Tag Archives: the union

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…

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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.

New Listen: Elton John & Leon Russell’s ‘The Union’

Artist: Elton John & Leon Russell
Album: The Union (2010)

For a little change of pace, this album is not only a new listen for me, but for everyone.  Being the Elton John fan I am, I had to go out and snatch it up on its release date last Tuesday.  (Note: I’m familiar with some of Russell’s work specifically, but mostly I’m coming at this from an Elton-centric perspective.)  I must say I was a little leery at first – this album received much hype over the last few months. That, coupled with Elton’s overall new material throughout the last decade or so, made me wonder if it could actually meet its expectations.  Luckily for this listener, it exceeds them.

First, it’s worth noting that I often take issue with fans or critics that constantly live in the past.  Overall this album has received quite positive reviews, but occasionally you’ll come across someone complaining it’s not the same as such early EJ efforts Tumbleweed Connection (1970, perhaps my personal favorite), Elton John (1970), or Honky Chateau (1972), or Russell’s early work.  Of course it’ll be different – forty years have passed for the performers!  Artists constantly evolve.  If you don’t like a new direction, that’s understandable, but I’m always amazed when people are disappointed by those who don’t constantly repeat the past.  (Yet, I’m sure those same folks would complain about just artists who only did one “thing.”)  Anyway, this album may not make you think it’s the late 1960s or early 1970s, but it does display a strong influence of their early styles, and it does so quite well.  That being said, for Elton fans reading this post, consider this album to be a nice combining of the styles of Tumbleweed Connection and The Captain and The Kid (2006).  [This topic of living in the past will likely come up again and again; it’s a source of great frustration.]

The major players here are Elton John and Leon Russell, obviously, and also Bernie Taupin – John’s career-spanning lyricist – and producer T Bone Burnett.  Without getting too much into the album’s lore, Russell was a great influence on Elton’s early career, both stylistically and in featuring him as an opening acts in the early ’70s.  Since then, Elton had wanted to collaborate and pay tribute to his idol.  The end result is a nice rock-country-gospel hybrid with a modern twist.  The ensemble here is substantial: standard rock rhythm section, two pianos (John, Russell), full horn section, various keyboards and guitars, and gospel choir.  Also, special appearances are made by Neil Young, Robert Randolph, Booker T.,and Brian Wilson.  Overall there’s a pretty big sound present, however the mix oddly buries the pianos at times.  (Unusual, considering they involved a very in-demand producer – you’d think someone would have caught that.)  For variety, the instrumentation changes somewhat throughout, and also John and Russell distribute vocal duties nicely.  While trading verses and sharing choruses on many of the album’s songs, they also each have “solo” numbers, with the other joining in on backing vocals for the chorus.  (Even though Elton sings at a lower octave nowadays, he’s the stronger voice here, and often takes over when it gets high or powerful.)

Though there is an overall aesthetic, the songs themselves vary stylistically.  They range from those on the far end of the country/gospel spectrum – “A Dream Come True” and “Jimmie Rodgers’ Dream” – to groove-based rock/gospel – “Hey Ahab” and “I Should Have Sent Roses” – to funky country-rock a la Tumbleweed Connection – “My Kind of Hell” and “Monkey Suit” – to more pop-based fare – “Never Too Old (To Hold Somebody),” “Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes,” and the über-ballad “When Love Is Dying.”  As for the special guests mentioned above, perhaps the best part is that there’s no real song and dance about it when one does appear.  It’s mentioned in the liner notes, but not next to song titles (e.g., “with special guest”).  As you listen to the album, occasionally you’ll hear a new/different voice or instrument (Young or Randolph, for example) and likely recognize it, but it won’t at all be jarring or take you out of the listening experience.  Each one fits; they’re only used when necessary, which is the best way to use musical guests.  As an Elton fan, perhaps the biggest issue with the album is that a few of the songs sound like chordal reworkings of a few numbers from The Captain and The Kid.  However, all I can say to that is that the songs on The Union are much better – consider them improved second drafts.

For the old-school “purists”/enthusiasts, perhaps this album is disappointing because there is a touch of modern Elton. However this is mostly laced with the styles that made him initially famous and solidified his status as a rock legend.  The best part of this album is that is sounds FUN.  Yes, I imagine there were many separate takes and overdubs (there’s often more science than magic in recording studios), but the end result sounds like one big ensemble having a genuinely fun time in the studio.  It’s an infectious feeling that’ll pull you in if you just let it.

(NOTE: I purchased the CD/DVD version, which does include bonus tracks.  FYI in case you come across an album missing a song title or two.)

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