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23 Oct 2010

The Master Expertises (IV): Jim Turano

Views on “The Union”
By James Turano

Let’s get right to the point, for the second time in history, “The Union” prevails.

This time, it’s not about warring factions and battling ideologies, but rather a genuine melding of talents, respect, influences, and gratitude of two musical legends.

For many artists – no matter what the format or genre – their creative peak hits in their 20s and early 30s, and while they may continue to produce varied and important works – sometimes even profound and historic -- it’s usually their early works that are most remembered and lauded, and that come to define them.

It’s rare then, that an artist is able to conjure the creative renewal later in life to produce works that can rival and confidently stand among their most respected, and what can be considered their “best.”

An argument can be made that Elton John is one of these rarities. Twice now, in the last 10 years and long past his creative peak of 1970-1976, Elton has written and recorded albums that are of the highest caliber and can be mentioned among the best of his storied forty year career. For me, Elton John’s top five albums are: “Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy,” (1975) “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” (1973) “Tumbleweed Connection,” (1970) “Madman Across The Water,” (1971) and “Songs From The West Coast” (2001).

Some might argue of the latter’s inclusion in this career-wide list, 2001’s revitalized, but “Song From The West Coast,” effortlessly re-imagined the vintage “Elton John sound” of his ‘70s zenith in terms of songwriting quality and production. Elton and Bernie Taupin’s commitment to their craft was evident and elevated, and Patrick Leonard’s production perfectly surrounded the songs with a feeling and sound that allowed them to breathe and take flight, much in the style of Gus Dudgeon’s incomparable work with Elton John.

Amazingly, at age 63 and 40 years after his American debut and the release of his breakthrough second album, Elton John has recorded a new album that could nudge itself into the top 5 albums of his career – a rarity indeed.

“The Union” is that album.

Any Elton John fan worth his or her salt is aware of the influence that Leon Russell had on Elton’s early songwriting, piano playing, and live performing. In early interviews with the budding star, Elton regularly referenced Russell as rock’s piano-playing pinnacle, humbly bowing to his idol, and even touring with him four decades ago. By now, we all know the genesis of “The Union” project, Elton hearing Russell’s “Back To The Island” and breaking down. Driven to such a personal revelation, he contacted Russell to thank him for his crucial artistic influence, and suggesting an overdue collaboration. Though Elton’s sentiments for unearthing Russell and collaborating with him seemed commendable and earnest, the initial reaction to this teaming carried guarded optimism.

On paper, it was a natural bonding. But in reality, was it too late for this pairing? Were both artists too far past their primes to create the magic this alliance might have produced three decades ago? And most notably, did the reclusive Russell, in his late sixties and in ill health, still have the chops to play with the big boys on the big stage?

From the first notes of “The Union,” all the questions are answered and dispelled.

Despite recuperating from brain surgery during the recording, Russell does deliver. His cracked, graveled, weathered Southern drawl as enigmatic as ever. His flashy flourishes and inventive piano introductions accent most of the tracks, and his songwriting remains sharp. It may not vary from his trademarks – blues-infused gospel/rock, with lyrics melancholy and honest, acerbic and brimming with attitude – but that’s what we want from Leon Russell.

Elton and Taupin also raise the stakes and their game. They both bring an enthusiasm and focus to this project that makes it perhaps, their most personal album of their career. Their passion is palpable in every song, on every performance.

Elton is tapping into all his musical talents and instincts with an exuberant enthusiasm of a teenager, and it shows. His vocals are among his most expressive and playful, his piano playing adventurous and classic – obviously driven by playing with Russell, and trying to both impress and compete with his idol. And his melodies – though occasionally similar in spots to recent songs from both “Peachtree Road” and “The Captain And The Kid,” – comfortably caress and pointedly propel Taupin’s lyrics of love (“When Love Is Dying,” “I Should Have Sent Roses,” “Mandalay Again”), history (“Gone To Shiloh,” “Jimmie Rodgers’ Dream,”) frivolity (“Hey Ahab,” “Monkey Suit,”), and mortality (“Never Too Old (To Hold Somebody”).

These are some of Taupin’s best “batches” in many years. He returns to a more rustic, descriptive, cinematic writing style (“A big blue canvas painted by the Master’s hand/The shifting clouds above and endless miles of sand”), (“Let the tears of God keep the mountains green”) most evident on his impressive Farm Dogs projects of the ‘90s. His writing has a newfound depth and maturity, with a heightened introspection of life, love, and yes, death.

