Manafonistas

on life, music etc beyond mainstream

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(45) Songs from the West Coast (2001) ****

Finally, a new Elton John studio album! Finally, a new producer – Patrick Leonard instead of standard Chris Thomas, who’d been around for 20 years, way too long. Released on September 11, 2001. I actually bought it at the West Coast, at Tower Records in Hollywood, where Elton lived at the time. No doubt this is his best album in 25 years – since Blue Moves, I’d say. (Others might say since Too Low For Zero, which is just as acceptable.) 16 years later, this verdict still holds up, only The Diving Board surpassing it. Songs from the West Coast  is much more than a solid, professional effort like Made in England or The One, and it’s neither an imitation of his 70’s sound and style as many reviewers claimed, but a mature and diverse collection of songs by John and Taupin in their mid-fifties. Only in the latter part, one or two songs could have been left as b-sides.

Standout tracks: Dark Diamond, Birds, The Wasteland, Original Sin.

(46) Peachtree Road (2004) ***

Peachtree Road continues where Songs from the West Coast ended – just more respectable, and therefore slightly boring. Elton produced the album himself, which may not have been the best decision. Some fairly good songs, though this time with a few more references to earlier hits and albums. Some of the lesser songs play like they were made for „Wetten dass…?“, though, and the first half is much stronger than the second one, with the overall atmosphere and sound becoming too uniform.

Standout: Porch Swing in Tupelo.

(47) Billy Elliot – musical cast recording (2005) *½

Another musical, this time an immensely successful one based on the successful British film. This time it’s a cast recording instead of an all-star album. Does anyone care? I guess not.

(48) The Captain & the Kid (2006) ***¾

Conceived as a follow-up to Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, a kind-of autobiography, telling the story of Elton’s and Bernie friendship since that previous album. A mature collection of songs, not overly fantastic, but very good. A nice piano album recreating „the old sound“ of the seventies.

Standout tracks: The Captain and the Kid, And the House fell down, The Bridge (finally, a solo piano song).

(49) Lestat (2006)

Lestat is another Broadway musical, the first one by Elton and Bernie, based on Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. A cast recording was reported to be finished, produced by Guy Babylon (who played in Elton’s band from 1988 until his untimely death in 2009) and Matt Still (who co-produced The Captain & the Kid). After the show’s closing however, EJ’s management stated „there are no plans to release the recording at the present.“ Since I have not seen the show on Broadway, I have never heard the music and therefore can’t give any opinion about it.

(50) The Union (Elton John and Leon Russell, 2010) ****

Leon Russell had been Elton’s idol and influence on the late 1960s and early ’70s, but when Elton noticed Russell and his songs had been forgotten about, he initiated a collaboration album, produced by T Bone Burnett. They composed and recorded 16 new songs, backed by a committed band that includes Marc Ribot and Booker T, among others. Neil Young and Brain Wilson came around to sing on a song each, and Cameron Crowe made a documentary about the recordings.

The Union continues the retrospective line of The Captain & the Kid. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable album with strong performances, sounding very down-to-earth, thanks to Burnett. However, not all of the 16 songs are equally captivating, in particular the second half drags on a bit. (The standard version is 63 minutes, and the deluxe edition is almost 72 minutes, with 16 songs.)

Standout tracks: If it wasn’t for bad, Hey Ahab, Gone to Shiloh (with Neil Young), There’s no tomorrow.

(51) Gnomeo and Juliet (2011)

I don’t really know what that is. Never heard it. I believe it’s a mix of (mostly) old and (a couple of) new songs for another animated movie.

(52) Good Morning to the Night (Pnau feat. Elton John) **½

Provided with 100% creative freedom, Australian dance pop duo Pnau were invited to produce mash-ups from Elton’s recordings of the 70s. As a matter of fact, the results could have been less respectful, but they sound nice, evoking a very 70s disco feeling. It’s not really good. But it’s also not that bad either. It’s what it is.

 

 
 

(53) The Diving Board (2013) ****½

The Diving Board was announced as – at last! – the album to feature only Elton and his piano. Unfortunately, the final album (the release was postponed after its first announcement and re-recordings were executed) is mostly a full band album, save for the opening song and some other sections throughout the 15 tracks, including and two short instrumentals. However, producer T Bone Burnett has helped arrange the songs and a third instrumental in a cautious and unpretentious way; the piano is always in focus of the songs, and 2 cellos, bass (Raphael Saadiq), drums, and, on a few occasions, a choir or a horn section, have usually been mixed in a supportive manner.

It’s furthermore notable that there are no pop songs intended to stand out, no hits, with the album having been conceived as a mature late work, in parts melancholic, in parts joyful, with the odd wink to the past (Can’t stay alone tonight strongly references I guess that’s why they call it the Blues). An arresting album of immensely inspired songwriting. The closing title track is arguably one of Elton’s best compositions ever.

Standout tracks: The Diving Board, Ocean’s Away, The Ballad of Blind Tom, Oscar Wilde gets out. 

(54) Wonderful Crazy Night (2016) ***

Another T Bone Burnett production. Unfortunately, after The Diving Board, this is a disappointment. After three rather somber and introspective studio albums, Wonderful Crazy Night was announced as a return to the colorful and extrovert sound and performance of the 1970’s albums, which is why it’s the first album with the usual live band since The Captain & the Kid. A pity there are hardly any memorable songs on this one. Painting by numbers. And the cover art is just awful and as tasteless as it could possibly get.

Standout songs: The Open Chord, In the Name of you, I’ve got two Wings.

