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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.