Though he wrote songs like “Sixty Years On” and “Talking Old Soldiers” while only about 20 years old, 40 years later, he’s now living in that skin, feeling “when every bone rattles,” – now life lessons of experience infuse his words. These days in Taupin’s world, Saturday night’s no longer alright for fighting – instead, as detailed in “The Best Part Of The Day,” – Saturday morning’s alright for appreciating a sunrise. It’s a natural progression that should give Elton and Bernie’s music a deeper perspective moving forward.

He also writes many songs that either refers to Elton, Leon, or both, or he slyly speaks to them -- while also allowing them to “speak to another” and carry on an elusive dialogue. For example, in “You’re Never Old,” Elton sings to Russell, “I can bet on a horse, but I’m betting on you/You still got what it takes, you got nothing to prove.” While Russell’s “You’re still sharp as a razor/And I like you like that,” can be his sentiment or Taupin’s. Whatever Taupin’s true intent, this lyrical dynamic also adds to the rekindled friendship between Elton and Leon that’s budding as the album moves forward. And there are many memorable and new finely- turned phrases, imaginative allusions, and heart-tugging sentiments that stir emotions like only Taupin can muster.

If only Elton and Taupin would have brought the same dedication to their last release, 2006’s “The Captain And the Kid,” which suffered from many half-hearted Taupin lyrics, and run-of-the-mill production. In fact, “The Union” is what “The Captain And The Kid” could have and should have been. This sequel to their autobiographical opus, “Captain Fantastic” would have benefited from the genuine energy, enthusiasm, and inspired songwriting “The Union” exudes from top to bottom. “The Captain And The Kid” should have been a expansive, revealing, introspective personal memoir of a storied past and hopeful present. Instead, aside from some genuine classic moments, it mostly was a limited, abridged, ironically indifferent recollection that lack true emotion. And a main, missing catalyst on that album is whom Elton chose to oversee this new project.

Under the careful and pure ear of production impresario T Bone Burnett, the album immediately embraces Elton and Leon’s legends and styles. For Elton and Leon, he has created a “nostalgic contemporary” sound, with the album bulging with a deep New Orleans groove and Louisiana bayou bass sound throughout, and incorporating a rootsy, gospel, Stax, Americana vibe complemented by well-placed horns, tasty guitar licks, a twanging pedal steel, thumping drums, exhilarating choirs, and most importantly, the piano prominently driving this train.

In fact, in an inspired move, to fully accentuate these two talented pianists, Burnett places Elton’s piano in the left speaker and Leon’s in the right, so one can literally hear what each tinkler is playing. Burnett’s tasty touches throughout demand the listener actually “listen.” If you play this album is simply background music, you’ll be missing a treasure trove of sounds and moods.

Using his own “wrecking crew” of top-notch studio musicians with some of the best pedigrees in the business, including Jim Keltner and Jay Bellerose on drums, Marc Ribot on guitar, Dennis Crouch on acoustic bass, Burnett clearly has the credibility and musical heft to creatively steer artists of Elton and Leon’s stature without being intimidated by their status or bowing to their whims.

Instead he assertively imprints his stamp, and Elton and Leon wisely put their trust in his vision, imagination, and distinctive ear. But he also creates a loose, at times rough edged sound and environment. Some songs quickly shift tempos, seem to end abruptly or just slowly end with errant instrument sounds taking their last breath. This “real feel” takes the listeners right in the studio with the musicians during the recording. It’s another quirky aspect to the album that Burnett lets happen and even celebrates.

Like producer Daniel Lanois revived Bob Dylan’s career with the Grammy-winning “Time Out Of Mind,” Burnett too has re-directed Elton’s musical sights as he enters a new phase of his career that must strive for his musical legacy rather than the pop charts.

Hopefully, “The Union” is just the first of many albums and projects together. With Gus Dudgeon gone, in T Bone Burnett, Elton may have finally found his long-sought after and worthy replacement.

The best aspect of “The Union” is its transcendent quality. For Elton, the album is life-affirming, for Leon, life-changing. And for them together, doing this project has opened Elton’s eyes to a new path down his musical yellow brick road, while it’s allowed Russell to roll away the stone and resurrect a long-stalled career.

