Tag Archives: elton john

The (Supposed) Mediocrity of Now — Canonical Musings

(Rambling in multiple directions below, holes and all…)

They don’t make ’em like they used to.
Dead artists sell more.
If only they went back to the roots.

Yada yada…

While the above statements can convey a fair amount of truth in a great many applications, they also carry with them an implied bias against the now, be it for better or worse. One way in which I’m regularly dubious of these claims is when discussing artistic style and merit, particularly in music. (Since I’m a musician, that’ll be the focus, though I see it in various media.) By and large, there’s an inherent institutional bias in favor of those artists and works that have come before. The argument in support of this is that an artist or work must “stand the test of time” — whether it holds up under prolonged cultural, critical, and communal scrutiny. Those are noble criteria. After the initial fanfare of a premiere or release, it’s important to look under the hood and see how much there is there and how — or if — it influences the field. But, ultimately, this of course begs the questions: WHO is dispensing this approval and HOW and WHY?

In music, one aspect of this criticism is that pretty much everything’s been done before (until it hasn’t, that is), and so to really appreciate something one must just go back to the “original sources.” One doesn’t get Lady Gaga without Madonna. Fair enough. One can of course give credit where credit is due, but that doesn’t mean that anyone who likes Gaga should just shut her off and go back in time. She also plays piano and can sing (can Madonna do much of either consistently?) and wears costumes — enter Elton John. (And I do love Elton.) But, again, does this mean that Gaga’s Monsters should just listen to Madonna and Elton for the “authentic” Gaga experience? It’d be a good frame of reference, but it’s no substitute for Lady Gaga herself. In appreciating Gaga, they are footnotes, and footnotes and references are important. Go read them. But a series of footnotes does not automatically synthesize to create a new and original idea or argument. (Of course, this says nothing of the influences of Elton and Madonna, and their influences, etc…)

Having influences — and/or building upon their work — doesn’t automatically strip an artist of their originality. Also, yes, there are plenty of derivative artists working today. Just as there were decades and centuries ago. (The new wave of blue-eyed soul singers is but one exponent of this.)

One current group making noteworthy, original music is Bon Iver, having recently released another jaw-dropping album. I’ve been listening to 22, A Million on near-repeat for weeks, which is how I reacted five years ago when I first heard its predecessor Bon Iver. I received Bon Iver as a birthday gift a couple weeks after its release. At the time, I recognized the name and peripherally noticed praise online, but I hadn’t listened to anything from the album or artist. But I clearly remember being floored the first time I listened to it. (Specifically, I was in my Houston apartment packing late at night for my first stint teaching abroad.) I was transfixed and utterly distracted from the task at hand (packing). I gave the album three full listens back to back. And then I just kept listening to it. I never wrote much about it (except here), but it quickly became a desert island disc for me. Fast forward five years and 22, A Million seems to be on a similar trajectory. It’s an engaging and beautiful extension of Bon Iver, taking Justin Vernon’s project to new sonic and artistic planes.

All this is to say that, even though Vernon is in his mid-30s, I don’t hesitate to say that he’s written some truly great albums, and I easily place them alongside other, older works.

In a related vein, I praised Mette Henriette’s self-titled ECM debut as a wholly original statement. I thought then, as I still do now, that one of the album’s strengths was that, artistically, I could only really hear Henriette’s voice and vision. I can make a couple of leaps and say that a couple sections may sound similar to this or that, but overall it’s a pretty self-contained statement.

Of course, my argument isn’t to throw out the titans and disregard history. (My various entries on Wagner, Liebman, and Einstein on the Beach, among others, are evidence of such.) However, they have their place, just as newer artists have theirs.

In pop music, “the good old days” are roughly the late fifties through the mid-seventies. There was a lot of great music produced then, and my music collection is a testament to my agreeing with that sentiment. It was the result of countless factors, including but not limited to various cultural, political, and technological developments. That said, is nostalgia on behalf of the baby boomer establishment — those who were young fans at the time but now old enough to be the journalistic gatekeepers — not also a factor? I often think so. In another twenty years, will canonical focus shift to emphasize the nineties and aughts?