(55) Deep Cuts (2016/2017) ****/*****

So, after you have read through all of this, here is something else I prepared for you: A year ago, around the release of Wonderful Crazy Night, Elton created a Spotify playlist with 20 „Deep Cuts“, i.e. non-hits from his back catalogue:

 
 

 
 

It’s a nice and interesting selection, of which I made a playlist of for my iTunes. Having taken a look at it again after I finished this 5-part blog entry, I am not surprised to see several of my „standout track“ choices in this list (My Father’s Gun, Have Mercy on the Criminal, Amoreena, Razor Face, The King must die, even the very unusual choice Too Low for Zero in addition to Crystal, about both of which I assume none of you co-manafonistas would like). I am rather surprised about the inclusion of a few not-great tracks, such as Leather JacketsLive Like Horses, Shoot down the Moon and Restless. For all those among you who would like to listen to the 20-track collection, I’ve put the iTunes playlist into my Dropbox for you to download. You’ll find a link in the comments. [Non-commercial offer, for private use.]

But, as I don’t really agree with this selection (I think it is, in parts, a missed opportunity) and would like to present a much better one, I have created my very own Deep Cuts collection for you, as a 70th birthday present. I don’t assume you’ll like all of those songs, but I can promise you that anyone with open ears and a love for accomplished songwriting and arrangements will find more some of these choices worth listening to – and will hopefully enjoy as much as possible in this playlist. I’d make a bet that everyone of you will find surprising things in there. Even though it was tough, I forced myself to keep the playlist run under two hours. The first half is more straightforward, whereas the latter part includes a few peculiar choices. I’ll add a download link to this selection as well. Enjoy! (NB: Only two or three of my selected songs overlap with Sir Elton’s own Deep Cuts playlist.)

I just found a readers‘ poll in Rolling Stone (from 2015) which offers ten „deep cuts“ and adds some interesting background information about several of the songs in these two playlists.

previously: part 1part 2, part 3, part 4

 

(34) The One (1992) ***

A new start. New hair (transplanted). A very silly cover designed by Gianni Versace (who then also designed costumes and lightning for the tour, released on the VHS/DVD Live in Barcelona). Bernie’s lyrics are pretty good, but The One is not yet the beginning of a „mature period“, rather a solid mid-career album. Unfortunately Chris Thomas‘ production leaves it still a bit stuck in the 80s.

Standout tracks: The few exciting songs are the energetic Runaway Train with Eric Clapton on vocals and guitar, and the ambitious Sweat it out with very good piano soloing (if only the production was without that terrible glossy, almost plastic, sound, it could be such a great song). The 6-minute title song was a top 10 hit, and The Last Song is rather moving. Mostly solid, but the sound is anything but great.

(35) Rare Masters (1992) ***

A 2-cd, 37-track compilation of 1970’s b-sides, non-LP singles, alternate versions and rare tracks, including the complete Friends soundtrack album and everything previously released on Lady Samantha twelve years prior. Some nice discoveries for fans in this collection.

(36) Duets (1993) **

Just like Frank Sinatra did that same year, Elton recorded an album of 15 duets (plus one new solo) with a broad variety of people. Whereas Sinatra did not perform together with his duet partners in the same studios, Elton’s Duets are real collaborations, some new songs by Taupin/John (a duet with Little Richard fro example), a few from his own back catalogue, some old hits by other performers (Teardrops with k.d.lang, True Love with Kiki Dee, Love Letters with Bonnie Raitt etc). Lots of famous people (and less famous ones), but hardly anything worth listening to.

Best of all: A mesmerizing appearance by Leonard Cohen, Born to loose.

(37) The Lion King (1994) **¼

Yes, the most successful animation film ever. Elton’s Song Can you feel the Love tonight won an Academy Award and initiated another comeback. Half of the music is songs by Elton John and Tim Rice, the other half is score by Hans Zimmer.

Zach Boecker says: „The absolute best soundtrack to a musical ever. Runs the gamut of powerful and quiet, joyous and poignant, comical and serious thanks to the master class abilities of Hans Zimmer and Elton John.“

Standout track: Hakuna Matata, sung by a meerkat and a warthog. 

(38) Made in England (1995) ***½

A better comeback album than The One, though commercially a less successful one. A more organic sound (the rare studio album between 1980 and 2001 not produced by Chris Thomas), more memorable songs, more personal songs, not too many keyboards, finally back to the grand piano, mature performances. Ray Cooper and Paul Buckmaster (with four string arrangements) are back as well, after many years. Best album in 20 years.

Standout tracks: Belfast, Latitude, Please – primarily an album for fans, though.

(39) Love Songs (1995) **½

A Kuschelrock compilation, relying heavily on songs from 80s and 90s radio (only six sections from the 70s included). Most likely a result of new success with The Lion King. Some versions contain a new song. This CD is the place to go if you’re looking for one disc to have all the songs you’ve heard way too often on the radio. Only Rocket Man is missing; doesn’t count as a love song, I guess.

Standout: I guess that’s why they call it the Blues (feat. Stevie Wonder).

 

 

(40) The Big Picture (1997) **

This time it’s not Versace but Julian Schnabel who was invited to make the album cover art. Unfortunately, everything else is quite similar to The One, only more dull. Slick 90s sound. It’s a boring album. I never liked it.

Standout track: Long Way from Happiness (if only the production wasn’t such a terribly uninspired plastic sound)

(41) Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida (1998) *

As he did not want to compose songs for another animated Disney movie, Elton composed music for a stage version of Aida. This album is not the stage version, but a various artists album with lots of mediocre songs and performances, among them Boyz II Men, Janet Jackson, Sly & Robbie with Sting, Lenny Kravitz, Shania Twain, Tina Turner & Angelique Kidjo, the Spice Girls and James Taylor. I disliked it so much I couldn’t even listen to the CD from beginning to end once. It’s bad. I advise you not to listen to it.

Nothing notable here.

(42) The Muse (1999) **

As he did neither want to work on another Disney animation nor on another Broadway show, Elton composed the score for Albert Brook’s Sharon Stone comedy The Muse. Nice.