Elton graciously leaves his ego at the door, showcasing Leon at every chance – even choosing a Leon-led song, “If It wasn’t For Bad” to lead off the album. This gesture signals Elton’s personal gratitude and professional mission with this record – to re-establish Leon Russell’s standing in today’s music world and tomorrow’s music history.

Therefore, it’s not just an album for Elton John fans; it’s not just an album for Leon Russell fans; it’s an album for music fans. And that’s the kind of album an artist of Elton’s stature should be making at this point in his life. Leave the disposable pop to the Gagas, the Biebers, and the next Amercican Idols, Elton John needs to be making albums for the ages.

And with “The Union,” that’s what he does. It’s one of his best. And that’s saying something…namely, you’re never too old.

Song-By-Song Review

Let’s begin by stating the only version of “The Union” that should be listened to or discussed is the expanded, 16-song “deluxe CD” version. It includes two “bonus tracks” that both deserve to be on the “official” album (Spoiler alert – “Mandalay Again” is one of the best songs of the collection), the song sequencing gives it a better flow, and finally, when two legends like this come together, why edit?

So I will offer my view of this version of “The Union,” which in my mind is the album.

“If It Wasn’t For Bad” – The wailing choir, the urgent pounding piano and drums, and the jolt of Leon Russell’s commanding, quivering voice, give this an immediate power that sets the tone for the rest of the album. An ironic, twisted lyric of wordplay, Russell’s schizophrenic piano breaks combined with the subtle horns; it’s vintage Russell – a pop song with a dark underbelly. I wish Elton’s presence was more felt throughout, especially vocally, to establish the album’s collaboration, but again, Elton’s making a statement by kicking off the album with Leon in the driver’s seat and re-introducing him to the masses.

“Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes” – One of my favorites. Elton’s piano is an appealing mix of Jim Reeves country and Allen Toussaint Cajun, with a melodic similarity to Elvis Costello’s “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror.” Lyrically, it could have fit perfectly on “The Captain And the Kid,” and with Taupin’s signature style, there seem to be references to Elton’s and Leon’s careers – past and present. Lines like “You came an invasion/All bells and whistles blowing,” and “Your songs have all the hooks,” all can have Elton connections, and “You came to town in headlines, and eight hundred dollar shoes” could refer to his 1970 Troubadour debut and his ‘70s, six-inch heeled glam rock persona. The line “I saw you cross the landing/And descending marble stairs…you seemed to walk on air” reminds me of Elton triumphantly walking down the stairs at the opening of his historic 1973 Hollywood Bowl concert. The song also has an underlying sadness -- “You shifted gears to cruise,” and “The marquee lights are flickering/Your poster’s fading fast” – which could refer to Russell and also make it a quasi-sequel to “Idol” from “Blue Moves.” And is it just me, or does the quiet, eerie, static drone that starts this sound like the beginning of the classic British TV show, “The Prisoner”?

“Hey Ahab” – By the third song, we finally get the two piano prodigies and pioneers rocking together. Elton is pounding and deliriously screaming out the lyrics to this nautical ditty, while Russell’s croaking background vocals and skipping triplets give the songs its rock and rudder. Here, the exalting backing choir is more like a lead instrument, pushing this song to a swirling gospel grope. It does seem to go on a bit long, but the length of the song showcases so much great piano playing, it’s a delightful indulgence. Just try to get the chorus out of your head, I dare you.

“Gone To Shiloh” -- Taupin’s return to the Civil War is a somber elegy of a young Union soldier going off to war. It begins with a distant piano intro that sounds like it’s playing on a century old record player, which immediately takes the listener back in time. Taupin brings this large war down to the small details of a family snapshot – loved ones waving goodbye and praying to see their loved one return. Leon and Elton both give stark, emotive vocal performances, but it’s Neil Young’s aching, haunting vocal on the second verse, and his straining, chilling background vocals that give this dire death march its drama. The constant pounding drum adds to the song’s grave tone. When Young quivers, “He’s heading for a different kind of thunder/And the stunned surprise in the eyes of dying men,” this song transforms into a mini scene of a movie. This one could contend with The Band’s “The Night They Drove ‘Ol Dixie Down” -- it’s that good.

