Tuesday, September 10, 2013

'The Diving Board' - A Review

THE DIVING BOARD *** (3 stars)

Here we are, the day has arrived. The drawbacks on this high tech, fast information delivering world in that the old days of getting the album on the day and hearing it for the first time are over. Not a good thing in my view, the younger generation missed out on that joy. This way of entering the world of new Elton music is dry and sterile. But it is as it is, so not being a total Luddite, I must use the streaming facility on offer to form an opinion.

First off, some markers before I get into dissecting the beast, some remarks are needed to establish my perspective. Over the last two weeks we've had steady drip feed of tracks appearing either in preview or in the live show. Two separate worlds emanating from the two rooms of Elton and Bernie. My comments below are based solely on the studio versions I've heard. I've tried to put the live versions to one side and listen to this with consistent ears throughout. I've not delved and or given too much away about each track, its more a personal view rather than an autopsy. I'll leave that to those with sharper knives...

Oceans Away 8/10
The opening is a ballad, piano and voice flagging the intent and delivery of the album. Lovely melody, the lyric yearning for the dead on foreign battlefields. A strong song, Bernie nails the thought. Fits into the Gone To Shiloh and The Retreat bracket, I can see this being added to the solo set in the future. Strong opening to the album...I think humble pie may be on the menu today....

Oscar Wilde Gets Out 9/10
The intro has me hooked, typical Elton to get my ear!! The lyric about about a compatriot of mine, Bernie name checking Dublin is a real nice touch for me. Similar to the live version, but the live version has that oomph into try for triumph aspect. Banjo, anyone...the chorus is a real foot tapper; the weaving 2Cellos give it a nice distinctive flavour. A great melody on this one, easily one of the top 2 songs on the album. No surprise why they showcased this song to promote the album. The bridge is Elton present and correct, gosh he kills this one. Definitely in the band set list for a while yet. Here tonight, gone later tonight fans, tough luck...I really love this one!!

A Town Called Jubilee 8/10
A mid tempo intro here, Wild West homestead lyrics have Bernie on familiar ground. Which he always does well. And he does very well here. Bernie is on top form so far on this album, he's not painting pretty pictures, he painting plain and simple life. Doyle Bramhall on guitar isn’t flashy strangely, a nice tasteful twang. If anyone remembers his part on the In The Flesh tour of Roger Waters around 2000 will know he totally overplayed, overegged the delight of Shine On You Crazy Diamond. Out maneuvering Gilmour, not good in my book. Anyway, soulful backing vocals with soulful piano combine well. Nice jaunty ride along on this one, some great funky licks hidden on the chorus. Really getting the groove of this track, great chorus. this album is going great guns. Exceeding my expectations...Elton you old devil, you had me worried for a while!!

The Ballad Of Blind Tom 7/10
A serious piano intro now, a shimmering tambourine hollering like a rattler in the desert. It slapping along with the piano, Bernie's lyric is giving Elton another character of pity to tease out. The serious tone isn't without it's ligher moments, the rhythm gradually kicks in and lifts the aural feel. Low humming vocal harmonies coupled with similar cello add that much needed variation, Elton does some great piano work on this, the right moments are properly exposed.

Dream #1 5/10
John Lennon had 9, so Elton is only starting out...but what's this?! The album was going along great when suddenly this diversion appeared. I'm now going down a less attractive route...and an unnecessary one. Where’s me Sat Nav?! This has killed the pace...why they put this in here, oh well. Too short to rate properly...

My Quicksand 2/10
...they should have left it as the intro to this one. Ballad time again, piano and vocal to the forefront. Unfortunately that's all you can say in its favour...this album going fine and now it's going skeways. This is a Lestat out take (not good), right down to Paris being name checked, and has light brush work similar to The Big Picture (even more not good). Boxes are being ticked here...all the wrong ones. Damn, you listen right through and there's no payoff. Apart from the ending. Terrible song, not fit for purpose. 2 votes, one each for the voice and piano. Nothing to hear here, move along. You heard enough in the 30 second preview...

Can't Stay Alone Tonight 5/10
Thankfully the pace is up again, that last section was a right downer. And then they wonder why track skips are on CD player, anyway this one has Bernie again on the doomed love track again. Something he's done better on other albums, When Love Is Dying being one of the all time greats, only just this last album. Elton's melody is pretty, unremarkable with a light swagger. Probably thinks it's better than it is. Middling.

Voyeur 5/10
In another life this could have been on our lips now...back to a ballad again. Nothing wrong with ballads, if they've got a great story to tell and have a memorable melody mixed together then they are the best of both worlds combined perfectly. Doomed love appears again...a pattern is appearing now. It builds up slowly, again inoffensive with a lovely melody. But it seems underdeveloped, you feel it's about to build up to something spectacular, the bridge to the solo is very reminiscent of Wouldn’t Have It Any Other Way as it's transition to the ending. This just fades away like melting ice. Just as slushy...the pace of this album had dropped now...and so has the quality. A lot of filler appearing...where's a good editor when you need one?! The ending is the same as the fade out on The Retreat...twice I've mentioned that song so far in this review. Hmmm...

