|Benny shortly before he left for his hammer|
Like Benny from Crossroads returning with his hammer (but longer than the six month's it took him) JW&AT is now again ready to hit things. And rather than just tap, we're going to thump.
I just want to lay out some groundwork before we examine these two releases. I'm sure most readers will have heard Elton's interview with Nihal last week on the radio. The main point to be extracted was the lamentation of the end of proper songwriting. And why should that be a surprise? The best stuff has already been done, Elton should know, he's contributed a large swathe of it. Look at the sheer volume of material released since the mid 50's till the turn of the century when a steady decline that already been in evidence for a few years before that became an almost vertical drop.
If the base material is lacking then the conduits for it have also suffered a drastic reduction in quality. Singing, in terms of the forms that developed as we knew them in the 20th Century, is now a dying art. It's now a more speech based exercise. Rather than making lyrics expressive they've been reduced to something more akin to spoken prose with modest melodic effect.
I think we're at a '1962' moment in music history. 1962 was the year of the crooner, the first wave of rock and roll was dying out and desperately needed an new direction. An audition at EMI that year solved that issue. But I feel now we're going to end up in a continuous loop of being stuck in 1962.
If the best stuff has already been written then the best people have already sang it. Or have they? Not exactly true, there are some hiding out in the suburbs that haven't quite got a full line through to downtown. And that's what we're going to find on these two discs. The tagline 'Reimagining' can carry many meanings but as we'll see not always the right one's come to the forefront, either through lack of thought or too much mind matter being put in to it.
I tried to steer clear of a number of things; first off comparing the originals to these 'covers'. But that's still a hard thing to do, unlistening to decades of Elton is like having your brain bleached from the inside out. Nor will I list out who I thought should have been on the discs. There's been some excellent students of Elton over the years that have done their bit, too many to mention, but George Michael, the Wilson sisters, Axl Rose to name just some I'd put right up their on the plinth reserved for worthy covers. I won't even go back as far Two Rooms, we're were all younger then. And maybe less wiser. We can only work with what we've been dealt, they stuck their necks out. We'll decide who needs chopping. Or tickling.
1. Bennie and the Jets - Elton John, Pink and Logic
When I scanned down the artist list my blood ran backwards with some of them. Pink wasn't one of them that caused fluid reversal but I expected much more from her on this one. A diabolical computer production (a curse throughout the album at times) with some pointless rap section parachuted in at the last minute it seems kills the thing stone dead. The thought processes to conjure this one up is beyond me.
2. We All Fall in Love Sometimes - Coldplay
If there's one thing and only one thing to be gleaned from this track it's the dirth of competent, never mind those influenced by Elton, keyboard players. Playing an Elton song on any keyboard will expose you to your peers. Again, how can a well known mega artist deliver such a pancake flat version. The main melody line goes off in several (unwarranted) tangents (another curse on this album, I'm afraid). A medieval sounding bridge to the chorus gives the impression somebody was at the mixing desk for a short period of time but then left, a temporary heartbeat revives things before the flat lining rings out again. Chris Martin's vocals would have been vastly improved if a keyboard player of note were in the house. Does Rick Wakeman still do Watchdog?
3. I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues - Alessia Cara
With a mid tempo song there's only two ways to go (a third if you want to do nothing) if you want to spruce things up. I have no idea who this girl is but thank goodness she turned up when she did. So far this album was beginning to do a uber-Titanic and be vertical before anyone had even stood on it's bow, arms aloft and akimbo. Full of musical tonnage, she make a significant displacement. Heavy rhythm section (who remembers drums and bass guitars?) flows outwards. This is good. Wurlitzer played by Jeff Ross who I once saw playing with John Jorgenson and Charlie Morgan many, many years ago shows why proper keyboard players are needed in some shape or form on this project. Her vocals are mannered, measured with a nice nod at the end to the bands original backing vocals.
4. Candle in the Wind - Ed Sheeran
I like Ed Sheeran as a person. Anybody with odd hair and wears glasses who can get all those Instagram honey's swooning over him has to be respected in my book. However his music isn't for me, so I can't really say anything about this track as he does nothing that I can take from it, good or bad, to warrant further comment.
