Songs From The West Coast by Elton John

September 16, 2009

A new century had dawned and Elton John was 57 years old. Songs From The West Coast was his first studio album in four years. It was another set of songs that was heavy on ballads and continued his trend of issuing adult contemporary music.

This album was a back to basics affair. At its foundation it was vocal, guitar, drums, bass, and piano. While some additional keyboards and orchestration does appear at times, they are under control and are not overwhelming as on some of his past albums.

Bernie Taupin’s lyrics had been superior to Elton’s music on the past two studio releases but here the opposite is the case. When the lyrics are good they are very good but overall they are not as consistent as in the past as the meaning of some words on several tracks are fairly obscure. The music is catchy, sophisticated, and has a lot of textures that can be explored with repeated listening.

Elton John’s albums are usually fueled by hit songs. Times had changed as the 45rpm singles that had served him so well in the past were now a part of music history. The Billboard Magazine charts and radio stations had become specialized. Radio stations would select album tracks that fit their musical style and Billboard would base their non-album charts on the number of plays that songs received.

Under this new formula Songs From The West Coast would produce three hits. “This Train Don’t Stop Here Anymore” is the album closer and is a wistful ballad about aging. He is trying to come to terms with the fact you cannot go back as age 60 was looming. “Original Sin” is another nice ballad about the experience of first love. “I Want Love” is about looking for love if just for the short term.

The most powerful track is “American Triangle.” It is an emotional tribute to a gay American college student who was murdered. It is poetic and ultimately sorrowful.

There are several other songs of note. “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is a perfect album opener. You have a piano introduction and then his voice. “The Wasteland” can best be described as rock/blues with a gospel type vocal. “Ballad Of The Boy In The Red Shoes” was another smooth flowing song.

Songs From The West Coast was another excellent effort by Elton John. It had a cohesive feel to it as the songs fit together well. It proved that he was aging well.

The Big Picture by Elton John

September 16, 2009

The Big Picture was released in September of 1997 and remains Elton John’s last top ten album in The United States to date. Approaching the forty year mark in his career, he had settled into the adult contemporary pop/rock genre. In some ways this album and the ones which would follow are interchangeable as there is a sameness to them. As such, they are not particularly adventurous but they are solid, pleasurable, and present the work of a mature artist.

Immediately noticeable is the lack of a long list of instrumentalists which is usually a good sign on an Elton John album. Here he basically uses his concert band, so there is a tightness to the sound and probably a relaxed atmosphere in the studio.

For the second album in a row Bernie Taupin delivered a stellar set of lyrics. Here he is in a storytelling mode as he deals with such topics as fame, death, love, redemption and other realistic glimpses of life.

Princess Diana died between the recording on this album and its release. The first single would be issued with a double A side. “Something About The Way You Look Tonight” would be paired with a tribute version of “Candle In The Wind,” which is not on this release. It would sell more copies than any single in British history. It would be equally successful in The United States spending fourteen weeks at the top of The Billboard Magazine pop charts. In The USA “Something About The Way You Look Tonight” would be the side that would spend over a month at the top of The Adult Contemporary Charts. It is a wonderfully poetic ballad with a superb emotional vocal by Elton.

“Live Like Horses” is a second ballad that is of the same quality as the first. Taupin’s father had passed away and this was his tribute to him. The sound is filled in nicely by the use of strings and Elton John delivers another powerful vocal that presents the lyrical imagery well.

“If The River Can Bend” has a gospel feel to it and features some nice piano work. “January” is interesting musically as it has a series of mood changes which fit the romantic theme well. “I Can’t Steer My Heart Clear Of You” is another melodic ballad that is just very smooth. “Wicked Dreams” is a little different with some very interesting and surprising lyrical twists.

If I have one criticism of this album it is that it’s a little slow paced, as eight of the twelve tracks are ballads. Still The Big Picture is a fine album that finds a modern Elton John creating very listenable music.