Home Again 9/10
People bandy about the word 'classic' like snuff at a wake. Whilst this song isn't a classic at the moment, it could enter the hallowed halls very soon. Easily one of the top 2 tracks on the album. The melody is the most adventurous, not difficult when you compare to some of the other tracks here. Tracks later on put it into perspective....the melody is expansive; the lyric is an everyman/woman tale. The bridge is stunning, first time I heard this full length version that was the moment. Yet again can see why they put this out first and it's doing the live rounds. 

Take This Dirty Water 6/10
The pace goes up again now, handclaps abound. Mid tempo, with an odd soulful country mix hybrid that's neither one or the other or both together. But it seems to work. The song sounds it has plenty of potential, unfortunately it's another one that seems to missing that hook. The element to grab the ear at the right moment and hold the hearing. Elton has done much better even on the more recent albums. Just seems to fade away...too many musical wallflowers appearing now, the album started very good, really enjoyed it but it's dropped off now. Considerably. Oh dear...

Dream #2 6/10
Cold harsh piano appears now, actually this one works. A far better sound to the previous effort, simple yet effective. Too short unfortunately, that instrumental album must come soon.
Too short to rate properly. Again.

The New Fever Waltz 3/10
This a Billy Elliot discard...if you're familiar with the demo's you'll know the one I'm suggesting off it. Except it's better...another ballad hits us, the melody matches the lyric. This is a very depressing track, Elton sounds very melancholic. Cheer up!! The doom laden brass is funereal, the ending akin to the inspired similar feature on American Triangle. Which this song isn’t even in the ha'penny place compared to it...jeez, I'm dying here. Not literally thankfully, but this is very poor. Complete filler. The 30 second clip was enough also...where is it all going wrong...?!?! Or why...

Mexican Vacation (Kids In The Candlelight) 7/10
This was needed. Badly. It's getting very hit and miss now, the misses are really dragging the hits down. Pacing, dear boy as someone said. This song makes more sense  where it is on the album than standing on parade on it’s own. A nice gig about this one, doesn't quite burn but simmers. The live version could boil over, which would be immensely more desirable. The solo zips along, nothing revolutionary to the head but still a welcome sound in the midst of this doom. The outro has plenty of potential in the live setting, hopefully boiling over as I suggested earlier. But will we hear it again onstage?!?! A one, two, a three…

Dream #3 8/10
Great treat this, the best of the best of the Dream triplets so far. Snappy snare jabs and fills from Bellerose work well here. Elton’s playing is unreal here; he really gets into this one. Anyone familiar when he's free styling live will see where this one was born out of...yep, that instrumental album is a must do now. Great changes of pace, twisty and turny out of the unexpected places. The star doesn’t a ship to follow…

The Diving Board 2/10
To put it simply, this track is a woeful ending to what started out as a really promising album but steadily declined midwayish with some good spots intermixed thereafter. It's like Elton doing one of those tribute album tracks, plodding slowly with a hint of swing and not going anywhere at a snail’s pace. Dull in the extreme, 5.55 minutes to keep listening through is tough going. If you can do it, I tip my hat in darn surprise. This song would have been right up Sinatra and Riddle's street. But not down Elton's, he doing another style in its purest form, when Elton sticks too close to the rules he sounds stilted and regimented. The previous track displays that in buckets. If only Dreams through...hardly a way for the hero to go...but he does with this track. Awful. Even The Big Picture didn't fade out like this...

To sum up, the album started great. I mean, the opening fours songs were very strong, consistent and distinctive. Then the first dream started...not a nightmare, but more a restless sleep. Then apart from Home Again with a stunning break in the run, a raft of uninspired ballads appeared. They didn't really add to the album or say anything inspired or stood out. Bernie's lyrics on this one are at their best when dealing with the characters and places. When the love is flat lining songs appear, there's nothing new or fresh being said. Not in 2013 anyway.

Elton's piano playing as per usual on these last two albums are the standout. Along with his vocals. Though at some points you know he's trying different things with it, some work, others less so. But we’ll take it, hear it and see where it takes us over time. When Elton is Elton...his voice and his piano, there's nobody can coach him. He doesn't need forcing or coaxing. The Messi of the music world...just think it and it's done. To the producers credit, he did as he wrote on the tin and let the piano shine through. A device that works well when the song isn't up to par...a bracket a few here unfortunately fall into.

