He may have gone on to become one of the dominant superstars of the ‘70s (and beyond), but Elton John’s career began with this commercial failure, which wasn’t even released in the U.S. at the time. It deserved better, but its lack of success wasn’t surprising given that it's such an ambitious affair. Some might say too ambitious, as he definitely bites off more than he can chew at times, and Bernie Taupin’s lyrics (for those who don’t know; Elton wrote the music, Taupin wrote the lyrics) are at times clumsy and a bit ridiculous (primary themes include youthful remembrances and mythology). Musically, Elton is still searching for solid footing and a singular voice, but most of these melodies are worth getting to know even if few are likely to bowl you over. An obvious standout is the 8-minute title track, written in tribute to The Rolling Stones (note the “Sympathy”-like congas) and an epic early highlight despite being too long. “Western Ford Gateway” is more modest but has a good up-tempo groove to it, plus the appearance of Caleb Quaye’s rock guitar is always welcome; it’s particularly prominent on the hard rocking (if at times quite silly) “Sails.” “Hymn 2000” and “Lady What’s Tomorrow” are more folksy, the former fine if melodramatic and a bit boring, the latter atmospheric and pretty if not especially memorable. “The Scaffold” is one of several songs on which Elton plays electric organ rather than piano, and it’s agreeably sing songy, even if it is about a minotaur; an earlier song, the pleasantly baroque, Elizabethan ballad (courtesy of its prominent harpsichord) “Val-Hala,” is about Vikings and Thor, so some of these songs require a suspension of belief. Still, they rarely sound unpleasant, and the album ends strongly, as “Skyline Pigeon” is a dramatic string-enhanced ballad that’s the album’s best song, and “Gulliver/Hay-Chewed/Reprise” exceeds even “Empty Sky” in terms of epic scope and ambition, even if is execution isn’t as successful. This is really three songs in one; the first part is a tribute to a deceased dog that as previously mentioned starts to swell to epic proportions. It then surprisingly switches gears and gets jazzy, the key being the sax/piano interplay before Quaye again adds a guitar solo. Finally, the last two minutes of the album reprises the previous eight songs, which was a neat idea (so really this is like 10 songs in 1!), and the reissue adds four worthwhile bonus tracks, the best being the early single “Lady Samantha,” which would’ve been an album highlight had it originally been included on Empty Sky. Anyway, this was a solid if significantly flawed first set from the man who would soon return the piano to a position of rock ‘n’ roll prominence, much like Fats Domino, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis had done before him. Then again, less than half the album could legitimately be called rock ‘n’ roll, as even on his first album Elton pretty much did his very own thing, even if that thing had obvious forbears (Stones, Beatles, Dylan), needed further refinement, and would’ve benefited from a narrower focus.
Elton John (MCA ’70, Rocket/Island '96) Rating: B+
This is the album that started to break Elton big in the U.S., and for good reason, as it was a more focused release than Empty Sky that smartly made Elton’s piano the main musical focus along with Paul Buckmaster’s lush orchestral arrangements. “Your Song,” arguably his signature song, became his first top 10 hit and was the album’s primary selling point, and it remains a beautiful love song despite some occasionally dopey lyrics. Outstanding album tracks and radio favorites (if not hits) include the gospel rock ballad “Border Song,” which seemingly provides a message of togetherness and brotherhood (it was later a minor hit for Aretha Franklin), and the raucous up-tempo rocker “Take Me To The Pilot,” which also features gospel-styled backing vocals and whose nonsensical lyrics John and Taupin still couldn’t explain if they tried. Other notable tracks include “No Shoe Strings On Louise,” a lively slide-guitar based parody of The Rolling Stones’ faux country stylings that I find quite enjoyable, though it does seem to have its fair share of detractors, and “Sixty Years On,” which musically is all about its wonderfully theatrical orchestrations (again credit there goes to Buckmaster). It’s kind of weird that a young guy like Taupin would muse about an old neglected war veteran, but I guess Bernie was an old soul at heart, and musically the song is outstanding. I’m also partial to “The Cage,” which if for no other reason would stand out by being another high energy rocker on such a ballad-heavy album, but beyond that there’s its catchy “ah ooh hoo” chorus, plus some Moog synthesizer embellishments that add an “out-there” factor to wha's basically a simple, fun, upbeat rocker (just don’t pay too much attention to lyrics like “for I’ve never loved in a cage, or talked to a friend or just waved”). The other track here that really stands out to me is “The King Must Die;” I just love the drumming on this one, and Elton’s ever-improving, highly dramatic vocals also make this something of an epic finale. Alas, slow-paced ballads such as “I Need You To Turn To,” “First Episode At Hienton,” and “The Greatest Discovery,” though all elegant in their own way, all contribute to what can at times be a rather high boring factor. Taupin’s lyrics can also be problematic, at times being pretentious, mystifyingly opaque, or just flat-out silly (see “The Cage”), but