(43) One Night only – The Greatest Hits (2000) **

The Greatest Hits live in concert at Madison Square Garden. Unnecessary live album without any particular reason of existence. Oh, I almost forgot: There are some guests on stage: Bryan Adams, Mary J. Blige and Kiki Dee. I never owned this album. Can’t even remember ever having listened to it.

(44) The Road to El Dorado (2000) **

As Elton did not want to compose songs for another animated Disney movie (but had his biggest success in the 1990s with that animated lion), he and Tim Rice decided to compose songs for an animated DreamWorks movie. Though the music is not as specific in the film’s context as it was the case with The Lion King, it’s more of a cohesive EJ album that that previous effort which included Hans Zimmer’s score sections as well. And hey, Randy Newman is here! I remember the album as being pretty boring, so I haven’t listened to it more than a couple of times, many years go.

Standouts: I don’t remember. None, I guess. 

[continued here]  // previously: part 1 ,  part 2 ,  part 3

 

 

(24) Too Low For Zero (May 1983) ***½

Frequently hailed as a return to form (I’m still standing) — and to the top of the charts, for that matter. However, in retrospect one has to admit that Too Low for Zero is far from being an imitation of the successes of the 1970s; there are hardly any similarities with albums of the preceding decade, even though the band is mostly the same as during that creatively most successful period, and Bernie Taupin was finally back on board 100%. This is totally 80s rock and pop, with an outright streamlined sound (It was the one EJ album my parents had in their collection.), a few synth-heavy tracks, some well produced guitars and a good portion of self-reflecting lyrics, which Elton turned into very strong songs for the charts.

Standout tracks: Whipping Boy, Kiss the Bride, Too Low for Zero (very untypical, very 80s).

(25) Breaking Hearts (July 1984) **½

A lesser version of Too Low For Zero. Sad Songs (say so much) was a top 5 single, but it’s just as arbitrary as the album title.

Standout track: I always enjoyed Passengers, because it’s pretty weird for a hit single. But it’s really an album for fans.

(26) Ice on Fire (November 1985) ***

With album titles becoming more even more arbitrary, Ice on Fire offers some decent soul-pop songs with swing, boogie, doo-wop and dashing trumpet and saxophone arrangements, plus a very glossy 80s production. Nik Kershaw played electric guitar on Nikita, if there’s anything of interest you’d like to know. (I’m not 100% sure, but this may be the first album I bought.)

Standouts: Tell me what the Papers say, Soul Glove.

(27) Leather Jackets (1986) *½

Don’t bother. This album is so poor (and did hardly sell any copies) it wasn’t even included in the re-release series of Elton’s whole back catalogue, so I wonder if anyone still knows or even cares about it. Cliff Richard and Kiki Dee are here for duets, Cher co-wrote a song (you wouldn’t recognize it, though), and even 50% of Queen guested on a song on this album. Btw: the cover is not by Andy Warhol but simply pretending to. Anyway, have a look at this incredibly inappropriate band photo:

 

 

Standouts: (…standing out of what?)

(28) Live in Australia with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (1987) ***½

It may be „just“ a concert album (the second one in 20 years), furthermore, one with an 88-piece symphony orchestra (in addition to his 13-piece live band) and Elton dressing up in a Mozart costume every night for 27 nights in late 1986 – but this album is quite an emotionally charged one, with EJ having been in a bad shape mentally, plus shortly before a „severe mental breakdown“ (resulting from too much cocaine and alcohol, among other issues, for way too many years) and a vocal chord operation. Each night first presented half a show with the rock band – and then, after a break, a second half with the band and the orchestra, but only (most of) the second part of the shows has been released on disc, unfortunately.

The 14 songs on this double album all date back to the early years (half of the second album is here), with songs from 1970 through 1976. A great selection, and the combination with orchestra still sounds very good, in parts intimate, moving and personal (I need you to turn to, Sixty Years on, The Greatest Discovery), in other parts „classically campy“ (Candle in the Wind, released a single again, going on to top the charts), in parts showman-like „big“, while still entertaining (Have Mercy on the Criminal).

Other standouts: The King must die, Madman across the Water.

(29) Reg Strikes Back (June 1988) **½

Since EJ was born Reginald Kenneth Dwight, this title implies a return to a more personal album. That’s not the case, however. A mix of very 80s top 20 singles (I don’t wanna go on with you like that, Town of Plenty), a few glossy standard ballads, a hint of latin influence (A Word in Spanish) which must have been en vogue then (see also: Pet Shop Boys), the occasional good tune and some funny lyrics (Goodbye Marlon Brando).

Standout track: Heavy Traffic.

(30) Sleeping with the Past (1989) ***½

A more personal and cohesive album, the beginning of coming to terms with lots of things, stylistically a return to a darker, a lot more soulful sound, influenced by Motown, The Drifters (Elton’s first group, Bluesology, had been the backing band for The Drifters in England in 1966), Aretha Franklin etc. – a good share of gospel and blues music here. The overall sound would be a lot better if it were less streamlined and glossy, then again it was still the 80s… It sounds a bit better than any other studio album of the decade, still misses some edginess. I never understood why the very mediocre composition Sacrifice went to number 1 and remains a big radio hit. It’s the one song on this album I reliably skipped.

Standout tracks: Healing Hands, Amazes me, Blue Avenue, I never knew her Name.

