 12 million copies in North America while producing four Top 40 singles. It would also be his second consecutive Number One album in the United States, remaining in that position for six weeks.

Glass Houses is probably Joel’s most rock oriented release. As such, he keeps the music fairly simple and wisely uses only the five musicians who comprise his stage band to create a tight, cohesive sound. An electric guitar shares equal billing with his keyboards on many of the tracks, which gives the music an edge not present on his previous albums.

The four hit singles come bunched together at the beginning of the album, forming one of the strongest strings of songs he’d ever produce. “You May Be Right” begins with the shattering of breaking glass, quickly blasting off into full-on rock ‘n’ roll as Joel’s harder-edged vocals are supported by sax and guitars. “Sometimes A Fantasy” is about phone sex and yields yet another strong vocal performance. “Don’t Ask Me Why” is a bit lighter yet it remains one of his instantly recognizable songs, containing particularly interesting lyrics about not understanding life. And “It’s Only Rock and Roll To Me,” which became his first Number One single, was about his refusal to conform to the new music trends of the day and featured an odd but infectious beat that, over a quarter of a century later, is still memorable.

There were several other songs on this album that were almost as good as the first four. “All For Leyna,” a dark song about the obsession of a one night stand, is one of those tunes that just fascinates and stays with you. “Close To The Borderline” comes close to hard rock and, while not totally successful, it would prove to be one of his few forays in that direction and so remains an interesting artifact of the era. “Through The Night,” which closes the album, is a brilliantly constructed song that uses harmonies to good effect.

Today many people just listen to all different varieties of Billy Joel’s greatest hits albums, which is a shame as releases like Glass Houses are creations that deserve individual attention. The songs contained here form a unit and are still a worthwhile listen today. Consider it another essential album in the continuing Billy Joel saga.

52nd Street by Billy Joel

July 3, 2009

So what do you do after you release an album that sells 15 million copies in North America, spawns four hit singles, and wins two Grammy awards? Billy Joel solved that problem with 52nd Street, issued in October of 1978. It would sell 11 million copies, win the Grammy for album of the year, produce three more hit singles, and become his first Number One release, holding the top spot for 8 weeks. Rolling Stone would rank it among the 500 greatest albums of all time.

52nd Street would contain a little jazz, a little rock ‘n’ roll, and a lot of pure pop. It would also feature some of the best piano playing of his career. He showed much creative growth while maintaining his commercial appeal, which is difficult at best.

“Big Shot” and “My Life” are both rock oriented up-tempo tracks. The first has an odd cadence and a guitar edge to back his vocal. The second includes some more guitar riffs that support his lyrics of moving on with life.

“Zanzibar” and the title track both have a jazz feel. The first is an excellent character song and features Freddie Hubbard on trumpet. “52nd Street” has a jam-like atmosphere as the guitar and piano provide an interesting counterpoint to each other.

There is a lot of pop. “Honesty” was a hit single. It is a traditional piano based tune for Joel and builds similar to many of the power ballads of the era. The gem of the album is “Until The Night.” It has a 60’s feel to it, a sound which he would explore in more depth later on An Innocent Man. It is one of the more beautiful and expressive love songs of his career and unfortunately is many times lost or forgotten in his vast catalogue. “Rosalinda’s Eyes” has a Latin flavor and his passionate vocal fits the phrasing of the performance well.

It all adds up to one of the most versatile releases of his career. It was a showcase for an artist at the height of his creative power and remains one of his career defining statements.