most of the times the lyrics don’t hinder the songs, and sometimes they’re quite moving, as on “The Greatest Discovery,” which chronicles the birth of a younger brother in wide-eyed fashion (I still think the song is boring, though). Also, those of you who don’t like ballads or orchestral arrangements (which prominently appear even on the rockers here) are best advised to listen to something else. Me, I rather enjoy the large majority of this album, as Buckmaster’s arrangements are generally tasteful and serve to enhance the songs, John’s piano playing and singing are hard to fault (perhaps his singing is a bit melodramatic at times), and the music is consistently ear pleasing if a tad too syrupy and hook-free at times. Elton John was the first outing of what would become a long-lasting working relationship with producer Gus Dudgeon (it may say Elton John on the cover but this was a team effort in many ways), and it’s a fine early offering from what became a spectacular partnership. The cd reissue appends three highly worthwhile bonus tracks, including a pair of early singles in the catchy, energetic groovy rocker "Bad Side Of The Moon" (this one is definitely something of an underrated gem) and the also high-energy Jerry Lee Lewis tribute “Rock n’ Roll Madonna,” which is also a pretty good rocker though its canned applause is a lame ploy. Also included is an early version of “Grey Seal,” which was later rerecorded for Goodbye Yellowbrick Road and which even here features a fine melody. Hats off to Rocket Records for giving consumers good bang for their bucks.
Tumbleweed Connection (MCA ’71, Rocket/Island '96) Rating: A
After recording the largely forgettable Friends soundtrack and the 17-11-70 live album (which wasn't officially released until after this one), Elton released this highly entertaining effort, which is my favorite Elton John album. Though it still contains string arrangements and ballads, Tumbleweed Connection is a more rock oriented effort than Elton John, and it's a prime showcase of a supreme melodist who at that time was obviously influenced by earthy traditionalists such as The Band and Van Morrison. Meanwhile, Taupin’s lyrics romanticizing the old American West, though sometimes corny or pretentious, are more often than not vividly drawn, richly imagistic, and memorably poetic. A good case in point is “Talking Old Soldiers,” a sparse, moving piano ballad in which an old war veteran (many of these songs seem to take place around Civil War time) laments about lost friends that he can’t forget despite the passage of time. Elsewhere, tales of soldiers, outlaws, guns, and of upholding one's family honor appear, and the album is strengthened by its thematic unity, with only a few songs ("Come Down In Time," "Love Song," "Amoreena") being implausible of having a young John Wayne star in their videos had they been made (and had that been possible at the time given Wayne's advanced age and likey disinterest in starring in Elton John videos!). Despite being bare of actual hits, Tumbleweed Connection contains some of his catchiest songs and is a varied package with no shortage of overlooked gems. For example, "Ballad Of A Well Known Gun" starts the proceedings with a lively gospel rocker (backing vocals being supplied by Lesley Duncan, Dusty Springfield, and others) that also features some slashing guitar from Quaye. There's not a piano in sight on the exquisite ballad “Come Down In Time,” which instead is musically carried by harp, oboe, and acoustic guitars. "Country Comfort," one of the album's best known songs (it was covered by Rod Stewart among others), is a wonderfully melodic country rock sing along, and "Son Of A Gun" continues with a good (not great) high energy rocker with yet more of the gospel backing vocals that are so prominent throughout the album. "My Father's Gun" is another spirited gospel rocker, this one stretched out to epic lengths (6:20), while the atmospheric "Where To Now St. Peter" starts as a lovely ballad before moving into more mysterious waters. "Love Song" is a sparse, understated ballad that, though nothing special, is notable for having been written by Duncan, while "Amoreena," which was used prominently in the Al Pacino movie Dog Day Afternoon, provides another absolute gem and album highlight. This one features delightfully colorful and emotional piano/organ interplay, plus Elton's emotional vocals are first-class, as they are throughout the album, actually. Anyway, next comes the aforementioned "Talking Old Soldiers" followed by the album's other well-known song, "Burn Down The Mission," which at the time served as the centerpiece of his live performances. I love this studio version as well; with its impassioned vocals, vivid lyrics, soulful organ, and ambitious tempo changes, what's not to love? This song is the album's other epic entry (6:22), and in many ways it's the small details that make it (and the overall album) special, such as the way the horns and strings surprisingly enter the fray whenever the tempo picks up. Anyway, to summarize the album, I'll say that Elton's music and Bernie's lyrics have rarely meshed so well together, and that the album's rich, more stripped down sound was a welcome change from the at-times overblown pop of his previous album. As for the bonus tracks on the reissue, there are only two of them this time, but one of them, an epic near-nine minute version of “Madman Across The Water” on which guest Mick Ronson provides some blistering glam guitar, is a real doozy.