5. Tiny Dancer - Florence and the Machine
The first thing that hits you a millisecond in is the piano. Maybe not played brilliantly but it's the first track so far that is brave and uses it front and centre to good effect. The sound of it is eerily like the original, either in model or tuning. As does the rhythm section evoke similar thoughts in the same vein. As is the want with the sound of Flo and her Machinists the harp does most of the carrying one would expect from an acoustic guitar for additional rhythm. Her distinctive vocals are multitracked ina manner to be as effectual as possible but never to an over bearing level. The orchestral arrangement steers clear of Buckmaster's take on it; it veers off the main melody and only on occasions moves from the background to stick its head in. The final chorus uses the vocal layers to maximum deliverance of increased natural volume; in fact the fullness of it reminds one of the brass James Newton Howard added to original arrangement, for the Tour De Force in 1986.
So far the best thing on the album.
6. Someone Saved My Life Tonight - Mumford & Sons
Suffering cats, somebody put out an APB for the entire Mumford family. They've killed a song. This is truly woeful, not one element of the songs basis or it's signature statements are left alive. It's as if a 'MUMified' (see what I did there?) corpse, white of face and red of eye is propped up for one more rendition. It's a lazy execution, slow and painful. No song should suffer that indignation.
7. Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word - Mary J. Blige
Mary J. Blige has done Elton before, singing that is, so she should know better than deliver this trashy mechanically robotic dirge. Whether it be a deliberate or accidental diversion from any remnants of the original melody it can't be forgiven. Going out of your way to be intentionally obtuse might be a sense of achievement for those responsible but it's the listener who ends up confused at the start and raging by the end. Why couldn't she have got somebody like a David Foster to do herself and the song justice?
Rewriting a song is not clever or not funny. We've had too many trying that so far. Stop. Now.
8. Don't Go Breaking My Heart - Q-Tip and Demi Lovato
Now we're starting to circle the drain. This is the third one in a row that needs rescuing by musical social services. Demi Lovato is a good pop singer (not that you would know it here), in another era her material legacy would be greater than some of the stuff she's appeared on. But Q-TIP (no, me neither) and her both sound like something recorded on an ancient mobile phone for a Youtube uploading at the the lowest DPI possible. Modern music folks it seems can neither be trusted to write new songs properly or worse still, as we can hear, be trusted with an old song.
I think names should start to be taken at this stage.
9. Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters - The Killers
At least the rot has stopped for now, though I'd have preferred The Killers to have done an uptempo, slightly electronic/rock track from the back catalogue. Leather Jackets had plenty to offer them. A bit of work maybe but could have been more fulfilling. Its an ok attempt, they didn't make too much of a mess nor found something on it we've not envisaged before.
10. Daniel - Sam Smith
Like Ed I have no concept of his music, though his voice at times displeases me every time I have the misfortune to hear it. I only got as far as the part where he started singing, which is almost as soon as it starts. It's like a castrato. Mid procedure. Regretting it. I can do nothing nor will I try with this one either.
11. Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me - Miley Cyrus
This one surprised me. A lot. We all know Miley has a reputation as being a bit of a...anyways, she does have singing talent, no doubt here. The lesser spotted piano player comes in to view. It's lavished with a country rock edge, human beings playing instruments. Who knew. A welcome relief of almost Mafeking proportions, after a seemingly endless slew of flicking through current music channel offerings. There's nods and bows to Nigel, Dee and Davey throughout that cannot and will not be ignored. It's a confident vocal delivery, timed and managed with care.
12. Your Song
I know a lot of Elton fans like Gaga so I'll have to pick my words carefully. I know there's a lot of hype around her but to me she's bit of a head the ball, 'original' to anyone born after 1990, not nearly as good a singer as the chattering classes would have you believe either. In examining this version I found her delivery to be harsh, no sense of panache or sense of the required fragility that is required at certain (though not all) times throughout the song to make it work as being something that is sincere. It's as if her words were recorded individually and then spliced together to give it a monotonal dictation. The arrangement, whilst trying to be a bit more understanding, doesn't make her case any more credible.
