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9 Feb 2016

The Master Class Series (III): "Elton is showing that he is the mother of invention" by Claude Bernardin

Claude Bernardin attended Great Valley High School and learned his most serious profession there, studying as a young artist under Chester County Watercolorist Lawrence H. Kuzmin. His first major Professional Painting exhibition in 1986, was in Gramercy Park, Manhattan, NY at the Salmagundi Art Club, upon invitation after receiving the President’s Award for his watercolor, “Work Bench”. Claude has had a successful painting career ever since. And has been a High School Art Instructor, on the High School level in the Philadelphian Archdiocese. He teaches Painting, drawing, graphics, photography, film, Pop Culture, The History Of Pop Music, Art History and much more.

After forty plus years of open-heart surgery through his music and Bernie Taupin’s words and stories, Elton John is finally able to put his past behind him, and move forward. The album, if nothing, is certainly a departure, and it is in the energetic album’s center piece, “Claw Hammer”, John sings openly,

“You're gonna need a claw hammer
Oh my Lord
To bust on through
And break down your walls
Loosen your lips
Slacken that jaw
Waiting for you to share with us
The myth behind the lies
Come on out
Throw us a bone

We want to know your intentions
Are you fake
For goodness sake
Or the Mother of Invention..?”

In the song's words, Taupin seems to be teasing with the fans, yet musically, John and the band deliver the album’s musical masterpiece. Here, perhaps, Elton John is showing that he is the mother of invention.  It is not so much that it is new ground, as it is a restructuring, and a new path. Here the band, and singer, have forged a new road. Yes, the ending has tinges of Steely Dan, yes the ending harkens to the most recent jazz-tinged, live concert performances of “Madman Across The Water." Yes one can hear all of that, but, don’t be fooled or dismissive, here….IT WORKS! 

This album is not unlike any John has produced, it has it's incredible highs, and it has it’s incredible lows.

A few issues off the bat:

1. There is NO PLACE in Rock-N-Roll for the theatrical vocals that appear on this album, in such tracks as “Claw Hammer”, “Blue Wonderful”, and “Free and Easy”. They can border on “icky cute”. Does that really work in rock?
2. Vocally, it is not his best album, nor is it even close. It sounds more like a walk in the park. One wonders, was this why his voice appears to be so lowly mixed down, and seems to hide behind the band?
3. The piano is clearly taking a back seat. Bands tend to be great excuses for the likes of McCartney and John, to hide behind. I’d have most certainly turned that up in the mix!
4. T. Bone Burnett, and guitarist Johnstone are not a good judge of song quality, apparently.
5. I am hopeful that T. Bone Burnett is now done for a time. We need a new honest hand in the studio.

As much as one would like to dismiss all of Elton John’s prior music catalog, it cannot, nor should it ever, be dismissed, even when writing a review. Is this album as good as Madman, or Rock Of The Westies? No! It’s different. Is it as good as Captain? Honky? Yellow Brick? No, and no amount of hype from anyone, including Rolling Stone Magazine, will make one decide that.

One comes to conclusions based on many things.
Fans like much of what John produces, that is acceptable, and it is why we call them “fans”. I am a “fan”, but I have always remained on the cusp edge, of reality. I listen to many, forms of music. I do not cast stones at others. I merely speak from my own experiences.  I like what I like, I don’t like, what I don’t like. I am a huge fan of John Mellencamp. I loved his Human Wheels and Mr. Happy Go Lucky, albums. I loved his “Rain On The Scarecrow”. What I have not loved is all his recent work with Producer T. Bone Burnett. It falls short,  ALL of it. Tuneless, drivel, bad range vocals, muddy instrumentation. Dreary lyrics.

So why mention this? Is there a connection? Yes, his name is T. Bone. I was proud of his work in the studio on the last two albums for Elton John, but even I was starting to hear muddiness, and poor decisions being made. To Produce, one should have a clear handle on the “sound” of their songwriter, the “style” of their songwriter. T Bone’s productions of the like for almost everyone he touches, seems to be like a road map, lacking any direction, and all over the place.  I am left unclear, and unsatisfied. I think it is time now for a new producer. That is all I will say further.