17-11-70 (MCA '71, Rocket/Island '96) Rating: B+
There was a big difference between live Elton John and studio Elton John, so this much-bootlegged New York City radio station live performance (in front of approximately 125 people) was officially released to show off that side of his artistry. And though the non-obvious, hit-less song selection might not thrill everybody, and it's also kind of short at only six songs (seven on the much-improved reissue), this is still a very enjoyable showcase for Elton John the rocker (as opposed to Elton John the pop star). This is the guy who inherited the mantle from Jerry Lee Lewis, and he and his mere two bandmates, Nigel Olsson (drums) and Dee Murray (bass), at times make quite a racket for only three guys, especially given that they’re a guitar-less trio. Before his piano handstands and his ridiculously flamboyant attire started to overshadow his outstanding musicianship, Elton and co. simply got down to the business of playing his songs and pleasing his fans. The guys sound like they’re having fun, too, starting with a lively rendition of “Bad Side Of The Moon,” and on the reissue (which features much improved sound quality and which reshuffles the running order of the original so that it more accurately represents the actual show) continuing with “Amoreena,” which isn’t that different from the original but which is still soulful and quite good. “Take Me To The Pilot” was made for a live setting, and this breathlessly fast-paced version doesn’t disappoint, and the quality continues even if the pace slows considerably on “Sixty Years On.” Actually, this is the definitive version of the song, as it’s more powerful and dramatic than the studio version. Elton’s piano is elegant and majestic, and Olsson’s drums really stand out as well, making this an epic rendition on which Paul Buckmaster’s strings aren’t missed at all. Anyway, next up is a cover of “Honky Tonk Woman,” and though The Rolling Stones’ version is way better, at least this one is energetic, fun, and decidedly different. “Can I Put You On,” originally on the Friends soundtrack, shows off what a good band they were even though the song itself is nothing special, and the album ends with an 18-minute version of “Burn Down The Mission" that also integrates Elvis Presley’s “My Baby Left Me” (The King himself would be proud) and The Beatles’ “Get Back” (which features almost hard rock vocalizing and is much rowdier than The Beatles’ earthy original). In between we get some improvisational jams and some vocal asides to the crowd, and though there are some stagnant, meandering moments along the way, the actual version of “Burn Down The Mission” (the first 6 minutes) is mighty fine, and some of the instrumental interplay later on is interesting as well. On the whole, this is an above average live album that I enjoy listening to primarly because it’s a genuine rock album that’s different from any of his studio albums. Yes, some of the song selections can be considered questionable, but I can get his “greatest hits” elsewhere, whereas this album is one of a kind, flawed though it may be.