(31) The Very Best of / To Be Continued… / EPs (1990) ***½

Two discs rounding up EJ’s career, chapters 1 and 2. Also setting an end to the cocaine and alcohol decades, leading to a new start in life. Notable for the inclusion of several non-album singles, such as the no.1 Don’t go breaking my Heart, Lucy in the Sky, Pinball Wizard, Philadelphia Freedom and two new songs, which are pretty good. / To Be Continued collects hits and rarities and previously unreleased stuff on 4 discs; lots of nice things to find here, such Elton’s debut single with Bluesology from 1967, a French duet with France Gall from 1980, a song for a Cartier commercial, an aggressively rocking duet with Millie Jackson, an absurd interpretation of Give Peace a Chance – and others. / The EPs are worth mentioning, because they actually make up half a new album, which isn’t bad, mostly because of the gospely You gotta love someone, which, listening to it today, I can still value as a very good and soulful song. Furthermore, there is a collaboration with Adamski, which also very good.

(32) MTV Unplugged (May 1990) ***

This concert, the second or third show in MTV’s then new Unplugged series, has actually never been released on CD, LP or VHS – so it’s officially not an album. However, it should have been. It’s the rare chance to hear Elton play a solo show on grand piano only. And he’s very entertaining at that, has been a fairly good improviser, too. The only other option to hear similar intimate performances is the rarely available VHS To Russia with Elton from 1979, documenting a Russia tour with only him and percussionist Ray Cooper. It’s very unfortunate than none of the many duo tours Elton and Ray did during the past 30 years, including lots of lesser known songs, not one has ever resulted in a live album.

(33) Two Rooms (1991) **½

If you’d like to hear the (rest of the) Beach Boys perform Crocodile Rock, Kate Bush become the Rocket Man, The Who closely trace Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting, as well as everyone from Phil Collins, Tina Turner, Rod Stewart to Joe Cocker, George Michael and Wilson Phillips say hi, this double album is the place to go. 

Standouts: not too many, most interpretations are simply too uninspired, but Sting’s intimate Come down in Time (accompanied only by Elton on piano, his only appearance on this release) is excellent [a good place to start for you, Michael ;-) ], and Sinead O’Connor turns the very underwhelming Sacrifice into a haunting piece of songwriting; Eric Clapton hands in a moving interpretation of the Border Song. Another highlight is the colourful piano performance on Bruce Hornsby’s version of Madman across the Water. 

continued here; previously: part 1part 2

 

 

(12) Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (May 1975) ****½

Not much more to note than that Captain Fantastic is Elton’s first „mature“ album, often regarded as his best. An autobiographical suite of well-crafted and complex pop songs by Elton and lyricist Bernie Taupin, about their years before they became famous. Funnily enough, the extravagant, surreal cover in Goodbye Yellow Brick Road meets Dalì style doesn’t do justice to the music.

Standout tracks: works best as a suite, less as individual tracks, but how about the title song or Tower of Babel?

(13) Rock of the Westies (Oct 1975) **** (or maybe more)

Often disregarded as an uninspired and blunt hard-rock album, which I think is a bit unjust. Yes, it’s very different from all preceding albums, rocking a lot harder, sometimes in a bluesy or dancey manner, in parts even aggressively, thanks to two guitar players (don’t expect Led Zeppelin, of course), but the arrangements are never shallow or banal, quite the opposite, and also rhythmically (and structurally) varied, thanks to Ray Cooper’s multifaceted nature. An almost completely new band was involved in these recordings, right after Captain Fantastic, including, notably, 24-year old James Newton-Howard on electric piano, synthesizers, clavinet and mellotron (he remained a member of Elton’s band until the late 80s and went on to become an immensely successful film composer). There’s only one ballad, the one hit single and number one hit Island Girl is arguably the weakest song on the album (which might explain why it was not even part of the extensive The Very Best of Elton John double album), and yes, Bernie’s lyrics are kind of a mixed bag as well.

It may not leave a very subtle impression, but the spontaneity and dark vigor of the album are the reasons why I think Rock of the Westies is a very good one. It’s one I have always enjoyed coming back to a lot. [Side note: After several extravagantly colourful album covers, this one indicates a return to a less eclectic pop music collection, back to a more basic, unpretentious approach, like Honky Château.]

 

 

Standout tracks: Billy Bones and the White Bird, Dan Dare (Pilot of the Future), Street Kids.

 –

(14) Here and There (recorded 1974, released May 1976) ***½

Aka contractual obligation album. Elton’s first real concert album. The original version was only one LP with ten tracks, its title reflecting on success in England and America, hence „here“ is the UK concert recording from London in May 1974, and „there“ is the American side, recorded in New York City six months later. However, the double CD release (1995, 160 minutes) adds an immense amount of value and helps to make this Elton’s definitive live album of the seventies (actually, there are no others, except for a couple of very limited edition concert releases).

The album is also notable for containing John Lennon’s final live appearance (three songs), including a relevant story around it: Elton had recorded Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds with Lennon’s help (as well as his One Day at a Time on the flipside) and appeared on his single Whatever gets you thru the Night, about which Elton surmised it would become a number one hit. To which Lennon joked if that would happen, he’d perform on stage at Madison Square Garden with Elton. And so they did. Plus, after 18 months of separation, John and Yoko met again backstage of the concert — and less than a year later Sean was born. Then John pledged to disappear from the public eye for five years to the good father he had missed to be to Julian. AllMusicGuide: „This should be considered essential listening for enthusiasts as well as curious music historians.“

Standout tracks: Whatever gets you thru the Night, I saw her standing there, Bad Side of the Moon, Honky Cat, Love Song, Take me to the Pilot, You’re so static.

(15) Blue Moves (Oct 1976) ****

EJ’s second double album is actually his longest studio album. (NB: The first CD release omitted three songs to make it fit onto one disc.) A fascinating mix of gospel, unusual country songs, some orchestra arrangements, the Brecker Bros. (Randy and Michael) with Barry Rogers and David Sanborn as brass section, James Newton-Howard is back as well, on synths and organs (and this time even as co-writer on a couple of songs), two guitar players, the always fantastic percussionist Ray Cooper, Crosby & Nash as backing vocalists, and then there’s even a gospel choir.  Funnily enough, the only hit single was the quiet Sorry seems to be the hardest Word, which is the only song on the album anyone might know today.