Another aspect of this phenomenon is older artists, who themselves created now-classic pieces, who continue to work today. Generally the argument is that they’re not producing at their former (“classic”) level. (Sub-argument: does the new, “lesser” work degrade their overall output? Or, as asked in High Fidelity: is it better to burn out than to fade away?) Consider two sides of the piano rock coin: Elton John and Billy Joel. I’m a fan of both, but, admittedly, much more so of the former than the latter. (I think Joel’s The Stranger is a near-flawless masterpiece, but I think a number of his other albums sound like good imitations of other styles/artists rather than good Billy Joel records.) They’re both held up as rock icons, and they both continue to sell out arenas throughout the globe. Joel, similar to many of his musical generation, hasn’t released new material (save a couple songs in the mid-aughts and a classical album in 2001) since 1993’s River of Dreams. Elton, however, keeps putting out new albums every couple of years. (His 32nd studio album was released this year.) Sure, they’re of varying quality. Wonderful Crazy Night (2016) doesn’t really hold up against 2010’s The Union and 2013’s The Diving Board, but he’s still creating and regularly releasing quality material.

I’ve noticed similar criticism regarding Matthew Barney and Jonathan Beplers’s River of Fundament. (AKA, the piece that has dominated my attention in 2016.) In many of its mixed-to-negative reviews, one criticism often levied against it is that it’s not as good as The Cremaster Cycle, Barney’s 1994-2002 film pentalogy. Other than what I’ve read about it (and its few connections to Fundament), I can’t speak to Cremaster because I haven’t yet seen it. (That’s not out of lack of interest, of course. Many of Barney’s works are difficult to see outside of controlled exhibitions. There’s always YouTube, but I haven’t yet gone done down that road…) Sure, my view of River of Fundament is hardly objective at this point. Instead of mainly considering the work in relation to Barney’s ouvre, I’ve tried (and continue to do so) to consider the work itself in relation to what it was trying to do by, among other things, reading Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings and its review by literary critic Harold Bloom (the former is the basis for the film and the latter also strongly influenced Barney’s interpretation), and also the exhibition book produced by Okwui Enwezor, director of Munich’s Haus der Kunst. Yes, criticism itself should take the larger picture into account, but the artist’s overall output can’t be the primary focus — just part of it. Alone, “Was it as good as _____?” isn’t a fair assessment.

(As for Fundament itself, I could write another several essays on the work after reading Mailer’s source text. Only if you’re lucky, I suppose…)

To reiterate, this isn’t to say that “new” is inherently better than “old.” Rather, new and old can both be important. Furthermore, going back to the post’s beginning, when considering The Canon, it’s worth remember that who’s granted membership to that esteemed club isn’t an apolitical decision. As Bob Shingleton has wonderfully documented over the years at On An Overgrown Path, plenty of the recent past’s first-rate composers and pieces have been neglected by the artistic establishment. (One example of many here. Also notable is the highlighting that Simpson is often compared with past composers at the expense of his own originality.) Exploring neglected works of the past can be as illuminating and offer as much discovery as absorbing new works of the present.

More music is being written, recorded, and released than ever before. Similarly, access to music is more open and universal than ever before. However, the canonical narrative of the good old days remains, and at the expense of what’s happening now.

MTH-V: Elton John Live in ’71

Following up on the recent New Listen, I’d like to honor Elton‘s piano trio format by featuring the incarnation that helped to catapult his career. Notably, it was with this trio that he made his US debut at the LA’s The Troubadour in 1970. The trio is:

Elton John – piano & vocals
Dee Murray – bass & backing vocals
Nigel Olsson – drums & backing vocals

For various contractual reasons, Murray and Olsson didn’t regularly play on a lot of Elton’s early studio albums. But, along with the eventual addition of guitarist Davey Johnstone, they were Elton’s core live band until 1975. Johnstone has pretty much remained in the band since, with Murray and Olsson both sporadically rejoining Elton since. Olsson once again joined Elton in 2000 and continues to tour with him through present day.