Madman Across The Water (MCA ’71, Rocket/Island '96) Rating: A-
Elton's sixth release in a mere two year period is another strong effort, one that's comparatively overlooked compared to its surrounding albums. Always on the move, this one is different than previous albums, being darker and quite serious in tone, with Paul Buckmaster's dramatic, sweeping string arrangements giving many of these songs a broadly cinematic quality. Buckmaster's at times too prominent strings almost overwhelm some of these songs, and Taupin's lyrics are problematic on a couple of tracks ("Indian Sunset," "All The Nasties"), but Elton's music is his most ambitious yet, as these songs are generally on the long-ish side (5 of the albums 9 songs exceed 5 minutes) and often feature multiple sections. The first side is pretty close to flawless, containing three all-time Elton classics and another strong album track as well. "Tiny Dancer," Taupin's ode to his wife that much later was given new life when prominently featured in the movie Almost Famous, begins the proceedings with a wonderful ballad that's notable for its falsetto flavored chorus. Buckmaster's strings are more subtle here than elsewhere, the piano melody is marvelous, and airy backing vocals hit the spot as well. The second song, "Levon," named after The Band's Levon Helm, is just as good if not even better, what with its soaring string-led melody, great vocal (actually Elton's vocals are stellar throughout the album), and lyrics that are difficult to decipher but like Dylan they at least sound poetic and important. "Razor Face" (the "strong album track" on side one) is a more straightforward pop rocker with a surprising jam section and moving lyrics, while the title track is truly one-of-a-kind within the Elton ouvre. I already complimented this song in my Tumbleweed Connection review, but this officially released, more fully fleshed out version is arguably even better, even if it cuts back on the guitar heroics, here supplied by Chris Spedding rather than Ronson. Rather, this darkly moody epic might very well be Buckmaster's finest 6-minutes, as his dramatic arrangement along with Elton's impassioned vocal makes this a paranoid classic that very well might be his best non-hit ever. After that stellar start, unsurprisingly the album fails to maintain such a high standard, but side two is not without its virtues too. As previously mentioned, the lyrics to "Indian Sunset" are far from Bernie's best, as he at times stumbles with pretentious stabs at significance, but musically this is another interesting multi-sectioned, string-heavy opus. The comparatively modest but modestly enjoyable "Holiday Inn" is notable for some fine mandolin work from Davey Johnstone, soon to become the lead guitarist and a longtime mainstay in Elton's band, while "Rotten Peaches," a lightly funky, gospel-flavored sing along, is infectious and stands as another high quality album track. The album's only real stinker is "All The Nasties," which is musically cheesy and overblown and whose lyrics are even worse. Really, it's rarely a good idea for an artist to lyrically take on his critics, especially given how little influence critics actually have on the buying public. Anyway, the album ends with the appropriately titled "Goodbye," a brief, brooding piano/vocal-only ballad that's too short for its own good (1:47) but which ends the album well enough. On the whole, Madman On The Water (the reissue of which contains no bonus tracks) stands out due to its almost prog-like ambitiousness, but most of these songs work very well, sometimes spectacularly well as on the three undeniable classics, the first two of which were minor hits but all of which have received significant radio airplay over the years. Throw in several strong lesser known album tracks and enjoyable space fillers, and only one track I'd toss, and what you have is one of Elton's best albums, released back when he was young, hungry, and willing to try anything once.
Honky Chateau (MCA ’72) Rating: A
One of Elton’s very best albums, Honky Chateau began an incredible run of seven straight number one albums (people forget just how huge Elton John was in the seventies). Featuring a stripped down, more basic rock band sound, with new guitarist Johnstone joining Olsson and Murray, this album features shorter songs and sports a much lighter overall feel than his at times heavy-handed previous album. The bouncy, brassy “Honky Cat,” a perky, playful New Orleans styled piano pop number, begins the album with what would become an instant fan favorite. "Mellow" is simple but melodic and memorable (and yes, mellow), while the up-tempo rocker “I Think I’m Going To Kill Myself” features contrasting melody and lyrics, as do several songs here which makes the album more interesting, actually. Anyway, this one pits suicidal lyrics to positively ebullient music, but on the other hand the lyrics are also tongue in cheek and rather amusing (our narrator wants to stick around to watch the aftermath of his deed), and the music contains serious, bluesy mellower sections as well. Whatever, it all works extremely well, and "Susie (Dramas)" is a fun, funky upbeat rocker with a major guitar presence. It's nothing major, and you could accuse Bernie of misogynist lyrics on this one, but the next song, "Rocket Man," is flat-out perfect and is one of the top 5 songs Elton ever did. Man, this is just a classic sing-a-long single with great lyrics about loneliness and unforgettable hooks, led by Johnstone's weepy guitar and Elton's high-pitched vocal performance, which is a tour de force. Those airy backing harmonies hit the spot as well, and the backing vocals are also really good on "Salvation," another strong album track with a singable chorus and a gospel flavor. The piano-less "Slave" sees Elton return to the Civil War themes of Tumbleweed Connection and is mostly notable for Davey's fine work on banjo and pedal steel guitar, which gives the song a country flavor, again a la Tumbleweed Connection. "Amy" isn't a great song either but it's also enjoyable and features another notable performance from Johnstone, but it is guest violinist Jean Luc Ponty who really steals the show. After that lively, jam-based number, Elton and Bernie tone things down by delivering one of their most elegant ballads, as their reflective ode to New York City, “Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters,” is easily among the best non-hits they ever did. Finally, though again Taupin paints the song's lady protagonist in a less than ideal light, "Hercules" ends the album on a musically upbeat note, and the song's '50s vibe points the way towards his nostalgic next album. As for this album, the by now seasoned team of Elton John and Bernie Taupin are at or near their peak throughout, and after the over-prominence of Buckmaster's strings the last time out (and I do want to reiterate that I really like that album), it was a wise move to significantly simplify the arrangements (Buckmaster had nothing to do with this album after dominating large parts of the last one), which of course is one reason why the masses found this album more palatable. True, Taupin still comes up with vague and even embarrassing lyrics from time to time (example: “you’re far out, you’re fab, and insane”), but overall his contributions are more straightforward and less overtly “poetic” than past efforts, and are all the better for it. In the end, this is just a compulsively listenable album from start to finish that makes me feel good, and though you could make a case that some of these songs are "lightweight" or "slight," I enjoy every one of them, and the album contains several classic tracks, two of which ("Honky Cat," "Rocket Man") cracked the Billboard U.S. top 10. P.S. Many people have commented about the supposed similarities between "Rocket Man" and David Bowie's 1968 hit "Space Oddity," but even though both songs share similar lyrical themes and both were produced by Gus Dudgeon, musically they don't sound alike to me at all, though both songs are all-time classics.