Though all that may sound like a pompous production (and it allegedly took many months of production), Blue Moves is actually a very underrated album, almost as good as Captain Fantastic, an abundance of strong songs in a diverse variety of styles and lots of interesting musical ideas. The beautiful simple song Idol has been my favorite unknown song by Elton John for a very long time, and even though the album leaves a rather serious general impression, loaded with lyrics about God, remorse and finality, there is so much to enjoy here, including some instrumentals.

Standout tracks: Where’s the Shoorah? (a beautiful gospel), Idol (lost classic), Cage the Songbird (for Edith Piaf), Bit your Lip (Get Up and Dance) (a seemingly endless semi-hard rock jam with a Baptist choir and a string section conducted by James Newton-Howard), Tonight, Crazy Water, Chameleon.

 –

(16) Greatest Hits Vol.2 (Nov 1976) ****

The only reason I’ve included this here to get to 21 albums by May 1980. There are ten mostly very good songs on this LP, including two non-LP singles: Philadelphia Freedom and Pinball Wizard (from The Who’s Tommy, of course). Three singles from Rock of the Westies and two from Madman across the Water, if you bother to know.

Standout tracks: Tiny Dancer, Grow some Funk of your own.

 –

(17) The Thom Bell Sessions (recorded 1977, released 1979, completely released 1989) **½

Basically an unfinished album with Phillysoul producer Thom Bell. Three songs were released as an EP in 1979, the complete sessions (six songs, 35 minutes) ten years later. I think it counts as an album.

Standout tracks: no idea

– 

(18) A Single Man (Oct 1978) ***¼

First album without Bernie Taupin. Gus Dudgeon is back as producer. Backing vocals: The Watford Football Team.

Standout tracks: I don’t care and Madness are cool. Because both of them sound a bit mad. And BJ Cole is back playing pedal steel guitar on the beautiful gospel hymn Georgia. When I was 14-15, my favourite song ever was Part-Time Love. Not anymore.

(19) Victim of Love (1979)  [no stars available]

Even if you don’t like Elton John at all, you couldn’t imagine how bad this album is. Probably the worst album you’ll ever hear. It’s the only one of his studio albums I don’t own any more. A pseudo-disco album on which Elton did neither participate in writing any of the songs nor play any instrument. Sounds like he wasn’t even present during the recording session (was probably an impersonator)… which sounds like it must have been recorded in less than an hour. [I found this comment on Discogs: „Worst album I own? Disco-cocaine-80s dog vomit. Elton WTF?“]

Notable: All songs sound exactly the same. However, the opening song is Johnny B. Goode.

(20) Lady Samantha (1980) ***

A b-sides and rare tracks collection. Pretty good ones, though.

Standout tracks: Bad Side of the Moon, Rock’n’Roll Madonna, Into the Old Man’s Shoes.

(21) 21 at 33 (May 1980) **

…which was Elton John’s 21st album when he was 33 years old. Some rockers, some ballads, but nothing really worthwhile here. On the minor hit single Little Jeannie one can hear Elton’s typical 80’s MOR pop emerging slowly. Ah yes, there are some Eagles singing along (Glenn Frey and Don Henley).

Standout tracks (standing out among very mediocre songs): Take me back, Two Rooms at the End of the World.

(22) The Fox (1981) ***

The Fox is usually considered as one of those albums no-one cares about. And I wouldn’t suggest you should. It’s not that bad, though. The early 80’s synth sound may be dated, and the pop-rockers may appear like painting by numbers — but I still like the album. There’s some unusual stuff to find here: James Newton Howard’s cheesy instrumental Fanfare for example, the strangely inspired Fascist Faces („I’m tired of being linked with the KGB and all that political crap.“ with spoken voice by Rev. James Cleveland), or the personal Elton’s Song with lyrics by Tom Robinson. 

Good tracks: Elton’s Song, Fascist Faces, Just like Belgium.

 –

(23) Jump Up! (1982) **½

One half of the songs are pretty decent. The other half not so much. Don’t bother. Very unimportant note: The song Princess was actually dedicated to the Princess of Wales, Diana Spencer, who had just married the crown prince of England and whom Elton had met for the first time in 1981.

Notable tracks: Ball and Chain features Pete Townshend on acoustic guitar (it’s the rare song without piano or keyboards), while Empty Garden (not a great song, though) is a nice elegy for John Lennon. I am your Robot is as silly as it gets.

[continued here]  //  Part 1

I am going to contribute something a bit unexpected around here… Inspired by Ian’s entertaining Bowie discography overview in summer 2015, I’d like to present my opinion piece on Elton John’s discography

Some time ago somewhere I read someone stating that of the seven bands or musicians having sold more than 250 million records, Elton John is the only one not to receive as much respect as the other six (The Beatles, Elvis, M. Jackson, Madonna, Led Zep, Pink Floyd) among music critics and music lovers. I think that’s kind of true, considering I’ve been following Mr. Dwight’s aka Mr. John’s body of work consistently and rather closely for almost all my life (which, however, began in 1978, after his creative peak, by the way).

Sure, Elton John put out some stuff which is pretty mediocre — but he’s been around as a recording artist for 50 years and I’d like to pay tribute to him with this little overview to his 70th birthday this month. I’ll try to keep the comments short, since he put out so many albums.

(1) Empty Sky (1969) ***

Notes: An old friend who’d never listen to Elton John received this LP once from another friend – and was surprised he actually liked it. It was not was he’d expected. An ambitious, but uneven mix of influences of the late sixties, from progressive rock to chamber music to psychedelic Sgt. Pepper, with a few nice leftfield pop songs.

Standout tracks: Empty Sky (8½ minutes), Skyline Pigeon (harpsichord version).

