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.

Reg Strikes Back by Elton John

September 11, 2009

Leather Jackets was two years in the past and Victim Of Love had been mercifully fading from memory. Reg Strikes Back, issued in 1988, was billed as Elton John’s big comeback album.

The comeback technically started in 1987 with the release of two non-studio releases. Greatest Hits Volume 3 served as Elton’s last release for the Geffen label while also keeping him in the public eye. Live in Australia with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra marked his return to the MCA Label, becoming a huge hit in the United States as it produced a top ten single with a live version of “Candle In The Wind.” And so it was against this background that he returned to the studio.

Reg Strikes Back became a hit, selling over ten million copies worldwide. It used his classic formula of containing two hits singles which, as they received massive airplay, drove its overall sales.

Elton John produced a very consistent album here. It had the tone and textures of his seventies work and, while it may not have contained the overall quality of that time period’s music, it was still very good.

Side one of the original vinyl release is just terrific. “Town Of Plenty,” which is the lead track, is a simple up-tempo song on which Elton sounds engaged and at ease. He had undergone vocal surgery before the recording of this album but his vocal on this track shows that everything is fine. “A Word In Spanish,” which is a nice and mellow love song, became a top twenty hit in the States. “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters (Part Two)” is a continuation of the 1972 song of the same title. Here, however, the music and song structure is very different and has almost a funky feel. Davey Johnstone’s work on the mandolin is some of the best of his career.

The final two songs are as good as anything he and Bernie Taupin ever produced together. They are classic cases where good lyrics and music come together. “I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That” was his biggest hit in a decade, reaching number two. It returns to the topic of a relationship falling apart and Elton’s piano playing looks back to his best work. “Japanese Hands” is sultry, erotic, and almost as good.

Side two is a little spottier. “Goodbye Marlon Brando” is at least interesting as it is a frenetic rocker. The album closer, “Since God Invented Girls,” is a wonderful tribute to Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys and features lush harmonies. The three tracks in the middle are the weak points of the album. “The Camera Never Lies,” “Heavy Traffic,” and “Poor Cow” all suffer from either weak lyrics or music, barely falling into the average range.

Reg Strikes Back was indeed a credible comeback by Elton John. It proved that as the ’80’s were coming to a close he could still produce relevant and entertaining music. It also looked ahead to the ’90’s when he would create some very good music indeed.

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.

Breaking Hearts by Elton John

September 9, 2009

Elton John had been cranking out at least a studio album per year for over a decade and sometimes you have to wonder about his commitment and interest level. 1984’s Breaking Hearts would be a solid affair, but would not have the highs of 1983’s Too Low For Zero or the consistency of 1982’s Jump Up.

Despite its plodding nature at times, it would be a commercial success reaching the ten million mark in sales. While it would only reach number twenty in The United States, It would climb to number two in his native England.

Except for an appearance by saxophone player Andrew Thompson on one track; the only musicians featured on the album were Elton and his core band of guitar player Davey Johnstone, bassist Dee Murray, and drummer Nigel Olsson. This would be the last hurrah for the trio as Olsson would depart after this release before returning in 2000 as Elton’s drummer in the studio and on stage.

Murray would die of skin cancer in 1992 at the age of 45. Jonestone, Murray, and Olsson deserve all the credit they receive for their work as his backing group on many of his classic albums and memorable songs. Johnstone and Olsson continue to perform and record with John to the present day.

He and lyricist Bernie Taupin would create only two really excellent songs. “Sad Songs (Say So Much)” is catchy, smooth, and one of his rare creations to be recorded in waltz time. This tune about listening to old songs on the radio and another tribute to Edith Piaf, was a huge hit reaching number five on the American charts. “In Neon” is a wonderful, if somewhat forgotten love song, and is equal to his best eighties work.

The solid nature of the album encompasses most of the material. “Restless” is a traditional rock song that has a typical 1980’s synthesizer sound. It would become a part of his concert act for years, but was played live at a faster pace with the guitar as the dominant instrument making it much better than this studio version. “Passengers” may have been a tad quirky, but it was a top five hit in his home country. The title song and “Burning Bridges” are both love songs that are adequate, if not spectacular.

The poorest of the ten tracks, “Who Wears These Shoes,” was inexplicably released as a single. Elton John had a knack for issuing his best and strongest songs as singles which usually garnered significant radio airplay. But here he made one of his few poor decisions as the song failed miserably.

Breaking Hearts is not offensive in any way but is probably not an album that will often grace many turntables or CD players as there are so many more superior releases in his catalog.