Don't Shoot Me I'm Only The Piano Player (MCA ‘73, Rocket/Island '96) Rating: B+
Continuing his insane productivity (he was contractually obligated to deliver two albums per year), this album is best known for its two smash singles, which tend to overshadow all the other songs. For good reason, I suppose, as they are the album's obvious standout tracks, but there's plenty of other quality songs and performances here, even if the album itself is somewhat overshadowed by the superior albums that bookend it. This album is notable for joyously nostalgic, upbeat, and brassy fifties-influenced tracks such as "Elderberry Wine" (which again contrasts sadly nostalgic lyrics about an ex-wife with upbeat music), "Midnight Creeper" (a fun if insubstantial number notable for its impressive brass and guitar interplay), and "I'm Going To Be A Teenage Idol" (an airy, lighthearted, and jaunty tribute to friend Marc Bolan). "Teacher I Need You" is a sprightly and melodic (if not exactly hooky) track about a schoolboy crush on a teacher that Elton admits was influenced by Bobby Vee, and as per usual Elton doesn't forsake ballads, either, two of which ("Blues For My Baby and Me" and "Have Mercy On The Criminal") see the return of Buckmaster's string arrangements. "Blues For My Baby and Me," about a couple headed out West to hopefully find better days ahead, isn't bad by any means but isn't particularly memorable, either. I prefer "Have Mercy On The Criminal," which has a disco flavor in its faster sections, features a dramatic Elton vocal, and is significantly elevated by a guitar solo from Johnstone, who steps out a bit more on this album. The song's story-based lyrics about hunting escaped convicts were likely not particularly appreciated by the stuffy professional critics of the day who preferred more personal, autobiographical singer-songwriter fare, but that was their loss. Anyway, I digress, back to this album, which ends with another ballad, albeit a pretty plain one in "High Flying Bird," which at least is highlighted by evocative harmonies. The album begins with a ballad as well, and "Daniel" became a #2 U.S. hit and remains one of his signature songs. Supposedly a final verse, which made clear that the song was about the narrator's brother who moved away after a shattering war experience, was removed, leaving the song's meaning more ambiguous and open to interpretation, but either way it's the song's lovely melody that matters most. With a mellotron achieving a flute-like affect, Elton delivering his by now trademark falsettos, and a memorable Arp synthesizer solo from engineer Ken Scott, this song is wonderfully melodic and deeply affecting. The other major hit single is far less serious, and "Crocodile Rock" proved to be even more successful in becoming Elton's first #1 hit. This "oldies" homage may be a bit lightweight but it's also pure fun, with Elton nostalgically reminiscing about his childhood (though it always made me kinda sad that Suzie didn't stick around!) helped along by more falsetto hooks and some Farfisa organ. On the whole, this album is pretty upbeat and rocking, and its nostalgic bent was fitting when one considers that American Graffiti was released that same year. The main problem with the album is that it lacks truly standout tracks aside from the two classic singles, but it is another enjoyable album that is somewhat overlooked from that era.