(2) [untitled album] or Elton John (August 1970) ****½

First album produced by Gus Dudgeon, with string orchestra arranged and conducted by Paul Buckmaster. Probably his most personal album, rather melancholic and intimate. Some rocking blues, some orchestra pop, some gospel songs.

Standout tracks: Border Song, The Greatest Discovery, I need you to turn to, Your Song.

(3) Tumbleweed Connection (Oct 1970) *****

I actually bought this album maybe five times, in various editions on LP and CD. A thoroughly beautiful and emotionally intense concept album about the American West, with lots of songs being quite unconventional. It’s actually not what you’d consider as „pop album“ , but rather a cinematic collection of country and western and bluesy folk songs referencing the civil war, among other things. One of the best albums of the 1970s, for sure.

Standout tracks: Amoreena (NB: the fantastic opening song of Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon), Come down in Time, Son of your Father, My Father’s Gun.

(4) Friends (Soundtrack Album, Feb 1971) **½

Haven’t heard it in decades. A soundtrack album to a film no-one knows. Paul Buckmaster wrote some instrumental sections, but a couple of Elton’s rock songs are pretty good.

Standout tracks: Can I put you on, Honey Roll.

(5) 17-11-70 (March 1971) ****

I always enjoyed this rough-sounding live album, recorded on November 17th, 1970, for a New York radio station, a lot; always hoped for Elton John to release another similar intimate acoustic album again. This 52 minute, hard-rocking set (one track was left off of the original LP version) presents Elton’s very spirited core trio of piano, bass (Dee Murray, his bass player until he died in 1992) and drums (Nigel Olsson, after he left Uriah Heep, has been part of Elton’s band from 1970 until today). This absolutely great selection of songs includes no hits, but fine covers versions of My Baby left me, Get back and Honky Tonk Women.

Standout tracks: Amoreena, Take me to the Pilot, Honky Tonk Women.

(6) Madman Across the Water (Nov 1971) ****½

A rather dark, but somewhat cinematic storytelling album, an adequate follow-up to Tumbleweed, strangely enough never received recognition, though there’s not a single mediocre song on the elegiac album, which relies heavily on Buckmaster’s string arrangements and epic character stories such as Levon (a beautiful song covered by, yes, Jon Bon Jovi twenty years later). Tiny Dancer (featuring BJ Cole’s steel guitar) of course became a late hit because of Cameron Crowe’s film Almost Famous. Interesting guest musicians include Rick Wakeman, Herbie Flowers and a choir.

Standout tracks: Madman Across the Water (featuring Rick Wakeman), Indian Sunset, Levon, Razor Face.

(7) Honky Château (May 1972) *****

Finally, Elton’s first „real“ pop album. All killers, no fillers. Soul, blues and rock songs, fantastic piano playing, a tight rock’n’roll band, probably the album responsible for Elton John’s reputation as a great songwriter and rise to big stardom. And yes, there’s Rocket Man – just listen to it disregarding you’ve heard it a million times on mainstream radio. There’s lot of fun on the album, too, just check out Honky Cat (with the cool brass band), Hercules (with Nigel Olsson on „Rhino whistle“) or I think I’m going to kill myself. And there’s Ray Cooper on percussion and congas, Jean-Luc Ponty on electric violin and David Hentschel on A.R.P. synthesizer. Thoroughly fantastic.
Standout tracks (I always loved the rock numbers): Honky Cat, Susie (Dramas), Amy, Hercules.

(8) Don’t shoot my I’m only the Piano Player (Jan 1973) ****

The only reason this is not thoroughly fantastic is probably Honky Château. Even more pop music than in 1972, slightly more eclectic, incorporating influences from all across the past 20 years, including Merle Haggard, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, the Marx Brothers and Speedy Gonzales. All songs are very good to great, but the album is maybe less than the sum of its parts. And, well, here you’ll find Crocodile Rock and Daniel, if you don’t know where to look for them. ;-) (PS: Daniel is not a gay anthem. It’s about a Vietnam veteran.)

Standout tracks: I’m gonna be a Teenage Idol (a tribute to Elton’s friend Marc Bolan, with a brass band), Have Mercy on the Criminal (orchestral blues-rock), Midnight Creeper (another strong brass arrangement, this time with a much darker song), Crocodi— ah forget it…

(9) Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (Oct 1973) ****½

People usually say it’s his best album. So what do you expect me to say…? It’s not. However, considering Elton John has become mainstream radio fodder since then, it’s surprising that there are nasty lyrics about a Dirty Little Girl and how All the Girls love Alice, as well as a funny reggae about a Jamaica Jerk-Off or the tongue-in-cheek Social Disease on here, all of which would have required a „parental advisory“ sticker a few years later. Speaking of which, Guns N’Roses paid tribute to the beautiful I’ve seen that Movie too in their huge 1991 hit You could be mine, the „title song“ to Terminator 2.
It’s probably the first openly gay album in mainstream music; with Alice and Bennie and the Jets, which is a self-portrait homage to glam rock and has since been referred to and sampled many times in (American) Black Music, most recently on A Tribe Called Quest’s standout 2016 album We got it from here… Thank you for your Service, where the rappers collaborated with Elton using samples of the song and added new lines. Personally, I think the side 3 of this double album is the best crafted suite of perfect songs in Elton John’s discography: Sweet Painted Lady – The Ballad of Danny Bailey (1909-34) – Dirty Little Girl – All the Girls Love Alice, a universe of its own.

Other standout tracks, besides the previously mentioned ones: Social Disease, Love Lies Bleeding, This Song has no Title.