Elton fan's are now calling for my execution after I've slaughterd a sacred cow. But didn't she sing once about killing cows and making burgers...
13. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road - Queens of the Stone Age
I think the Foo Fighters would have been a better choice for the 'heavy rock' participant. Rock Of The Westies would have been a tasty menu for them to choose a rock out closer. Instead we get QTSA who make a passable attempt but a heavier go at it may have been more interesting. It's middling at best.
1. Rocket Man - Little Big Town
With a group known for their harmonies you'd have expected they would be front and centre. After all the original song is dripping with them. Incredibly though some of the production gimmicks present on the other disc have escaped and look as if they're going infect this one. It tries to be too clever for its own good and ends up being bit of a mess in places. Not until the outro do we hear what what we should have heard in the main body of the song. A shame this one, considering they showed in patches what could have been achieved.
2. Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters - Maren Morris
So they're having another go at this one, this an artist I'm not familiar with. I said I wouldn't compare too much with the originals but comparing covers with other covers is beyond the remit of this blog at this time. This take is in more of a downstairs music club style, which suits all parties. Performer and song. The emotions are caught deftly, a thoughtful tempo with a restrained production all add up to something worthy.
3. Sacrifice - Don Henley & Vince Gill
I was never a fan of the original so my expectations were a bit low. However it does surprise at times, the tempo changes from verse to chorus were welcome to break up unwelcome monotony. The switches too in lead vocals also added some needed variation. They don't do any serious dents to the song and treated it with care. No complaints here so.
4. Take Me To The Pilot - Brothers Osborne
This is a functional effort, another act I'm not familiar with either. Whether that helps or not for me to judge those who I know or not is a moot point. I can only start and finish with the song. They did what they did with it apart from that there's no more to be said.
5. My Father's Gun - Miranda Lambert
We've got a fine rendition here, a terrific gritty country rock edge encased by classic female country vocals are a perfect entwining. Hearing is believing, the concept of the album is fully realised on this track.
6. I Want Love - Chris Stapleton
Unlike current songstress, Dua Lipa, I'm starting breaking my own rules. Elements of the original are plastered all over, Nigel's big drum sound for instance is present and correct. But what is the most unexpected, and most pleasing guest, is a 'new' Buckmaster arrangement. Was it an unused leftover from SFTWC or one of his final acts on this Earth? Whatever the case it puts an exquisite finishing touch, this version may not stray too far from the original (its very commercial in fact) but the added orchestral element by somebody who knew their way around an Elton song better than most, if not everyone, will mean it has a legacy.
7. Honky Cat - Lee Ann Womack
I think this was the right time for some light relief on the album, there were some (unintentional) laughs on the last one but this time they are well scripted. A stripped back style with some witty production values. Performer and musicians find slightly different places to go whilst still in sight of home. Done their way but still not too far away from what we know.
8. Roy Rogers - Kacey Musgraves
We've had some good stuff so far on this album but if you don't respect the melody or maybe understand it then it's going to leave you scratching around for the hook line. The necessary peaks and troughs are obscured. It's like skimmed milk, too flat and thin. The slightly advanced tempo makes it feel rushed, the briskness gives an impression that they wanted to be in and out as quickly as possible either without making it obvious or fearful of hanging around any longer might cause more serious damage.
9. Please - Rhonda Vincent & Dolly Parton
So far we've not had too much to complain about so can we keep it up till the end? So far the women have been keeping me up...if there was ever a contrast between the previous attempt and this one surely a chasm so big has not been measured yet. The song choice (like a lot on this disc) surprises and the delivery delights. As I mentioned earlier on a number of tracks, the tempo changes can kill it or revive it. A careful ear that has good judgement will win through. A steady natural backbeat, the only stick here is for some light percussion rather than of the USB kind. This is proper American trad style music, other producers take note. The two voices play off each other comfortably, its like a first take after one hearing. At the end of the day this Dolly was never a clone!