Goodbye Yellowbrick Road (MCA ’73, Rocket/Island '96) Rating: A-
This album saw Elton and his crack band at the peak of their popularity, and often at the peak of their collective powers. By now entrenched as one of the 70’s dominant performers, at this point a supremely confident Elton was willing to try nearly anything, which was both a blessing and a curse. The album is his best known due to its classic hit singles, including four A+ efforts in a row to start the album, but it also includes a fair amount of filler and is one of those "very good double albums that could've been a great single album." Indeed, had Elton taken the best 11 or 12 songs here this would've easily been his best album, but his judgement here isn't always to be trusted, as witnessed by the inclusion of misogynist, mean-spirited rockers such as “Dirty Little Girl” and “All The Girls Love Alice.” Other songs revisit previous styles a tad too closely and not as well, but fortunately much of the rest of the album is outstanding, and yes I'm including songs that I know I'm not supposed to like such as "Jamaica Jerkoff," a silly but fun reggae throwaway, and "Social Disease," which oddly enough combines bluesgrass with Dixieland jazz, but again in a fun way. Still, these are undoubtedly minor efforts on an album that is most definitely about its major efforts. Of those, the mournful 11-minute (!) epic (“Funeral For A Friend (Love Lies Bleeding)”) that begins the proceedings is arguably the best thing Elton ever did. The first 6-minutes or so, the all-instrumental "Funeral For A Friend" part, is moody and funereal; it's also almost prog-like in its multi-sectioned ambition, and it's spectacularly successful in every way. Then the vocals kick in on the "Love Lies Bleeding" part, which is simply one of Elton's very best rockers, with vocal hooks galore and his excellent band in peak form, especially Johnstone. Though not a hit per se, this is a well-worn album track that subsequently became a radio favorite. The second song, "Candle In The Wind," a lovingly rendered tribute to Marilyn Monroe, was a U.K. hit in 1974, a top 10 hit when released from a 1987 live album, and of course was revised and sung at Princess Diana's funeral in 1997; the single release of that version became a worldwide #1 hit. Now that's an enduring ballad, and in addition to its excellent melody and moving lyrics I really like Olsson's drum performance on this original version, as well as the airy backing vocals and Johnstone's riffs. Next up is another classic single in the campy #1 hit "Bennie and the Jets," which is mostly notable for its canned applause, piano hooks, and of course Elton's fabulous falsetto vocals, which also grace the musically lush, deeply affecting title track, one of Elton's best ballads and another major hit single. Other impressive album tracks are the previously mentioned (in my Elton John review) "Grey Seal," “I’ve Seen That Movie Too” (which I like a lot despite its similarity to "Have Mercy On The Criminal"), and "Sweet Painted Lady." Still, only two of the albums truly classic tracks come on what used to be sides three and four (the album is now a single cd), thereby strengthening the "this should've been a single album" argument, but "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting" is a terrific, hard charging, rabble rousing party tune that's simply Elton's most convincing guitar driven rocker, period. Last but certainly not least is the short but sweet album closer "Harmony," which is basically the antithesis of the opening track but which is also impressive enough that it became a popular radio track without being released as a single. I'm not surprised how that happened, as the song's airy harmonized choruses, in direct contract to its somber deep voiced verses, are almost impossible not to sing along to. So, long story short (though it's probably too late for that!), Goodbye Yellowbrick Road, on which Del Newman, not Buckmaster, added orchestrations to several songs, could’ve been a masterpiece had it been edited down, but its many high points capture the multi-faceted talents of one of the brightest pop stars of the ‘70s. For all its over-ambitious faults, none of his other albums range quite so far or show off so many different styles, and as a result for better and sometimes worse Goodbye Yellowbrick Road is the quintessential Elton John album.