Made In England by Elton John

September 15, 2009

Elton John returned in March of 1995 with his first true studio album in three years. He released Duets in 1993 and contributed a number of songs to The Lion King soundtrack in 1994. Made In England re-united him with lyricist Bernie Taupin and his own band. It would be representative of his output during the nineties and after the turn of the century, as it would be filled with solid songs with excellent lyrics and feature good production.

It is Taupin’s lyrics that are at the heart of this release. Song for song they form one of the better efforts in his long history. He writes about love, nostalgia, life, safety, and even throws in a little wit.

What immediately strikes you when looking at the track list is that ten of the eleven song titles consist of only one word. Only the title song is longer at three words. While this may not mean much, one can only wonder if this was planned. If it was they should have shortened the title song to just “England.”

“Believe” was issued as a single, and would continue his tradition of a hit song propelling the album’s sales. It comes close to being a power ballad as the vocals project emotion. The use of strings to fill in the sound was creative and excellent.

There were two other songs that stood above the rest. The title song is an autobiographical tune filled with catchy hooks plus a surprising and funny ending. “Belfast “ is a haunting and beautiful tribute to the city. It is a creative masterpiece as he uses traditional Irish music to fill in the background.

While the rest of the songs may not be the equal of the first three, there is not a weak one among the lot. “Please” has a sixties feel with a little rockabilly thrown in for good measure. “Man” finds him moving in a blues direction. “Pain” is the sort of nice uptempo rock that he is so good at creating. “House” may not be as good as some of his past ballads but it is still above average.

Made In England finds Elton John seemingly happy, healthy, and settled as he nears his fiftieth birthday, and the music reflects these facts. The album also has a good flow to it as the songs blend together well. Plus it is nice to hear Elton at the grand piano. All in all, this was an excellent album that still provides a pleasurable listening experience.

The Lion King Soundtrack by Elton John and Hans Zimmer

September 15, 2009

I am not big on cartoons or animated features as they are now called; the only times I will watch one is with my grandchildren. I have to say that The Lion King was okay, which is high praise on my part, but the music from the film was spectacular. Let me add that I have also seen the Broadway play which was one of the most creative performances I have ever witnessed.

While The Lion King Soundtrack is not an Elton John album in the strictest sense, it is strongly associated with him. He and lyricist Tim Rice wrote five songs, three of which were nominated for Academy Awards, ultimately winning the Oscar for “Can You Feel The Love Tonight.” It also won a Golden Globe and a Grammy for best male pop vocal. The album has passed the 22 million mark in worldwide sales.

This soundtrack cannot be reviewed without mentioning Hans Zimmer, who co-produced the album and wrote five brilliant instrumentals which fit the movie well. He too received an Oscar, his being for Best Music, Original Score.

Elton John reworked three songs from the film for inclusion on its soundtrack. “Circle Of Life” and “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” were huge hits in the United States and both songs are pop music at its best. They contain two of the smoothest vocals of his career and have joined the ranks of his signature songs.

The version of “Circle Of Life” contained in the film — performed by Carmen Twillie and Lebo M with his African Chorus — was just about the perfect movie song. It is a philosophical celebration of life. And for me, watching the movie and listening to it with my grandchildren has served to make this song of the rise and fall of generations very powerful indeed. “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” provides a lot of fun and entertainment in just under three minutes. Elton John also provided a version of this song that captured its spirit well. “Hakuna Matata” was the third song nominated for an Oscar and features a nice vocal by Broadway veteran Nathan Lane.

The Lion King is a perfect soundtrack album. Elton’s work with Tim Rice may be different than his classic ’70’s material, but it is every bit as good. His contributions to this popular and creative release are perfect.

Duets by Elton John

September 15, 2009

I am always suspicious of duet albums by major artists. Many times they are acts of desperation for careers that are slipping away. Elton John did not fall into that category, however, as his career was in fine shape when Duets was released in November of 1993. In fact, it was a bold and creative choice on his part. It was a moderate success in the United States but became a huge seller in his native country, containing three top ten hits including a number one.