The below videos are from a live set at the BBC studios in 1971 in support of Madman Across the Water, the album from which these songs come. If you’ve not explored much of Elton’s material beyond the radio, then you’re in for a real treat. It’s a side of him often obscured by fanciful wardrobes and the hit parade. No costumes. No spectacle. Just three musicians and excellent songs.

“Razor Face”

“Rotten Peaches”

“Holiday Inn”

Previous Elton entries are here, here, and here.

New Listen: Elton John’s ‘The Diving Board’


Artist: Elton John
Album: The Diving Board (2013)

The Tin Pan Alley Twins strike again, and strongly so. Elton’s recently released The Diving Board is a strong addition to a large, eclectic catalogue that spans five decades. Like many of his musical peers (of which there are few), he’s often saddled with the stereotype of being a legacy act – a touring, nostalgic jukebox of greatest hits. He may continue to sing “Your Song” at just about every performance, but he and lyricist Bernie Taupin are writing some of their strongest material almost fifty years after meeting. I’ve had The Diving Board since its 09.24 US release and can’t get enough.

[I wrote about his previous album The Union, a collaboration with Leon Russell, soon after its release here.]

The Diving Board features John continuing his relationship with producer T. Bone Burnett, which began with The Union. Also, like The UnionThe Diving Board features quasi-Americana and gospel-tinged themes reminiscent of much of Elton’s early material. (If you’re not too familiar with his deep cuts, his second through fifth albums – Elton John, Tumbleweed Connection, Madman Across the WaterHonky Chateau – are rife with great piano-driven country rock songs.) Furthermore, The Diving Board is heavily piano-centric. While that may at first seem obvious, many of Elton’s albums feature such large bands and/or heavy production that his instrument is often obscured. Many of his early performances, including his US debut at The Troubadour in 1970 (also attended by T. Bone Burnett), featured a piano trio. In instrumentation and style, Elton is returning to his roots, even more so than with The Union.

The Union casts a small shadow here, mainly in tone. Though I’m sure that’s Burnett’s touch. Stylistically the album is a mix of The Union, Madman Across the WaterTumbleweed Connection, and The Captain & The Kid. The album’s consistent core is the piano trio of Elton, bassist Raphael Saadiq, and drummer Jay Bellerose. (Bellerose also performed on The Union.) It’s a noticeable departure from Elton’s touring band, which features decades-long collaborators Davey Johnstone (guitar) and Nigel Olsson (drums, who has played with Elton since 1969’s Empty Sky). Other instruments – strings, brass, background vocals, occasional guitar – are used throughout the album, but sparingly so and without obscuring the core trio. When used, the guitar is still playing second to the piano, and the orchestral instruments are there primarily for texture. This relatively stripped down sound is more akin to a club than an arena or stadium. Make no mistake, however, because many of the songs groove hard.

Band aside, Elton himself sounds real nice. He long ago had to trade in his soaring tenor range for a silky baritone, and it’s on wonderful display here. This is evident right from the beginning with the gentle and nostalgic “Ocean’s Away,” the album’s overture featuring only Elton on voice and piano. Then, bit by bit, the rest of the the band joins in on the haunting but hard-driving “Oscar Wilde Gets Out.” This ode to the Irish writer is the sort of brooding saloon romp that conjures the best of The Union and Tumbleweed Connection. This is followed by the gospel-tinged “A Town Called Jubilee,” the first joyous number, with Taupin painting images of the open West. Taupin continues the Americana with “The Ballad of Blind Tom,” an ode to pianist Blind Tom Wiggins. The song’s narrative reads and sounds as if it were written for a musical, but it’s an effective standalone work. Elton keeps up the gospel- and old school country-influenced stylings on “Take This Dirty Water” and “Mexican Vacation (The Kids in the Candlelight).”

“Home Again,” the album’s first single, is a top shelf ballad that I’m sure will quickly find itself in his Greatest Hits canon. Single or not, it’s a crown jewel of the album and one of the best songs Elton’s written in years. “The New Fever Waltz” and “My Quicksand” are the other ballads, with the latter being the album’s weakest link for me. For those looking for a more recent “Elton sound” a la Songs From the West Coast or The Captain & The Kid, “Can’t Stay Along Tonight” and “Voyeur” scratch that adult contemporary itch. There are also three standalone instrumental interludes, each being a numbered “Dream.” None are as robust as “Funeral for a Friend,” but each provides a nice respite while moving the action along. The album closes with the title track, a mellow lounge number suggestive of a last call.