Caribou (MCA ’74, Rocket/Island '96) Rating: B
Named after his Caribou Ranch studio, this album was rush-recorded in ten days in between touring commitments, and as a result it's rather disappointing. That said, like Don't Shoot Me I'm Only The Piano Player, this album did manage at least a pair of classic hit singles in "The Bitch Is Back" and "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me," but the rest of the material isn't up to the duos usual high standards, even if most of it's still entertaining. After all, "Pinky" and "I've Seen The Saucers" are pretty good ballads, "Dixie Lily" is a fun, upbeat country number, and the '50s-derived "Grimsby" has a nicely melodic Todd Rundgren-esque guitar tone. Of course, the lyrics to that song and the even goofier "Solar Prestige A Gammon," on which Taupin clumsily makes up words, are deliberately silly, but I rather enjoy these songs anyway even though I probably shouldn't. You see, aside from the two hits, in general even the songs that I've grown to enjoy here are best described as "guilty pleasures," and I don't really like "You're So Static" or the aptly titled "Stinker" at all, especially since these weak rockers waste the fine Tower Of Power horn section (fortunately, saxophonist Lenny Pickett is put to better use on a couple of other songs, lending solos to both "The Bitch Is Back" and "Dixie Lily"). If there's a song that qualifies as a "hidden gem" here it would probably be the finale, "Ticking." Though overlong at 7:23, this musically sparse ballad showcases Elton's sparkling piano playing and (much multi-tracked) singing, but beyond that Taupin delivers a truly interesting tale about a murderer and the reminisces that give clues as to how he got to such a dark place. Still, the two hits are the album's main selling points, as "The Bitch Is Back" (another top 5 U.S. hit), about Elton's notorious mood swings, is among his better riff-driven rockers, though it's a bit on the repetitive side and I wouldn't rank it among his top-shelf classics. On the other hand, "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me," which features Beach Boys Carl Wilson and Bruce Johnston, as well as Toni Tenille on backing vocals, is a majestic, magnificent ballad that's among his very best songs. A mid-tempo ballad in his best style, Elton delivers a great lead vocal, those airy harmonies hit the spot, and again horns are (this time successfully) added to the equation. The song ends with a dramatic finish, which is something of an Elton specialty, and like "Candle In The Wind" this one has proven to be extremely enduring, becoming a #1 hit (one spot up from its original charting) for Elton in a duet with George Michael in 1991, and it was just this year (2008) picked as one of the songs for young contestant David Archuletta to sing in the final episode of American Idol. Anyway, there's no getting around the fact that, despite being fairly enjoyable for the most part, Caribou is still pretty half baked on the whole, and unless you can't live without the hilariously awful album cover (I already mentioned that Elton was a pretty over the top dresser, didn't I?) or you're a hardcore fan who simply has to hear everything, you can probably skip this minor Elton effort since you can also get the two hit singles on any number of his "greatest hits" packages.
Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (MCA ’75, Rocket/Island '96) Rating: A-
1975 saw the release of his first Greatest Hits album and fifth consecutive U.S. #1 album, and then the release of this album, #1 album #6 and the first album to ever enter the charts at #1. Around this time Elton also managed to play on John Lennon's #1 single "Whatever Gets You Through The Night" and appear in the movie Tommy, for which his cover of "Pinball Wizard" was also a hit; it's now a bonus track on the reissue of Caribou. Anyway, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy was a far more ambitious and accomplished album than Caribou, and in fact it stands as one of Elton and Bernie's very best efforts. His band is in top form as well, particularly Johnstone and percussionist Ray Cooper (a real asset who I probably should've mentioned before), and though only one of these songs could be considered a "greatest hit," like Tumbleweed Connection before it this concept album has a thematic coherence that ultimately makes it greater than the sum of its individual parts. What really makes this album stand out from all the others is the personal nature of the lyrics, as the album follows the relationship of Bernie and Elton, tracking the downs and ups following their meeting and their growth as a songwriting duo up until the release of their Empty Sky album, which was finally released in the U.S. in 1975 as well. At the heart of the album is the friendship between the two men (for the record, Elton is Captain Fantastic and Bernie is the Brown Dirt Cowboy), from their start as songwriters for hire, where they learned their craft as well as some hard lessons, and onto the better times ahead. At times angry and bitter, but ultimately optimistic, the album contains some of Taupin's best lyrics, and Elton's music is richly rewarding, even if most of the songs are more very good than great and the album is definitely more of a "grower" than something that sinks in right away. If the album is stylistically narrower than usual (there's only one straight up rocker on the album) and doesn't have too many major highlights, neither does it have any lowlights; I could go on about individual songs but I won't bother because this album was conceived as a whole and is meant to be played as such. I will mention the album's obvious highlight and emotional centerpiece, however, because I think it's possibly the best song that Elton and Bernie ever did. Running nearly 7-minutes long yet still cracking the U.S. top 5, "Someone Saved My Life Tonight," a deeply personal ballad about Elton's near marriage (which would've been disastrous) and attempted suicide, features the greatest vocal performance on any Elton John album, both by Elton himself and his backing band who provide breathtaking harmonies. His piano playing is fantastic as well, and boy do I love its fadeout ending ("someone saved, someone saved, someone saved my life tonight"), which in my eyes cements the song as an all-time classic. It's the only song here that deserves that designation, but on the whole I wouldn't hesitate to call Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy a minor classic, and the fact that none of the other songs have ever received any airplay only makes it that much more special. You may need to live with this album for a while, but the rewards are well worth it, and the bonus tracks on the reissue are the best of any Elton album. Both his cover of "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" and "Philadelphia Freedom," his classic tribute to Billie Jean King's tennis squad (it was written at her request) and the smooth disco-y sounds of Philly Soul, were non-album tracks that became #1 hits, and his cover of John Lennon's "One Day At A Time" is also included. As a postscript, I'll note that this album features my favorite cover artwork among his albums, and that a belated sequel called The Captain & The Kid was released in 2006 (I haven’t heard it yet but it was very well received on the whole).