His choice of vocal partners was eclectic and unusual to say the least. Little Richard, Don Henley, Kiki Dee, Tammy Wynette, Bonnie Raitt, Leonard Cohen, George Michael, and of course RuPaul among others brought their varied vocal styles to this album with varying degrees of success. The album is cohesive but the performances are inconsistent. It does, however, keep your attention.

The whole idea may have originated from his duet on “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” with George Michael at an AIDS benefit concert in early 1991. It was recorded and released as a single with the profits going to charity, becoming a huge worldwide hit that topped the charts in both the U.S. and Great Britain. It was fairly different from the original version contained on 1974’s Caribou. With his return to the top of the charts and again squarely in the public eye you can almost hear him thinking why not more of the same. It turned out that this live performance was magical as it is one of the strongest tracks on the album.

The album, though, is a hit and miss affair. “True Love” with old partner Kiki Dee works well and reached number two in England. This tune, which was originally a hit for Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly, fit the vocal style of John and Dee well. His duet with Paul Young on the old James & Bobby Purify hit “I’m Your Puppet” is soulful and their voices blend well together. “If You Were Me” with Chris Rea is one of the smoothest tracks on the album. “Shakey Ground” with Don Henley also comes across well. Henley sounds happy and relaxed, which was quite an achievement for Elton.

Two artists are particularly difficult to blend with vocally. Little Richard is an American original. “The Power,” the longest song at over six minutes, comes close to working. It is a mid-tempo affair but I wish they would have chosen an all out rocker for their collaboration. Elton’s duet with Leonard Cohen “Born To Lose” fares less well. Cohen is just such a unique artist that there is little chemistry between them.

His pairing with country legend Tammy Wynette on “A Woman’s Needs” comes off as odd at best. Elton was an admirer of hers — he would also sing on a tribute album after her death — and this choice is heart over reason. We then come to his duet with sex god/goddess RuPaul on “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” which is campy with a capital C. It is one of those performances that was so bad it was mesmerizing. It was a failed single in the U.S. but went top ten in England, proving that at least for once American taste was superior.

Duets is not a great album but it was a brave one; plus it’s interesting for both good and bad reasons. It is one of those places in Elton John’s career where he took a chance and survived.

The One by Elton John

September 11, 2009

Elton John had ushered out the eighties with a competent, soul-based album titled Sleeping With The Past. It would be over two and a half years before he issued another studio work. The One, released in June of 1992, marked a return to the pop/rock sounds and styling of his past.

It was his first release since completing rehab, which found him drug free and sober. It was also his first album since his hair weave.

I do not own a vinyl copy of this album so it is the first Elton John release that I bought on CD.

Despite all of the above firsts, the most important point concerning The One, at least in my household, is that it remains my wife’s favorite Elton John album. A lot of people agreed with her as it reached the American top ten and was his biggest selling release worldwide since Captain Fantastic and The Brown Dirt Cowboy in 1975.

His backing band had a cohesive feel to it. Guy Babylon had settled in as a second keyboardist and long time mainstay Davey Johnstone was still on board as his lead guitarist. Nigel Olsson and Kiki Dee made appearances as backing vocalists. And his guests included guitarists David Gilmour and Eric Clapton.

The album was again be fueled by hit singles. As the nineties passed, the importance of the 45 rpm record decreased and the little record with the big hole eventually became obsolete by the end of the century. Here, however, he made use of this format by issuing three singles which received massive airplay.

Two of these hits were the album’s first tracks, setting the tone for what followed. “Simple Life” is about getting one’s priorities in order and the song certainly echoed what was happening in his life at the time. It was a rock song that would build throughout its six plus minutes. The title song was a U.S. top ten pop hit and it topped the adult contemporary charts. It dealt with the topic of happiness and had almost a spiritual feel to it.

The final hit closed the album and was one of the most heartfelt performances of his career. “The Last Song” chronicled an eighteen year old dying of AIDS while seeking redemption. It was a poignant and eloquent tribute.