“Hearts Have Turned To Stone” – A vintage Leon Russell big band rocker with charged backing vocals answering Russell’s every line. Some great piano, Elton yelping in the background – it’s a classic, gritty, edgy, Stax/Volt horn-driven soulful stunner they just don’t make anymore. A valuable history lesson. The most “Leon Russell” sounding song on the album.

“Jimmie Rodgers’ Dream” – It would be easy to categorize this as a simple throwaway. It’s a biographical study on the life of one of country music’s fabled founders, and at first blush is overtly country to sell its theme. But Taupin’s lyrics are beautifully descriptive and poetic, with a humble, hummable chorus. But what saves this from filler is Burnett inserting an infectious pedal steel to drive the melody and one of Taupin’s best lines is “Now I pop a top and stay up late with Gideon.”

“There’s No Tomorrow” – Based on the Mighty Hannibal (James Timothy Shaw) gospel spiritual, “Hymn No. 5,” T Bone Burnett’s thumps and moans inject the feel and pace of a grieving New Orleans funeral march (he shares a writing credit). Its simple lyrics of life, death, and the hereafter are meant to stir the soul and speak to the living. Burnett’s ability to re-create the sound of a time gone-by is his greatest gift, and his eerie version of Louisiana mojo and gris gris is on full display here. Given Russell’s frail health and serious brain surgery just before the album’s recording, his voice is filled with genuine emotion and pain as he drones the chorus of mortality. The highlight is Ribot’s screeching, piercing voodoo guitar licks, giving this song a sinister sway that anoints it with mystery and darkness. If the producers of HBO’s sexy vampire tale, “True Blood” don’t use this song next season to play over the closing credits, it’s their loss. The wary should listen with the lights on.

“Monkey Suit” – This Stax/Volt rocker chugs with the horns and the beat of a classic Sam And Dave single from the ‘60s, and recalls the similar influence of Bruce Springsteen’s bombastic B-side, “Pink Cadillac.” Taupin’s first verse seems to reference to famous bullet-riddled climax of the ground-breaking film, “Bonnie And Clyde.” Elton’s having a ball singing this one, letting it rip and channeling his sassy soul side, the female backing vocals add to the delirium with their “oohs” and “shoop-shoops,” and the high-end piano pounding flourishes by Elton and Leon make this a funky, fun throwback that echoes Russell’s roadhouse, rave-up rockers of the past.

“The Best Part Of The Day” – OK, so it does sound suspiciously like “Tinderbox” at times, and these Taupin lyrics celebrating the simple things of life do drip with a sappy sentimentality. But nonetheless, its tender theme and great lines, “Like Romeo angels in the roof above” and “I hear you singing “I Shall Be Released”/Like A chainsaw running through a masterpiece (another veiled reference to Russell?) make it endearing. The chorus grabs you like the some of the best vintage Elton-Taupin ballads, and both Elton and Leon’s vocals truly transform this into something special. Elton’s gritty delivery on the bridge “Thunder breaking in the east/I’m gonna love you ‘til it comes around” clinches it.

“A Dream Come True” – Supposedly the first song written for this collaboration, with Elton and Leon just sitting down and pounding out some boogie rock on their pianos, searching for a melody and some inspiration. It is exactly that – a rollicking, finger frolicking piano exercise that bounces and bops (do you hear a little “Birds” in the melody?). Leon’s lyrics focus on a newfound optimism about life, his music, and the project ahead. The backing vocals in the middle give it a gleeful lift, and those pianos just keep bopping until they can’t bop anymore, and the song comes to a ragged ending sprinkled with the “oomphas” of tired tubas.

“I Should Have Sent Roses” – Love the jazzy production on this bittersweet song of regret. Perfectly placed horns and sorrowful guitar parts convey Taupin’s lament, and Russell’s graveled, creaking voice imparts the sadness of this damning declaration of taking love for granted and wallowing in its loss. This is another song in the classic Leon Russell tradition – at times similar to his signature, “A Song For You” in tone and introspection. Elton’s shared, remorseful vocal helps define the desperation, but this is Leon’s moment.