This could be my favorite of Elton’s late-era albums. If you’ve kept a safe distance from his recent output, this could be your foot in the door. As for me, I’m going to give it yet another spin…

Amazon Link
iTunes Link

MTH-V: Billy Joel

Well, hello there. I mention that this weekly series has been going on for a year in my last post, then I drop off for a month. Oh well. October proved to be far busier than I could’ve anticipated for a variety of reasons. Working and playing kept me quite busy, but most of my time and resources have been focused on purchasing a house with my wife. Hence today’s selections from Billy Joel.

I should say right off the bat that in the ongoing Billy Joel vs. Elton John debate, I fully side with my man Reggie. I’ve seen both and listen to both, but Joel doesn’t hold a candle to John — that’s a whole separate discussion/entry. In short, Billy Joel had a few good albums and has largely been retired from songwriting for two decades, whereas Elton’s had a few good decades and continues to release new material. (Read my praise of 2010’s The Union here.)

Nonetheless, 1977’s The Stranger is an essential part of my album collection. I bought it blindly about four years ago, thinking I should give one of Joel’s studio albums a shot. And boy do I remain thankful – it was on repeat for the first few months and continues to be in regular rotation. (I have yet to find another Joel album as enjoyable.) The Stranger proved pivotal for a mid-20s me transitioning to a new stage in life, and I find myself returning to it (more than usual) now that my wife and I are preparing to move into our house.

First up is a 1978 performance of the album’s opening track “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song).” It’s from BBC2’s The Old Grey Whistle Test.


And here’s a rocking 1982 performance of “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” from Nassau Coliseum. (And watch Mark Rivera get smooth.)


MTH-V: Elton John Live

I’m surprised it took me this long to feature a video of Sir Elton. (Though I did write a glowing article about 2010’s The Union here.) I’ve made many mentions of my Top 5 in this blog. However, if I were to come up with an iron-clad Top 10, I’m sure it would include Mr. Dwight. I have about half of his studio output, and have had the pleasure of seeing him live a few times (including a signed shirt… 🙂 ). And, considering he’s one of my favorite musicians to listen to during long drives, he makes up almost half of my iTunes Top 25 Most Played playlist. Elton is one of those artists that I never tire of, no matter how much I listen to him.

Unfortunately, Elton’s celebrity and wardrobe tend to eclipse his actual music, and many people, especially “serious musicians,” tend to write him off as a cheesy, Top 40 has-been. But as someone who dives deep into his catalogue, I can tell you that he (often along with lyricist Bernie Taupin) has written some of the best songs of the last century. (Go listen to Tumbleweed Connection – his third album that produced zero singles – in its entirety if you don’t believe me.) And to top it all off, he and his band still get an arena of fans to their feet. The last time I saw him was almost two years ago, and the 63-yr. old Elton led his band through a three-hour, high-octane set that had everyone dancing all night.

The first video is from his 1980 Central Park Concert, and of “Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding.” (I’ve set the video to start at the second half, “Love Lies Bleeding.”) This pair of tunes opens his legendary Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973). While the original studio recording is an energetic, sonic experience unto itself, this live performance definitely kicks it into high gear. This performance features original band members drummer Nigel Olsson and bassist Dee Murray. (This same concert also features his legendary Daffy Duck costume.)

This second video is rare footage of a recent, complete performance of “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy,” the opening title-track of one of my favorite EJ albums. (Opt for the deluxe edition; it’s quite worth it.) In 2005, he performed the album in its entirety throughout that tour to celebrate its 30th anniversary. This particular video has been missing from YouTube the last few years, but it was thankfully reposted in October. This performance features Olsson, guitarist Davey Johnstone (a mostly regular member since 1971), and longtime bassist (and Detroit native!) Bob Birch.