Clarification now on style and sound:
What does one expect of a new Elton John album these days? Nothing? Or do you harken back to olden times, to the likes of Tumbleweed or Madman, Honky Chateau, or do you want and desire a more sharp dressed, snappier 1980’s sound? Or is it possible to bridge all of this in one album? Elton’s career is a puzzler. There is the 1970’s Elton with strings and anger, there is the pop mid-1970’s Elton, there is the colder, pop savvy Elton of the 1983 era, Too Low For Zero period. There is the 1990’s Lion King "Can You Feel The Love Tonight" Elton. There is the 2001, Songs From The West Coast Elton, there is the theatre, Aida, Billy Elliot, Lestat Elton. Now that last one should not touch the “sound/or style” of the rocker Elton. EVER!  And, unfortunately, here on this disc, it has. That “sound” is not a very pleasing, nor believable by the same man who is on stage screaming at me about "he shall be Levon!” and “burning down missions!" It is a perplexing thing.

Back to our song spotlight:
In “Claw Hammer”, the album's center piece, the song begins with Elton’s Lestat, theatre voice….and I almost found it a turn off immediately. Not believable in the least. How does a rocker sing like he’s on stage in a high school drama play? It, thankfully, is saved by it's chorus and it’s wonderful, (oops new word…needed from the thesaurus quickly) its fantastic instrumental jams, thus, becoming a “fantastic” track, and eventually rising above this album as a stand out.

It is in-fact, a new direction, musically, and not in the theatre sense of the term.
Now for the songs in exact order:

Wonderful Crazy Night:
As title cuts go, the second weakest title cut ever recorded for an album by John, only comparison, here is “Leather Jackets” from 1986. It’s a better album cut, but lacking any uplifting female singers, any changes melodically. The song suffers greatly. Instrumentally, it’s got me, and my toe continues to tap, but I just can’t get around the melody. Piano great, Davey’s guitar work great, but where’s the tune? He is a Tunesmith right? Guy who wrote such glittery melodies as “Island Girl” and “Im Still Standing”?, The tune…It never alters, and as rockers go, in his arsenal of “GREAT” rockers, it can’t touch “Saturday” or “Love Lies”, so it leaves me perplexed. I think if he had had a vocalist singing a higher part over his lower register it would have worked. To me, it’s a “whole lotta mumbling goin on!”
It’s an ok B side, not a strong album cut, sorry.
Lyrically not bad, but Taupin has written stronger.
Good to hear him loosening up, but the song leaves me wanting way too much.
Grade: B/B-

In The Name Of You:
“Take a hold…here! Hold On!” Classic Elton returns! Riff is wonderfully catchy, guitar is gritty, and suddenly we are sailing back to 1972 Honky Chateau. The world is in check totally. THIS is Elton John! T. Bone gets an award! Davey Johnstone gets an award! Elton deserves the best. Lyrically it’s ok, not Taupin's best, but man, does Elton kill it!  This should have been the Lead single!
It would have been nice if he’d have played with his snarly old bitchy vocally self a bit, but yes the song soars! A breath of fresh air, lacking on The Diving Board and even The Union. Nothing more I can say here, it keeps me smiling.
It’s not “Wake Up Wendy” but I’m not doing that game. I love “IT”, this song. This song is great! And thank God the Angels woke up the old Elton, who arrives at the end vocally….NOW THAT’S ELTON! And Um, T. Bone TURN THAT UP! Ya dummy!
Ohhh yeah! OH Yeah!!!
Grade : A

Claw Hammer:
From the opening instrumentation from Ray Cooper, I’m hooked. He almost loses me with the Lestat voice, but I’m sticking with it, I’m there. Okay this is just "Oscar Wilde" Part Two…..I’m in it.
CHORUS! OH MY LORD! You saved it! It’s killer! It’s modern “Madman” but it’s somehow its equal! Dude! How do you do it?! You just reinvented yourself musically again?!Amazing, so refreshing. Thank you to all who got this done.
Mr. Johnstone you soar on this track. And it is refreshing!
Kim Bullard's Steely Dan twist is perfect, but I also love how Elton brings in the live Madman segues…it’s just a great track. A Classic, brilliant, and should be the WHOLE direction on the next album. Superb!
Grade: A+