(10) Caribou (June 1974) ***½

…is basically a light afterword to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Notable for the nasty live favorite The Bitch is back, inspired (and covered) by Tina Turner, a few absurd and nonsensical songs like Solar Prestige a Gammon and Dixie Lily (mock-country), as well as the seven-and-a-half minute solo piano (with some synth in the last part) epic Ticking about a young school shooter (Elton performed the song on several solo tours, e.g. in Germany after the Erfurt school massacre for that reason).

Standout tracks: You’re so static (an absurd tango), Ticking, I’ve seen the Saucers.

(11) Greatest Hits (Nov 1974) *****

It’s what it claims it is: A greatest hits collection of the first five years. NB: Candle in the Wind was not on the original LP version.

Standout tracks: Crocodile Rock.

[continued here]

2017 31 Jan

Triplicate

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Bob Dylan macht mit seiner Rod-Stewart-Nummer weiter
 
 
 

 
 
 

Ich frage mich: Fällt dem Nobelpreisträger nichts mehr ein? Ist ihm langweilig? Will er noch schnell ordentlich Geld scheffeln und sich zur Ruhe setzen? Fallen Angels war das erste Dylan-Album, das ich nicht mehr kaufte. Ach nein, da fällt mir ein: Das Weihnachtsalbum habe ich auch nie gehört. (Oder falls doch, habe ich es vergessen.) Zuerst hielt ich es für einen Scherz – vielleicht war es sogar einer?

I miss Bob Dylan.

Die Anekdote, wie Robert Fripp von Eno und Visconti in die Hansa-Studios in Berlin gebeten wurde, um für „Heroes“ ein Solo hinzulegen, ist wohl hinlänglich bekannt. Am Ende nutzte Visconti im Mix einfach alle drei unterschiedlichen Takes gleichzeitig und und gab dem Lied seine Outworldliness.

Ist Fripp wohl auch nicht so der redselige Interviewpartner vor diversen Kameras auf der Suche nach musikhistorischen Geschichten, so ist es vielleicht umso schöner, dass Carlos Alomar, Earl Slick, Gerry Leonard, Nile Rodgers und Gail Ann Dorsey interessante kleine Erinnerungen an die Entstehung verschiedener Songs und aus unterschiedlichen Arbeitsphasen teilen können. Ich stolperte letzte Nacht über dieses schöne kleine Video.

 

Als sympathische Fortsetzung ein Auszug aus einer Doku von BBC Arts von letzter Woche:

David Bowie inspired and challenged his musicians. But what did they think of him? Here, some of the star’s longest-serving players – Earl Slick, Mike Garson, Gerry Leonard, Catherine Russell and Sterling Campbell – get together over a meal to discuss their old boss.

Kleine Hommage zum Siebzigsten (etwas verspätet).

Letzte Nacht habe ich mit der letzten Episode der vierten Staffel die Serie The Killing zu Ende geschaut. Ich bin vor ein paar Wochen eher zufällig drauf gestoßen, als ich bei Media Markt auf dem Sonderangebote-Tisch zahlreiche Serien für 9 Euro pro Box durchsah – und neugierig wurde. Mich interessieren zeitgenössische Geschichten bei weitem mehr als historische – von Mad Men abgesehen (Boardwalk Empire hat irgendwo in der ersten Hälfte der dritten Staffel meine Aufmerksamkeit verloren, Manhattan habe ich sogar, trotz Interesse an New Mexico und der Nuklearenergie-Thematik, nur etwa fünf Folgen lang geschaut).

Außerdem schaue ich äußerst gerne Serien, bei denen der Ort eine tragende Rolle spielt, und häufig bekommt man ja wirklich spannende Einblicke in Ecken, von denen man zwar gehört hat, aber über die man wenig weiß. Ich war vor 17 oder 18 Jahren einmal in Seattle (bei unserer USA-Rundreise 2015 waren wir zwar im Staat Washington, aber nur im Osten und entlang des Columbia River), also hoffte ich, dass The Killing die Stadt in interessanter Weise zum Mit-Protagonisten machen würde.

The Killing ist eine US-Adaption der, wie ich las und hörte, sehr erfolgreichen dänischen Serie, die im deutschen Fernsehen als Kommissarin Lund – Das Verbrechen (Forbrydelsen), ausgestrahlt wurde. Meine Eltern schauen viele, vor allem skandinavische Krimiserien, da fiel der Name dieser Serie immer mal wieder, doch weckte der Titel Kommissarin Lund bei mir eher Assoziationen zu den zahllosen durchschnittlichen deutschen Kommissar- und Polizei-Serien, so dass ich das nicht weiter verfolgte … Vielleicht ein kleines Versäumnis. Dennoch: Sollte es sich wie beim Girl with a Dragon Tattoo verhalten, wurden bei der US-Version womöglich so einige Oberflächlichkeiten und Banalitäten ausgemerzt zugunsten von tieferer Figurenzeichnung. Diesen Eindruck hatte ich zumindest schon in der ersten Staffel von The Killing (13 Episoden à 43 Minuten). Und weil uns die Zeichnung der Figuren und der Lebenswelten so fesselte, kaufte ich schon nach wenigen geschauten Folgen gleich die Box mit allen vier Staffeln, die wir nun recht zügig durchgeschaut haben.

 
 
 

 
 
 

Wenn mich etwas stört bei The Killing, dann ist es, dass die Autoren einen oftmals starken Drang zum Über-Dramatisieren haben, der den Handlungsverlauf immer wieder bis an die Grenzen der Wahrscheinlichkeit strapaziert. Es gab allerdings nur eine Episode (in Staffel 3), in der diese Zuspitzungswut auf Kosten der Figuren geht (ja, das war schade und auch etwas ärgerlich, schmälerte die Freude am gesamten Schauen der Serie jedoch nur marginal). Zumeist leisten die Regisseurinnen und Regisseure der Episoden ausgesprochen sensible und überzeugende Arbeit, was sich sehr häufig darin äußert, dass viele Figuren, sowohl die beiden zentralen Homicide Detectives Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman) und Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) als auch die größeren Nebenfiguren (die ersten beiden Staffeln bilden eine Einheit, und die Staffeln 3 und 4 knüpfen ein Jahr später an einen vor bereits drei Jahren abgeschlossenen Fall an) durch diverse Milieus mit einer emotionalen Eindringlichkeit und Authentizität erfahrbar gemacht werden.

