Thursday, October 28, 2010

Elton John / Leon Russel The Union 2010

I've been waiting patiently for this release for several months now. Three reasons: Elton John has been making some great records in the last ten years, his best since the seventies; Leon Russell made some great records a long time ago, and the two of them together sounded like an interesting idea; It was to be released on vinyl, and even though that shouldn't matter, it does.

Elton's liner notes tell a sweet story of how the record came to be, and I'm glad for Leon that Elton's a generous soul, because I suspect this record will change Leon's tax bracket this year.

There are, though, several less than perfect aspects to the record. T-bone Burnett produces, and while Burnett has a way with country/acoustic/roots music recordings, he's definitely not the guy for this job. A steadier pop hand would have worked better. And the sound is often muddy. When there are multiple players and singers, the sound is dark and distant, like Phil Spector from down the hall. Being able to hear both pianos in interplay is only really possible on a few tracks.

But the even greater weakness is the material. Of course, it's a two LP set, with 16 songs in this CD age, and it would have been better as a ten-song affair. That would have made this a much better product right there. Much of what could be omitted are the John/Taupin compositions, because they sound like outtakes from his last three records.

But it is not without its charms.

The opener is Russell's If It Wasn't For Bad. A good start to the record, Leon's voice sounds good, and his piano fills are superb. Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes follows, a slow John/Taupin ballad that features a nice piano duet and a strong lyric from Taupin. Hey Ahab, another John/Taupin write, is a fair mid-tempo rocker that goes on a little too long, although Leon's piano almost saves the day. Gone To Shiloh is a John/Taupin number that hearkens back to Tumbleweed Connection and that record's focus on Civil War America. Neil Young guests, and sings some fine harmonies with Leon.

Hearts Have Turned To Stone, a Russell composition, is a good mid-tempo rocker. Jimmie Rodger's Dream is a rolling country cowboy song, something Elton and Bernie have done a lot before. It's OK. There's No Tomorrow is a co-write between Elton and Leon with a mediocre lyric, that is just plain too slow. The guitar work by Marc Ribot and Robert Randolph just barely keeps it breathing. Monkey Suit is one of those Crocodile Rock/ Saturday Night's Alright bluesy rockers that Elton and Bernie do so well, and it's a keeper. Leon is relegated to back-up vocals, and the pianos are too deep in the mix, but it is still good.

Best Part Of The Day has an honest duet vocal that works, and the lyric is worth hearing, but it is a very very familiar Elton John melody barely reworked. A Dream Come True, written by Elton and Leon, is a rollicking, fast-paced rag, with a sentimental lyric that is a tribute to Elton from Leon. Wonderful pianos on this one also. I Should Have Sent Roses is a Russel/Taupin composed gem. Leon sings his heart out, and benefits from a fine Taupin lyric. When Love Is Dying is another overly familiar John/Taupin melody hung on a big, slow ballad that's just OK.

My Kind Of Hell, another John/Taupin authorship, is a second-rate Taupin lyric attached to a Honky Cat remake that's not bad. Mandalay Again (John/Taupin) is a boring march that is just not up to snuff. Never Too Old (To Hold Somebody) is another painfully slow, dull melody, but there is a tasty vocal arrangement with choir. And finally, Leon comes through at the end with his own In The Hands Of Angels, a beautiful song with just piano, organ, bass and choir, Leon again pays tribute to Elton, and T-bone Burnett. The sparse arrangement is like nothing else on the record, and thank goodness! Everything else sounds too much the same. And that is T-bone Burnett's job.

There are great moments from both Elton and Leon. There are some weaker songs courtesy of Elton mostly. Some of the highs are very much worth hearing. By my count seven excellent tracks, five others that are good, and four that should have never been released.

I'm a little disappointed. It's worth hearing, and you might like it more than I did. Take it out of the library.

1 comment:

  1. I don't necessarily agree with you in total, but you wrote a good review, which tells me you actually listened to the album. Glad someone gave it a fair shake. I'm more of an old Leon/old Elton fan, so I like the fact that most of the album sounds like old Leon AND old "Tumbleweed" Elton. A nice throwback for those of us who want to be thrown back.