Blue Wonderful:
Ok. Video is dreadful, that’s out of the way, Umm the theatre voice? Seriously?
Am I to take this seriously? It’s dripping icky sweet.
Yes, it reflects Peach Tree Road, but, you’ve crossed into something I just am struggling with.
NO! I can’t do it. No matter how many times you tell me …”wonderful”.
Nope, This is NOT YOUR STYLE!
It doesn’t work for you.
Out of your element totally. Davey is trying hard to salvage it, so is T. Bone, but no.
Um, not "Tiny Dancer", not "Harmony", not "Mona", not "Sacrifice", not "Blue Avenue", not "One More Arrow". Too theatre for me. Sorry.
Grade: C+

I’ve Got 2 Wings:
Took me four listens to get around this track. Lyrically it is BRILLIANT! One of Taupin’s best lyrics EVER!
At first I thought, no, no, you did not deliver the goods here, Elton. But I get it, you are working in that country folk, story tellers thing…and it is lovely. The guitar part in the back ground and the humming make it lovely.
It’s early for me, but I know it will be a treasured track for me in the future.
I love the style. YES style is here.
Grade:  B+

A Good Heart :
OH MY! He didn’t just play that?! 1974 Elton is back?!
Vocally superb, opening verse outstanding. Instrumentally behind him dark, lovely.
Classic Nigel! Chorus! AH!
Old Elton is back and in perfect form!
Classic Elton John here. I am perplexed at how Elton could see this much melody in such an average lyric. Wow! It’s that thing that ONLY Elton does. "Whoo OH." Classic Davey guitar work! Classic Elton vocals.
Piano back, YES! He could do that damn thing all day long!
Fantastic synth backing!
The horn arrangement is superb, and refreshing!
Ending is just lovely!
Ok Davey , I give you your Grade of A, good show at end.
Grade: A+

Looking Up:
Catchy as hell opening piano work! It’s classic pop Elton. It will probably not always remain this high on my list, I can see it getting tiresome. Davey does everything he can to get it to shake off its pop sensibilities. It’s a fun track, my toe is tapping constantly.
Sounds very radio single oriented.
Not a bad track.
Grade :  B+/A-

Guilty Pleasure:
Does someone owe royalties to Chrissy Hynde and The Pretenders for this track?
Come on guys it’s  “Back On The Chain Gang” by Chrissy Hynde and The Pretenders. And that isn’t slight!  Um, no, can’t do this track. If you like that 1980’s thing…ok, but all I can hear is her going “Ohhh Ohhhh Ohhh Ohhhh…” over the top! You’re better than this. WAY better! And by the way, yes…"this song will hurt someone….”  OUCH! The pain!
Grade: B-

Lyric is the second best lyric on the album, and is brilliant. Why does Elton automatically go with this as a melody? Hmmm, I allowed one already….2 Wings, I’m not going to allow two. Can’t! It’s trying hard to get off the ground…hard….bringing in jangly stuff, twelve strings, but nope. I think a better melody was desperately crying out. This song, to me, is just a dud.
I wanted it to be so much more! The song lyric deserved better, it should have at least represented the vitality and spirit of Ray Cooper, whom I am to assume the lyric represents. I read the lyric and automatically thought, wow a gospel-spiritual song!
Elton come on, what is this? You are so much better than this.
I’ll be kind with my grade.
Grade: C+

The Open Chord:
“Heard  a song in my head….and wrote it down…it came out of nowhere…”
Um, Yes! Out of nowhere…”….If nowhere is Peach Tree Road…yes!
(Verses of “Too Many Tears”, 2004’s Peach Tree Road), it is lovely.
I vote this, perhaps the strongest song on the album. It’s certainly in the top three.
And even though it harkens back to "Too Many Tears", it is a far better song than that one.
Why? Because the chorus delivers the goods. Classic ballad Elton John!
And everything “Blue Wonderful” wishes it might be when it grows up.
It’s just lovely. Breath of fresh air. Strong, strong, strong.
Grade: A+

Warning, Warning Doctor Smith……if we stop now the album gets a B+/A- or three stars.
Hmmm two more alternate tracks. What can we find with these?

Free and Easy:
I am scared…make it stop, Oh My God…!
Who is this? This is “Amoreena” Elton? “Elderberry Wine” Elton? What! WHAT AM I HEARING!?
What is that middle part?! WT…..?
Ok, without a doubt, one of the worst songs he has ever released.
It is horrible! Who said, yes, yes this is good?
DUDE, two words, no three…..HONKY FUCKING CHATEAU!
Is this for his kids? Explain?
Grade: D …and ONLY because I’m a fan!
Oh, and I’ll never listen to this again, but you can be assured of me tap dancing and singing to fans just to annoy them. Look, maybe it would have been better to walk in to the studio, grab a mic, hit the piano angrily and say, fuck you!