“Runaway Train” found Elton in rock mode with Eric Clapton bringing his unique guitar sound to the track. He also shared the vocal duties as they sang about despair and peace. “Sweat It Out” is just one of those fun songs that he would create every so often and his piano work on it is excellent. “When A Woman Doesn’t Want You” goes in a very different direction as it deals with the topic of date rape. The music almost lulls you and runs counterpoint to the seriousness of the subject.

The One represented a lot of what had been missing in many of his eighties releases. It contained superior lyrics plus well constructed and catchy music, setting the mood for much of what would follow in the nineties. It also proved my wife had good taste.

Sleeping With The Past by Elton John

September 11, 2009

Reg Strikes Back, issued in 1988, was a fine album by Elton John. He then topped it in 1989 with the release of Sleeping With The Past.

He and Bernie Taupin put a lot of thought and effort into its creation. They decided to write an album of original tunes that would serve as a tribute and memorial to the soul sound of the sixties, using such artists as Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, and The Drifters to serve as their inspiration. All the songs were crafted to match the talents of these artists. As such it was his most unified album of the eighties as all the material centered on this theme.

What is often overlooked is the first appearance by Guy Babylon on an Elton John album as a second keyboardist. He would be an ever important and increasing presence who would be a permanent addition both in the studio and live in the concert hall.

While it would not chart terribly high in the United States, only reaching number 23 on Billboard’s pop charts, it was a consistent seller for a long while and ultimately sold close to six million copies. In his home country it would become his first number one album in fifteen years.

Whenever Elton John issued a critically acclaimed album, it was fueled by hit singles and such was the case with Sleeping With The Past. “Club At The End Of The Street” is an up-beat tune about a night on the town. It has a nice pop feel and one can almost imagine The Drifters bringing their wonderful harmonies to this track. “Healing Hands” would be his last single of the decade and while it would peak at number thirteen on the pop charts, it would become a number one adult contemporary hit. Plus, it was another nice pop creation.

Someone in England came up with the idea of issuing two A-sides as a single, pairing “Healing Hands” with “Sacrifice,” the latter being the album’s strongest track. It was a wonderful love song that rightfully takes it places among the best ballads that he would create during his career. It reached number eighteen in the U.S. but amazingly became his first number one solo hit in the United Kingdom. Only his duet with Kiki Dee (“Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”) had previously reached that position.

There are several other songs worth mentioning. “Durban Deep” is another of those tracks where the lyrics and music do not particularly match but it manages to come together in the end. It is a grim tale South African miners yet the music is upbeat. “Whispers” is another very good love song. “I Never Knew Her Name” is a tender song of seeing an unnamed woman at a wedding.

Sleeping With The Past brought the eighties to a close in fine style for Elton John. It was a unified and heartfelt effort, proving that he could still create excellent music.

Leather Jackets by Elton John

September 9, 2009

If you ranked all of Elton John’s studio albums, Leather Jackets would land in the bottom three. It was an album the American public did not appreciate or buy in great quantities as it was his lowest charting album, only reaching number 91 on the charts. Elton himself would ultimately pronounce it his least favorite album.

His contract with the Geffen label was running out and neither he nor the company were particularly happy with the relationship. It may have been that he submitted this release to fulfill his contractual obligations. Even still, he owed the label one subsequent album, to which Geffen wisely released Greatest Hits Volume 3.

The album credits and information read like an encyclopedia. There was even a person in charge of programming all manner of synthesizers, which was not a good sign. Elton played very little piano and thus the keyboards had an impersonal and mechanical ’80’s sound. The long list of instrumentalists and singers did not bode well either as the tracks lacked cohesiveness and consistency.

He had already issued several average albums in the 1980’s by this point, but those efforts were ultimately saved by one or two superior songs that became hit singles. No such luck here. “Heartache All Over The World” was one of the best of a mediocre batch of material but it could not crack the American top forty. It is upbeat and somewhat catchy but ultimately the song is lost in the company it keeps on this album.

I find only two more really listenable tracks. “Slow Rivers” is an adequate ballad. What made the song unique was the duet with English legend Cliff Richard. “Paris” is almost good but it has a somewhat unfinished feel to it.

