Thursday, October 22, 2015

'Looking Up - New Single Review'

How odd can things be. For my next update I had planned to do a piece about a single from long ago...but out of the blue (thanks Ed!) the Elton world tilted on its axis a bit this week and the invisible fields of electricity above us have shifted. It's not true to say a brave new world has been revealed...more like an old world has been found under the ruins of the old one. Looking Up at us...Back to the day late.

When The Diving Board was released one of the many problems I had with it was the fact the band weren't on it. If you don't know why I had that problem, read back or row off. Not having the band involved was a major mistake. One that has since proved to be folly. I was right and all that. So the powers that be listened to the fans...and the response back is incredible. Not to put too fine a point on it, after one listen I know that the axis is now back on its proper level. Yep, that's right. All is now right again in the Elton world.

Elton's latter day recorded material had been a bag of old curates’ eggs and sold pups. I've not had that 'moment' with any new releases since Methuselah was almost a nipper. Plus it's been nearly ten years since I last had the luxury of hearing the band on a proper studio recording. A lot of water under the bridge since then... a lot of folks no longer with us. But we've got new lads in place. Or newish I suppose at this time. I'm taking a huge leap of faith here when I imagine everybody reading this has seen Elton sometime in the last few years. So you know what I'm talking about when I mention the energy, the verve and the guile the band bring to proceedings. Capturing that is like dueling with lightning, seizing it by the throat and bottling it. But that's what's happened here. Lightning is full of heat, light and power. The new song has all that. 

Starting with a flash and ending with bang is the ideal description of lightning. Looking Up has that all the way through. Electric (of course) piano, with a mean and dirty tuning to it, acts like a pre-emptive flash before the actual bright light of the acoustic piano announces itself. Listen to Nigel's drums as they kick in. Full wide sound, the toms spread out as far the ears can hear. Proper Nigel sound, and of course he can rock. The introduction to the riff is incredibly simple here; uncomplicated its effect hangs like the aftershock of a strike. When it does explode into something more intriguing its power further lights up with the layered guitars of Davey. More on those later. Authentic Hammond from Kim emerges from the dust of the explosion, like sirens calling out for listeners. I'm listening, so should you. The culmination of the bridge with its slight piano extension at the end steadies itself before nasty guttural guitars disrupt the ions and then set about destroying the remaining EMF. Davey's solo like a cross between his best work on Made In England, Dead Ringer and Rock of the Westies. The fade of the carefully managed piano chord at the end almost on a par with how we came in, rattly percussion from John full of electric tingle. Spiky hairs all round...

What have we learned? Where do I start? Imagine not having your favourite dinner...or favourite partner...for a while. In my case it's been a long time...for this type of Elton music. The last dinner was hot and so was she...I've been waiting for this day to come and was sort of anxious as to what it would sound like. Hence I avoided any speculation, some of the reports I've read emanating from the vaults have been off the mark; now I've had the luxury of hearing this wonderful single. As a first release this is as devastating a statement of intent Elton has had made in a generation. One of the reasons is the fact he's finally released an uptempo number. We know he's capable of delivering said style, Joe and Josephine Public are kind of oblivious to such a notion. So they'll be dusting the cobwebs for a while yet. We've seen Elton on stage, especially since 2010, really up the ante in terms of delivery and consistency. But more importantly take the hard edge and make it front and forward with everything else four square behind. Now it's on disc. The live sound of the band (point to be made here, there's no such thing as studio band or touring band, it is the EJ Band) has been crystallized in over 4 minutes. Bit like that warning we grew up with in the old days...its driving bass with subtle melodic hints by Matt regularly striking through isn't clichéd or recycled. Because Elton has strayed away for this style a lot in recent years he has plenty of room to play with in this field. It's a huge park and Elton and the band has knocked it right out with first pitch as they say over there. Over here I'm saying we have a whole album of belters to be batted!!

I know I've been hard on Mr. Bone but with good reason. He ignored the band on two occasions. It was too ludicrous for words, the absence on TDB made no sense when they had to be taught the songs to play live. So baffling a concept even a blind man could see it coming, even old Tom. This time that folly has been routed. He's let the band in, without much direction I suspect (old dogs, new tricks and all that) and just let them get on with it. No fool acting around with styles and moods, just plug and play. Plus he's opted out of his normal muddy style of mixing and production. It's as if an engineer with clarity of ear twiddled the faders and let the music be expressed cleanly and clearly through the mics. The drums sound like Nigel's as only his can. The snare is purposeful with minimum of delay. Elton's acoustic piano and Davey's guitar are routinely never at odds with each other, they step and dance around, occasionally meeting but never colliding. The rhythm guitar is strong too, the continual appearance all the way through makes it's an authentic 'rock' track. 