The producer...look, he's not my cup of tea. Never was, never will be. Not with The Union, and certainly not with this one. Yeah, Elton went for him to try something different. Is this album different from any other(more on that point later), but different doesn't mean it'll be good or any better. Or worse of course...empty glasses and all that. But is this album a radical shift? Eh, no. His(producer) hands are all over it...the drum sound is his. Or should I say duffle bag sound. The discreet instrumentation is his trademark (a radical shift from The Union where everything seem to blend into mush). And that's the problem, on the songs that don't quite go over the line he's missed the trick. Other producers of Elton's in the past would found a suitable layer to wrap onto a song that make it more intriguing. Not o fool the listener, but distract him in a nice way. His narrow production policy ultimately left him with little room to maneuver, if the songs were all top notch then he could have proceeded with that policy without the hang-up of some not so great songs being exposed for all to hear. If he had heard the demo's first, assuming if Elton even did any, then he could have had a bit more leeway in his approach. Anyway, I don't want to talk about him anymore. I think he's cooked his goose with Elton, The Union was his 'big' sound, this is the 'little' sound statement. I don't think they've anymore to get out of each other, the producer doesn't have the variation in approach, in delivery of product or the editing(more on that later too) as say a Gus Dudgeon would. Unfair to compare, but that's what the premise of the album was. So they wrote their own publicity, they have to run with it. I don't think we need another album with this producer, thanks for your efforts but now step aside and give us the real Elton sound back please. And our band.

I mentioned compare a moment ago. Because that's all we've heard over the last 18 month's or so. It's like this, that and the other. Specifically, 17-11-70, Tumbleweed Connection and Madman Across The Water were mentioned in dispatches. Is it like any of those albums? Not in a million years, if I were to detail everything on those albums not here on this one, it would be like roll call at Trident Studios. Does it have the same excitement as the live album in that lot? No...where's the unexpected leaps and drops. Dream #3 oddly enough has the most adventurous moment, short as it is, it catches Elton doing some nifty gear changes and broken rhythms. But it's too short!! If the whole album was filled with those moments, well you know yourself. As regards the two studio albums mentioned, well play them both before this one and listen then to The Diving Board after. Stark isn't it...it's unfair to those early classic albums to have this one compared to it. As it is to have the newer one being mentioned in the same breath to line as those ones. They both have their own lives, this one will to. How does it compare to the albums of this decade pre the Union? It falls behind all of them I’m afraid. Oddly enough, even though The Union isn’t one of my favourites, it seemed to be a more fun album than this one. The Leon effect no doubt. Might be crucial when General Public matches in for a sampler…whether it has the legs to run as far as it's elder brothers, that'll be up to Elton and the band to breath life into them onstage. I trust him and the band on this one.

I know some people reading this are going to start quoting the last Rolling Stone or Mojo review they read and start telling me 'this is what Elton wants to do, he wants to try something different etc'. Look, I get all that. T-shirt printed out, etc. I know the why's of the album, I know the who's of it and I know the where's and what's of it now. This notion, a notion that requires neither thought or an opinion forming view from the listener, that it's what Elton wants to do is to treat the average fan as an autotron who turns up, plugs in and develops the 10,000 yard stare. Elton has such a wide body of work, the biggest I would suggest of his contemporaries, so there's always something for everyone. To blindly go along, like the above mentioned Tom, and just take it all at face value is both devaluing and disrespectful of Elton's and Bernie's work. I know they, nay would want, to hear it being challenged and discussed. It makes them focus their argument better as to why it works for them and how it may change our opinions. And the opposite is true, by us challenging them it gives them a viewpoint that they can never have. That of the fan, they can never break the 4th wall. Only we can supply them with that perspective. So form your own opinion and don’t use a quote from Elton or from the last person you spoke to as rod to beat me with. If you can't get an opinion, then by all means ask someone else...that's what easily lead people do...

Final thoughts. Is it a bad album? No, that was done under the skies of Germany one summers day. Is it the best ever? Oh god no. Too many drippy moments in it, if they'd continued the road it started on it would have been a more solid piece of work. It was upbeat, they sounded like a separate species. But there are some right duds here, but they're gone. Waht saves it are the high points of Elton's piano and singing. Focus on the opening section, the great bits that appear occasionally after that. Oscar Wilde and Home Again are easily the best on it along with Dream #3. They have variation and distinctiveness. The tracks just lower than them in the rankings are adequate supports and are due consideration. The rest, oh dear. Overall there are many hi-fi elements to it that are better than what I thought would be the case, the low expectations meant I was ready for the lo-fi results and they've got their P45’s. The great has overcome the bad…

Before I go, I mentioned editing earlier. To think they left 5th Avenue off this one is another Mandalay Again moment. I‘ll leave that thought hanging in the air…history, who said it doesn't repeat itself...

'The Diving Board - A Final Word'

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