Greatest Hits 1970-2002 (UTV Records ’02) Rating: A
I currently consider Captain Fantastic to be the last truly classic Elton John album, so rather than attempt to wade through the rest of his prolific discography, I'm going to end this page with this review right here. I might later on decide to expand it further, but for now I'll sum up his post-1975 career in general before discussing this compilation album in particular. Basically, in addition to dealing with the inevitable burnout caused by his absurd productivity, after 1975 Elton made some serious mistakes, ill-fatedly going headfirst into disco in 1978/79, which nearly killed his career, and at times ditching his backing band stalwarts and even writing with partners other than Taupin. Declaring his "bisexuality" and later confessing his homosexuality likely did his career few favors as well from a commercial standpoint (sad but true), even if it surprised few and was the right thing to do, but Elton's biggest problem was his drug addiction, which nearly killed him on more than one occasion. Somehow, despite all his personal issues, Elton remained a consistent hit maker on the singles charts, even if his singles were rarely as inspired as in his '70s prime and his albums also rarely fared as well as in the past. Later on, in the nineties Elton became synonymous with Disney soundtracks (The Lion King) and Broadway productions (Aida), which, though enormously successful, further caused his older rock fans to consider him an easy listening has been who made music for grandmas. Recent years have supposedly seen Elton and Taupin return to their earlier songwriting style, receiving their best reviews in eons in the process, so perhaps I'll review some of those albums eventually. As for this album, it's a double cd that takes most of the biggest hits (and in Elton's case his biggest hits were generally his best songs) that were previously included on his concise single cd compilations, Greatest Hits ('75), Greatest Hits Volume II ('77), and Greatest Hits Vol. 3 ('87, essentially replaced in '92 by Greatest Hits 1976-1986), while also adding about ten songs from 1987 to 2002. There are a few notables that aren't included this time, among them "Border Song," his covers of "Pinball Wizard" and "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds," “Mama Can’t Buy You Love,” and most egregiously his excellent John Lennon tribute "Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)," and many great album tracks are missing as well - "Take Me To The Pilot," "Country Comfort," "Burn Down The Mission," "Amoreena," "Madman Across The Water," "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters," "Funeral For A Friend (Love Lies Bleeding)," and "Harmony" being chief among them - but that's what the individual albums are for, right? Most of the individual albums are worth hearing, after all (at least the ones reviewed on this page), and a few of them are really good or even great. That said, for the most part, these are the songs that made Elton John a superstar, and this chronologically sequenced (aside from "Nikita") compilation is a start to finish enjoyable listen, even if the second disc predictably is a significant dropoff from the superlative first disc. Disc 1 is an A+ all the way, as it contains most of the big singles described on this page, plus "Philadelphia Freedom" (surely one of his best vocals), "Island Girl" (a pretty good, peppy rocker from the last of his seven consecutive U.S. #1 albums, Rock Of The Westies), and "Sorry Seems To be The Hardest Word" (a slow, somber ballad perhaps best known for its inclusion in the hilarious hockey comedy Slap Shot). Disc two also starts strongly with "Don't Go Breaking My Heart," his slight but catchy #1 non-album hit duet with Kikki Dee, "I'm Still Standing," an inspiring anthem with a great vocal that overcomes its dated '80s keyboards, and "Little Jeannie" and "I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues," a pair of terrific ballads with fabulous sing along fadeout endings (again, an Elton specialty). The rest of disc 2 is far too ballad-heavy and quite frankly isn't nearly as good; though the craftsmanship is still there even on his sappiest efforts, I don't think that Elton's released a truly great single since his Too Low For Zero album in 1983. In his later years he could no longer hit the high notes, either; there's nary a falsetto in sight as Elton instead adopted a deeper voiced vocal style, and his increased use of (at times dated) keyboards and synthesizers also increases the cheese (and the boring) factor. Still, like I said, most of these songs are still quite listenable, and the first twenty or so tracks are terrific. Elton John has always been a consummate singles artist, after all (it's as an album artist that he's underrated), and this 2-cd set is the most wide-ranging and thorough hits compilation available.
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