Elton's vocals are clear and blow away the canard of Elton's uptempo vocals being a pig ears at times. He brought home bacon here...he gauges himself around Bernie's words (lyrically analysis another day) without any hint of them running nose into rear. Subtle uses of one of Elton's many tools in his box, his harmonising, interjects with fresh regularity

Make no mistake here. Elton has made a latter career-redefining moment on disc. The stereotype and cliché which manifested itself from TDB has been crushed. Forever. Dullness is now light, slowness is now running and oil lamps binned with switches set to ON. If you read my reviews of TDB everything I said that Elton and the band could do on disc has been accomplished. In other words, the powerful energy and knowing ability that very few musicians walking this Earth have in terms of dealing with his music have been utilised. That's not some sort of brainwave from the boffins, that's common sense. It's a shame it's taken so long for the penny to drop but we're quids in with the amount that have fallen today. I think this may be, nay will be, the career-defining latter day Elton album. TDB may have had dreams of that but it's been put to bed. In a catacomb deep in a crypt. Like I said earlier, one listen and I was hooked. Not always a yardstick but look at it this way: when he does these songs live the unknowing crowd will be zapped in their seats.  The songs will sound exactly as they did on disc. No loss of quality in delivery terms or authenticity. That's why the 'live' life of the new album will, I suspect, be a major focal point of the 2016 and beyond setlists. 

This song sounds fun, the live shows are fun. Elton is awake. The band is awake. And this fan is WIDE AWAKE!!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

'Do You Want A Piece Of Elton's Piano?'

You know when you're at Elton concert right up the front and your hands are flailing for whatever may be flung from the stage? Whether it be picks or sticks we're always grateful to get them. But the main man, due to the nature of his power plant, can't throw pieces of it willy nilly at the audience. The insurance wouldn't cover it for a start...but now there is a chance to own a piece of it. You want a piece's how.

I've mentioned before on this blog about how Elton's piano's are subjected to the most severest of tests night after night on tour. They never flinch but once in a while an upper cut is opened or in more technical terms a string breaks. Not a regular occurrence due to excellent maintenance of quality machinery but when they do reach the end of their natural life they now have a good home to go to. Maybe even yours.

Traci Loving of Imagine Loving Art, friend of JW&AT and artist in residence for the EJ Band, has created something unique and a collectible that hasn't appeared before and is unlikely to appear regularly in the future. Traci is an artist of exceptional taste, her range of Elton related items, not to mention items of other rock artists, is well known at this time. Whether it be hand crafted jewelry or drawing and paintings. How high up the appreciation ladder has she reached? Next time you're at or watch the Million Dollar Piano on DVD then check out Davey using the 'Mandolisa' on Mona Lisa's And Mad Hatters. Yep, she designed and painted that. 

I'm pleased to say I own an item of Traci's and would recommend her work to anybody and have done so many times. Because of her connections to the main man she has been granted access to the old wires and rather than have them chucked into the bin marked 'to be melted down' she's put her skilled hands to work and come up with this amazing piece of work. High tensile metal that has been woven to create a necklace, the centre piece being one of Davey's many colourful guitar picks. Kind of appropriate that both musicians tools have been blended together to seamlessly create another tendril of art in a similar manner as their music relationship has existed for 45 years or so.

This rescued string has been taken from one Elton's many tour pianos. This is from 'Kay', Traci has all the details about it on her listing in the links provided. So when you're wearing it around your neck and if you listen carefully then you may hear the faint trickle of a note long since died but like the stars in the night sky will keep on shining forever. Because it certainly has some tales to tell, if it could sing. Sing it didn't but play it did and because we don't get the chance to own something that has come from Elton's workbench too often, if ever, then the chance to own this may not come along any time soon. Yamaha's terrific expertise in keeping the show on the road testifies to that.

Traci has created a simple yet iconic looking design, the wire itself is the main facet of the design and speaks for itself. The red, white and blue guitar pick adds some tasteful colour, almost at the heart of the piece. The 'Elton, Davey' relationship characterised very dramatically hurry up and get it while you can. It may be a while before before the hammer hits...too hard again!