Daraus entsteht oftmals eine größere Spannung aus durch die sog. äußere Krimihandlung, die gleichwohl laufend überraschende Wege und Wendungen bereithält, gut durchdacht mit Erwartungshaltungen jonglierend. In den verschiedenen Haupt- und Nebenhandlungen geht es quer durch die Gesellschaft auch um Politik, um einen Gefangenen in der Todeszelle in den Wochen vor der Hinrichtung, um „dessen“ Gefängnisangestellte, um die Interna der Polizeiarbeit, um „Indian Land“, um eine Elitemilitärakademie, um Straßenkids und Mädchen auf dem Strich – und oft um einfache, glaubwürdige Menschen mit existenziellen Erfahrungen und vielschichtigen Lebenslagen. Deshalb passt es gut, dass einmal gesagt wird, die „bad guys“ sind womöglich nicht zu finden, nur das Leben an sich.

Imponiert hat mir auch, dass viele der Figuren (nach konventionellen Drehbuchmaßstäben) mindestens ebenso viele unsympathische, uncharmante Züge haben dürfen wie als „liebenswert“ zu bezeichnende, ähnlich wie es in der ein paar Jahre später entstandenen (kürzeren) Serie True Detective auch gepflegt wurde. Ich weiß, dass das bei Fernsehredakteuren zuverlässig auf Widerstand stößt (und The Killing wurde in Amerika auch im Free TV ausgestrahlt), aber wahrscheinlich war hier der große Erfolg der dänischen Vorlage ein Türöffner. Trotz der wie gesagt immer wieder zur Überspitzung neigenden Drehbücher hat mich The Killing als sehr authentische Polizeiserie beeindruckt und ohne Einschränkung bestens unterhalten. Und ja, von Seattle bekommt man viel zu sehen, ein wenig vergleichbar mit Baltimore in The Wire.

2017 3 Jan

Black Glasses

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Claire Denis has begun work on LES LUNETTES NOIR (Black Glasses), her own adaptation of Roland Barthes’s 1977 book, A Lover’s Discourse. The extra surprise here is that Juliette Binoche and Gérard Depardieu, who feuded for years, have been cast together.

via

 

 

01 David Bowie ★
02 Nick Cave The Skeleton Tree
03 PJ Harvey The Hope Six Demolition Project
04 Tord Gustavsen, Simin Tander & Jarle Vespestad What was said
05 Lucinda Williams The Ghosts of Highway 20
06 Ian William Craig Centers
07 A Tribe Called Quest We got it from here … Thank you 4 your Service
08 Eliot Sumner The Information
09 Ayumi Tanaka Trio Memento
10 Anthony Johnson Caribbean Roots

11 Michael Kiwanuka Love & Hate
12 Sturgill Simpson A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
13 Alicia Keys Here
14 Erlend Apneseth Trio Det Andre Rommet
15 Kuedo Slow Knife
16 Kate Tempest Let them eat Chaos
17 Anders Brørby Nihil
18 Bon Iver 22, A Million
19 Exploded View Exploded View
20 Thomas Köner Tiento de la luz

21. Solange A Seat at the Table
22. Kim Myhr Bloom
23. Naqsh Duo (Golfam Khayam & Mona Matbou Riahi) Narrante
24. Jenny Hval Blood Bitch
25. Suede Night Thoughts
26. Andrew Cyrille Quartet The Declaration of Musical Independence
27. Årabrot The Gospel
28. Katie Gately Color
29. Sinikka Langeland The Magical Forest
30. Nicolas Jaar Sirens

Anm.: Einige Alben sind mir noch nicht gut genug vertraut oder liegen mir noch gar nicht vor, die gute Chancen auf eine Top20-Beteiligung haben, vor allem Leonard Cohens You want it darker, das ich mir bislang für eine gute Gelegenheit aufgehoben habe.

Da ich seit Jahren keine solche Bestenliste zum Jahresende geschrieben habe, fiel es mir nicht leicht, eine letztgültige Reihenfolge zu erstellen. Das hat verschiedene Gründe: Alle Alben von PJ Harvey oder Nick Cave könnte ich wahrscheinlich noch in eine Rangliste bringen (ich werde das demnächst mal mit dem einen oder anderen Interpreten hier im Blog versuchen), aber so viele verschiedene Stile und Genres in eine Reihenfolge von 20 Platzierungen zu pressen, finde ich schon deshalb schwierig, weil viele Alben unter unterschiedlichen Stimmungsbedingungen gehört werden. So gesehen weist das Vergleichen von Äpfeln mit Birnen viele Mängel auf — und es scheint mir heikel zu behaupten, dass Nick Caves Album mir wirklich besser gefiele als Lucinda Williams’ oder Michael Kiwanukas… Aber sei’s drum. Dass meine Lieblingsbands Radiohead und Wilco nun gar nicht hier auftauchen, passt so gesehen wiederum gut…

Auch deshalb möchte ich als Bonus folgende vier 2016 -Lieblingsalben unabhängig erwähnen:

Sektion „zeitgenössische Musik“: Tõnu Kõrvits The Mirror
Sektion „Klassik“: Andrew Nelsons / Shostakovich 5, 8 & 9  – Under Stalin’s Shadow
Sektion Filmmusik: Jóhann Jóhannsson Arrival
Sektion Re-Release/Remix/Rework: John Cale M:Fans / Music for a New Society


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