England and America : Ok now I’m scared, I don’t want to play the next song. Do I have to?
Maybe…just maybe, it can only get better. Oh, wait…before I push play…a thought, fans….
Battle of the songs…All of Victim of Love or "Free and Easy"?! Yes, it’s worse!
Oh one more thing before I push play, this track makes "Flinstone Boy" and "I am Your Robot" sound like "Madman Across The Water."
Oh, before I push play…oh my god I need a beer!

England and America:
Ah, balance has returned to the universe.
Order restored.
However, somehow through that last track I have teleported back to 1983, apparently. Many women dancing around me in black and white striped outfits with their hair up. I think I just saw Madonna, hold on no, that was Chrissy Hynde again.
Wait, did Chrissy Hynde have Elton John’s Love child, too?  Or was that Davey Johnstone’s love child?
Wait! Wait, I have all this wrong. This song is a love song to Davey’s Mullet.
Ok let’s try some review:
Um, "I’m still Standing" it’s not. "Saturday" it’s not….and yeah…um, I guess its ok.
Grade: B

Now for the truth, and it haunts me.
I would take the B side “Fools In Fashion” over half of this album. I’m being serious. That fact alone is why I cannot grant this album a four star or three and a half star rating or an A-. Be careful what you wish for, I suppose someone can say. Yes, I wished for an up-tempo return to form, but I was hoping T. Bone was smart enough, Johnstone was smart enough, and Elton was smart enough to turn this session into classic sound and style, and not lose the momentum and musicianship of The Union and The Diving Board. Those two albums returned John to his classic writing style.  It is not a bad effort. It does show promise and new direction. So, in closing, is this album four stars out of five, according to Rolling Stone magazine? Of course it's not. Folks, one star above that means FIVE STARS, for the likes of Sgt. Pepper or, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. This album is good, it is fun, but no, it is not four stars.

Album Promotion: A+, Some of the best ever!

Album Production: B+, Although a few songs fluctuate a bit higher, I find the mix and balance way off on this one, especially the piano and voice.

Album Cover: B-, It's NOT Caribou, but close...and I just can't get around it as a good cover.

The Band Performance: Solid A!, Everyone in the band delivers here, and their efforts help the instrumental portions breath and give the album a breezy, effortless feel through out.

The Lyrics: B, Not Taupin's best work, although, there are two on this album I'd put in his top twenty efforts of the past decade.

Melodies: B+, All over the road. Some shine, gleam, and glimmer brilliantly, some lag behind, some fall completely short, and one scared me.

Vocals:  B-, Not even CLOSE to his best efforts.

Piano: A-, Not really sure if it's the production that diminishes it's presence or its the piano pounder himself, who carefully chose this, given the band more up front time. Either way, it's not a decision I'd EVER make. Turn up the piano!

Possible Classic Album Tracks in the Vein Of "Have Mercy" or "King Must Die" or "Madman":  C+, Kind of lacking.

Ballads: B, Although having TWO in "The Open Chord" and "A Good Heart". "Blue Wonderful" drops the ball. The album is screaming out for a "Ticking!"  How can you forget to deliver your signature style and sound?

Singles/Commerciality: B-, You need TWO strong candidates, and one needs to be, without question, uptempo. You might have it here in "In the Name Of You" and "A Good Heart"…might. Is that enough? I think a bit more effort is recommended here. Maybe consider releasing "England and America" as the next single?

SUGGESTION: Restructure. Find a new studio. Find a new producer. Sit down and write twice as many songs in two sessions, and make sure you write your ballads and also some classic album cuts.

As a musician who has shaped the course of pop music history, Elton John understands he can get a way with doing a little bit less these days, and quite frankly, few have earned that right more.

But my challenge?
Nina Simone, Leon Russell, and John Lennon would all hold Elton to a much higher standard, as do I.
All written with love, and a little sense of humor.
I remain a fan, always.

Claude W. Bernardin
Co-Author of “Rocket Man: The Music Of Elton John A To Z”
A fan since September of 1970.

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