But the good work doesn't stop here...and here's another exclusive for JW&AT. She's already raided one of Nigel's old cymbal's and chopped them up into baby cymbals. As you can see from the picture she has laser inscribed his 'Little Bloke' logo into it with incredible accuracy and detail. Some will have be done on one side whilst others will have a Nigel on both sides. Like his double kick drum...these will available very soon in her store as a pendant with a gold chain. I suspect these will be highly sought after, Nigel does have large following. 

Traci has conjured up some incredible original designs, who would have thought the band throwaways would be recycled in such a cool way. To rework the old phrase, reduce, recycle and rock on!!

Related links:

Saturday, October 3, 2015

'This Ain't No Disco, This Is EJ!'

D.I.S.C.O. Five letters that changed the music business forever. From the use of the hi-hat to the redundancy of countless live musicians the world over. Beginning with it's origins in the gay clubs of New York in the early 70's to the good people of Chicago quite literally blowing it into smithereens at decades end there's a positive pot pourri of characters, vibes and influences swirling around. Positively dancing they were...and dancing in around the sidelines was Elton of course. Like anybody who is unsure of foot then it's best to guide rather than throw all sorts of achievable shapes. Or at best just take some of the moves and use them to one's capabilities. But if you go on the dance floor to throw said shapes and your training has been of a more classical persuasion then the results will never be satisfactory. As we'll see later on.

Without going through chapter and verse of how disco came to be, the basics are fairly simple steps to follow. The funky, slick side of soul was used in the NY gay clubs of the early 70's in order for the community to strike a degree of independence. The clubs became a meeting point and ultimately the focal point of the movement. Starting with Detroit soul and then with the sounds other US cities had to offer it became a national, ultimately worldwide phenomena. The groove being one, not the most, of the important ingredients. The development of the use of the hi-hat became intrinsic; a far more expressive backbeat could now be achieved. A relentless rhythm that was essential for any driving force on the dance floor. But on top of that was the 'sound' and that was achieved by using the very best musicians to be found on the continent.  

Motown had always prided itself in using the very best in house vocal and rhythm sections. But as many of the songs called for a lavish orchestral arrangements then session players had to be called in to fulfill those requirements. As was the case in Detroit and subsequently in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, LA, Seattle and the other major urban sound purveyors. The string and brass players from the major orchestras in those cities were called upon to be scored by the best arrangers in each of those cities. One day Boult or Solti would be swaying the baton over them, the next Gene Page could be leading proceedings. Arrangements that were smooth, confident and vital to the music. And unique to each urban centre in order to provide a separate identity. Twenty years earlier Nelson Riddle had established the blueprint of popular music arranging,, then Lieber and Stoller combined string arrangements with r n’b and everything was set in train. A soul train perhaps.

'The Cause Was Right'

With that base established we'll now look at how Elton fitted into this ongoing change. Initially he was a participant who was well aware of its origins but wasn't aware of just how big it was going to be. Certainly in the summer of 1974 the fuse had been lit and running alongside was Elton recording a landmark stand alone single that paved the way for the crossover. Certainly if you listen to Philadelphia Freedom on its own it is indeed one of the classic 45's of the decade, regardless of its style. The sound is truly unique for Elton; notwithstanding the fact it was recorded in LA instead of Caribou. Hence the fact is more claustrophobic on disc, a deliberate ploy by Gus maybe. Its sound seems to emanate from a dance floor, you're almost hearing it at the door rather than at the DJ's desk. That sound is impossible to replicate live, when expanded it loses that shrunken intensity. The heavy backbeat from Nigel, with snare under tom and to cap it all Ray battening it all down with tambourine. The intro by Nigel on hi-hat is again interesting here, his clever use of it being the future disco motif ploy. Elton's vocal is wildly imaginative. As I’ve mentioned before, his harmonising with his own lead vocal is as good anybody in the field. Jumping from deep expressions to almost feminine reposts behind the main lines, it's as if two different people are singing. Funky electric keyboard also leading the charge. But the key of course to all of this is the arrangement by Gene Page. Huge bright strings, at times all at one on the melody line then the basses and cellos separating and leave a heavy undercurrent on the instrumental breaks as the violins repeat the same strikes over and over. Between the spaces of vocal lines they are incredibly vocal in their expressions, the rest of the time they are bang on the rhythm. Loud brash brass (always a forte of American composers and arrangers through the last century or so) again have a wild range of moods, flute solo to French horn blast. But it's not pure disco, thankfully. Davey's smothers it with his heavy rock guitar, his handling of the riff and the lead lines are never compromised or shunted to one side. The marriage is indeed unique, the sound is timeless but has enough of the groovy elements like the rhythms of soul, the rich orchestral backing coupled with rock infusions. Next step would be bigger and bolder but ultimately the dance would never be completed.