“When Love Is Dying” – From literally the first chord, every Elton John fan can instantly tell this is going to be one of those timeless Elton John-Bernie Taupin ballads. And it doesn’t disappoint. It’s got the drama, the addictive, soaring chorus, the rising backing harmonies (thanks to Brian Wilson), an enticing bridge, and Elton singing his heart out. It’s impossible not to love this song, and if released 25 or 30 years ago, when radio airplay offered widespread exposure, this cry of withering love would be among Elton’s greatest hits, much like his anointed anthems, “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me,” “The One” and “Sacrifice.” This song is where the combination of Elton and Leon sharing vocals works the best, as they each imbue their verses with emotion and power. And Leon’s mourning delivery of the line, “Somebody help me now,” followed by Elton’s commanding bellowing of the chorus is magical. Everyone gets out of the way and rightfully just lets Elton do his thing. Let’s hope this song receives the recognition it deserves as one of Elton and Bernie’s best, and when performed live, it should bring down the house.

“My Kind Of Hell” – One of the two “bonus tracks,” it shakes and shimmies to the beat of “Old ’67.” Another feisty retro rocker with the horns, pianos, and backing vocals adding spice to a catchy chorus. It’s all attitude that makes this more than just filler.

“Mandalay Again” – Why is it that some of Elton’s best songs have been relegated to B-side status, while less deserving songs get album placement? Yes, many times it’s a question of album pacing, but far too many great Elton songs (“Planes,” “Sick City,” “Conquer The Sun,” “Dreamboat,” “Love So Cold,” “Can’t Get Over Getting Over You,” “Take me Down To the Ocean,” “How’s Tomorrow?,” “The North Star,” “So Sad The Renegade”, to name a few) have be cast into oblivion (only known by the diehards) not because of merit, but due to sequencing. This song is the other “bonus track,” and yet, it may be the best song on the album. Even if the “official” album was ballad heavy, this song was NOT the one to cast aside. Like “When Love Is Dying,” it takes only a few chords to realize it’s a classic-in-the-making. This is Elton and Bernie’s clear tribute to Russell and his classic repenting, “Back To The Island” (the song credited with Elton contacting Russell in the first place). Taupin’s lyric of a past love never fully explored and Elton’s soothing, buoyant, tropical melody alludes to Russell’s original with its own magnetism. Elton and Leon sound great and it’s just a joyous, beautiful song. It’s the one I keep coming back to for repeated listens, and always will.

“Never Too Old (To Hold Somebody)” – This nostalgic love song is the centerpiece of “The Union,” with its outlook on life, personal attributes, and the power of inspiration and drive encapsulating what the album is all about. The song’s slow, lilting pace connotes its inner reflection of self and others, and again, Elton and Leon’s vocals express the exact amount of emotion for the past and hope for the future. Elton’s solo live rendition in concert earlier this year was a mere hint of the power and pathos that his recorded version carries and communicates. Elton and Leon are singing to one another, and for one another. It’s the album’s personal love letter to each from each, and their performance here proves the title.

“In The Hands Of Angels” -- Leon’s payback of appreciation for Elton’s generosity to create their new star-crossed collaboration, this angelic, heartfelt “thank you” traces Russell’s personal return from death’s door and creative complacency. There is a celestial contentment in his lyrics, elevated by a heavenly choir that transports the song and it sentiments to a higher plane and a higher power. You can hear Russell’s genuine gratitude for the amazing opportunity that Elton offered. Together, “The Master” and “The Governor,” “The Mad Dog” and “The Englishman” have formed an almost perfect “Union.”

"We must do." Leonardo DaVinci

James Turano is a graduate with honors from Elmhurst College, graduated from St. Bartholomew Grade School in Chicago, and is the creator and benefactor of an annual writing scholarship at the high school. Turano, a self-professed “entertainment junkie and pop culture guru” has worked in the Chicago media and arts as a newspaper and magazine writer, columnist, reporter and editor, radio talk show host, an executive with the international public relations firm of Hill & Knowlton, and as an actor, with various theater groups in Chicago and its suburbs. He has interviewed many important players in Elton’s career including Bernie Taupin. He also wrote the liner notes for the award-winning 1998 album release, “Crop Circles,” by Johnstone and John Jorgenson, and contributed 40 album reviews to “The Elton John Scrapbook.” Known as "Elton" Jim as part of "The Garry Meier Show" radio program on WGN Radio AM 720 in Chicago, daily from 3-7 pm. Turano's Ron Santo impersonation is one of the best bits the show has going.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Awesome review!