On the other hand, “Gypsy Heart” and “Hoop of Fire” are tepid ballads. “Don’t Trust That Woman” is a dance track with lyrics by Cher and one can only ask why?

Leather Jackets is an album best avoided unless you want absolutely everything released by Elton John. The music is faceless and forgettable. It makes me yearn for Victim Of Love. Well, almost!

Ice On Fire by Elton John

September 9, 2009

Elton John continued to issue an album per year and by 1985 his eighties output, past and future, was beginning to sound like one continuous release. It all amounted to a little good, a lot of average and forgettable, as well as a few misses altogether. It all added up to presentable efforts — some good, lots of them average and forgettable, and a few misses — but nowhere near the quality of their classic seventies predecessors.

Ice On Fire is an album grounded in the sounds of the mid-eighties with glossy, slick production plus a reliance upon synthesizers. It just seemed like music that Elton John and Bernie Taupin could crank out without much effort.

Elton again abandoned the core-band concept and the list of musicians used on this work seems almost endless. Roger Taylor and John Deacon of Queen, Deon Estus, George Michael, and a large cast of supporting players provided the instrumental backing. Only guitarist Davey Johnstone remained from his stellar backing band of the past.

The best track by far was the hit single “Nikita.” This ballad, which would reach number seven on the American charts, was a love song about a homosexual crush on an East German border guard. The accompanying video misinterpreted the song’s meaning, however, and starred a blonde woman as the guard. Nevertheless, Elton John’s vocal and the backing by George Michael are first rate on the track.

A lot of the material on this album has very dark lyrics. “Shoot Down The Moon” is about being killed in an attempted robbery. There is a ballad dealing with falling in love but with someone who turns out to be underage. “Cry To Heaven” is another ballad that deals with the dark side of life. All in all, it’s not exactly the most uplifting listening experience.

“Wrap Her Up,” the longest track at over six minutes, is an eighties time capsule, the dance track proving popular in the United States. While it has a dated feel today, when compared to what was being released at the time it comes off as pretty good.

Ice On Fire is far from being a grand epic. It is competent eighties pop/rock but more was always expected of Elton John. As such it is a forgettable release in his vast catalog.

Too Low For Zero by Elton John

September 8, 2009

Elton John would begin his 1980’s comeback with 1982’s very solid Jump Up. The comeback continued a year later with the release of Too Low For Zero.

He would reach back into his past for this album. Bernie Taupin would return to full time duty and provide all the lyrics. Their relationship continues to the present day. He also reassembled his classic backing band from the seventies. Guitarist Davey Johnstone, bassist Dee Murray, and drummer Nigel Olsson quickly slipped back into their roles as a great supporting cast of players.

While some of the material may fall into the average range; there were three classic songs that made the album a must buy and still make it an interesting listen over a quarter of a century later. Elton John and producer Chris Thomas recognized the superiority of these tracks as all were released as singles and would become worldwide hits.

“I’m Still Standing” was an upbeat song about still being around after all these years. This hit single is still popular and remains a part of his live show. “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues” is as good a ballad as he has produced and remains one of his most popular eighties songs. Using only his basic band and some harmonica playing by Stevie Wonder it would reach number four on the American charts.

“Kiss The Bride” is probably the forgotten one of the three singles but remains my personal favorite. It features some nice rock ‘n’ roll and is about falling in love with the bride as she walks down the aisle. It reminds me of the great Nick Lowe/Dave Edmunds song “I Knew The Bride.”

There are a couple other songs of interest. “Cold As Christmas (In The Middle Of The Year)” is one of those songs where the music and lyrics do not match. It is melodic with some wonderful vocal phrasing yet the words tell the story of a failing relationship. The title song is more of the same as it has a great beat and chorus yet the lyrics are about depression and boredom.

The only real miss among the ten tracks is “Whipping Boy” which is about masochism and musically is repetitive which is not the best combination.

Too Low For Zero is an under appreciated release that is often lost in his vast catalog. It is an album with some real high points plus a good supporting cast. It deserves a listen every now and then.