'Work On A Spell'

By 1977 the disco was ablaze in an inferno of popularity. Commercialisied and ultimately the soul origins had been bastardised. Authenticity was getting harder to find but Elton decided to nail his colours with a true originator of the genre, the results that we have are mildly spectacular but ultimately the unfinishedness of the project is clear to see. I've mentioned many times here before about Bell's influence on Elton’s vocals, this time I want to look at how Elton fared when he met up the MFSB and bought lock, stock and barrel into the Philly soul which itself had been taken lock, stock and barrel to Seattle.

This type of sound works best when it's up tempo. That's when the magic is delivered, a constant backbeat with a pacey melody on top. The opening track form the sessions, Nice and Slow, has to be looked at, lyrically first. Taupin, almost certainly on purpose, has presented a covert sexually explicit lyric which at the same time can be interpreted in a more morally neutral viewpoint. The concept of sexually explicit messages being delivered in such a 'cosy;' manner is a disco trademark and it's all over this one here. So it seems the sound is not only tumescent...the slick production at times threatens to stray into a sound that is too soft (where's Davey when you need him) but in saying that the undeniable charm of the melodies carries the day. Mama Can’t Buy You Love and Are You Ready For Love being clear cases of that, both hits decades apart in different regions for differing reasons. Are You Ready is probably the masterpiece here, the simple but effective backbeat and lead vocal switches between Elton and the Spinners interjected with jazzy style closed trumpet only tell half the story. Three Way Love Affair’s opening riff having a nod back to where this style of music began, one of Motown's biggest hits being sound checked. Certainly Elton stayed on the right side of the disco line here, at times he did threaten to stray into a more 'softer' sound but close guardianship on the production (his vocals are excellent here) meant it maintained a large degree of credibility. But of course rather than see out the project with Bell in early 1978 he waited...and waited...until the timing was completely wrong. So wrong that by the time he reset his watch across the Atlantic he short circuited it. And very nearly his career.

'Why Did I Have To'

Timing is everything in music. By the summer of 1979 Elton's timing was like a clock that fell under the spell of a magnet. Quicker than you could say vorsprung durch technik he popped over to West Germany for an afternoon's jaunt and put down some vocals. If he done it for the speaking clock it would have been of more beneficial use, seeing as his watch was out of commission. I'm not going to waste anybodies time, let alone mine, to go through Victim of Love. It's fit for dumping, all of it. A sink hole deep enough to bury every last copy hasn't been sunk low enough as yet. By this time the aforementioned good folks of Chicago had taken over the ball game and burnt disco down in its own inferno. But that’s only giving the album an out for its dismal chart failings and its awful legacy. No matter when or where it was released it would still be rubbish. Even the so called champions of the European disco wing in Munich couldn’t do anything with it. An endless uninterrupted backbeat that by the end of the album Bellote was name checking one of his older hits in desperation such was the paucity of originality. And even that couldn’t carry the day...the opening was a flop so it was downhill after that. If you can make Johnny B Goode sound third rate then the sessions should have been halted there and then. But studio time was paid for so on they ploughed with the synth nightmare. The entire electronic landscape sounding like something with as much as soul any life form would have several hours after the four minute warning had been called Luckily we don't have to continue with it. Elton must have realised his error pretty quickly and before the three legged pup saw the light of day he had encamped to the south of France to write and record with the other late 70s, and far more credible, influence ultimately shining through on the proper recorded material, New Wave.

If the 70's were indeed the best decade for music then disco was the blight. Very quickly it's roots were forgotten as the scramble to reduce to it to the lowest common denominator in the pursuit of cash. The term sold out is used like snuff at awake but it was indeed the ultimate prostitution in music. Record companies up and down the planet churned the garbage out left right and center until the law of diminishing returns kicked in. As I alluded to earlier, the era of the live band was severely curtailed. Rather than paying for a live band to pitch up, the cheap and cheerful alternative of a DJ and his back of vinyls to mix setting up became the norm. As it is the 21st century. 

Thankfully Elton really only flirted with it, and when he did spend an afternoon delight it was such a bad experience for both parties it has ultimately been forgotten. If it had been a success then it would hung around for all the wrong reasons. But Elton is always at his best when he plucks elements of his fancy from genres and turns them into his sound. Philadelphia Freedom being the case in point. Thom Bell sessions stayed the right side of the line...Munich was indeed another in a long line of disasters associated with that city.