10. The Bitch Is Back - Miley Cyrus
Miley's really been the one on these discs that has surprised me. I don't eat humble pie because I came in with a blank canvas and commented on what I've found. If an artist makes me change my mind, they've done it for me. For me anyway the litmus test of any great singer is whether they can do the ballads and rockers as if they're on a busman's holiday either way. There's no doubt she caught the flavour of the two Caribou tracks, her band and producer carefully navigated her and themselves through challenging waters. Knowing there wasn't to much wrong with the originals a simple updating and colouring in a bit deeper already vivid shades can work wonders.
11. Sad Songs (Say So Much) - Dierks Bentley
A piano. Yep, you have to give some credit for at least adding that element to the mix but as he's an artist I have no clue of (yet again!) it's almost impossible for me to judge whether he's on form or not.
12. This Train Don't Stop There Anymore - Rosanne Cash & Emmylou Harris
We've had some great song choices on this disc, that is for sure. Sometimes a minor adjustment is all you need. Referencing back to my tempo point the judgement on that matter here is bang on point. Two artists who are masters in their field deliver a noteworthy rendition, this reviewer can not nor will try and find fault.
It makes you think if Linda Ronstadt still had her singing powers what she could have brought to this album.
13. Border Song - Willie Nelson
I wasn't sure that Willie was still with us but he's still on terra firma if this rendition is anything to go by. I'm not sure mediums record well. Sounding as he does though like Strother Martin at times it's by far and away the best male vocal on this album and the other one. Backed by musicians who take care and attention to detail as they swim to a fine closer on the album.
If you skipped through the entirety of both albums and didn't read any of the above reportage then this should still make some sense. The Restoration disc is by far and away the best of the two. Bernie got the better end of the deal. Maybe one album of the best performances may have been a much tighter affair but with half a thousand songs to choose from we'd be here till doomsday.
The best performances covering the two discs are the female vocalists. They are head and shoulders above their male counterparts. I'm not talking either by a head, they were several lengths in front at the finishing post. My earlier point of being stuck in a '1962' moment has been born out, certainly as regards male vocalists.
There's a fine line between 'reimagining' and 'rewriting' is too close to call really, at times though some of the acts went feet first over to the wrong side. The production on Revamp at times was so bad, or maybe I'm so old, that it's like listening to a new form of sound that I'm neither able to recognise nor respect. Restoration showed too that the back catalogue has life beyond the foothills of the hits. A lesson that hopefully will travel a long way back to hit hill top.
I know the aim of the Revamp effort is try and tune in the young people towards Elton. I suppose the crowd that come after the millennials perhaps (whatever they're called) might be the target groups. But in translating Elton in to their 'language' so much is lost that the message is garbled and unintelligible at times. Which leads to all sort of misunderstandings. My advice is simple. Learn the language of Elton. It sounds better when you hear it spoken by the teacher and when you speak it back. Like Linguaphone spoken by natives. I wonder if the juxtaposition of a young fan of these pop artists going back to the originals will meet with their approval. After all they'll be hearing things alien to their ears. Guitar solos. Strings and brass battling with keyboards. Vocal harmonies sung by people with no computer to make them sound good. Without any effects thrown in for bad measure. Or having 'featuring' in the titles.
There was a chronic lack of any proper keyboard acts. They don't exist much (where was Alicia Keys for example?)in any mainstream form nowadays so we're at a point of no return as regards seeing such performers again in the future that will be groundbreaking and imaginative on a wide scale. These covers do tell us one important lesson for the uninitiated. And that goes back to the what I said in the last paragraph. By stopping here with these versions you're missing out on what the songs really were all about. The band elements, arrangers, production values, etc. are all missing and painfully so in most cases.
Covers can be wicked things to pin down. But as I head back with my hammer, here's a thought. The best artist to have covered Elton has been Elton himself. His live 'revamping' over the last 50 years had true sincerity and authenticity about it. When he throws out the prepared script and does it his way there was and still is no better person to it. Sometimes by design sometimes by circumstance, he's had to rework, if not rebuild in some cases, many a song for the stage environment. Look at Sixty Years On and the various treatments, hybrid and all, it's had. Tonight on the 1985/86 band tour was so left field of the original it still contained enough base matter that you were always on familiar ground; the reimagining of Davey's guitar replacing the London Symphony Orchestra on paper sounds ludicrous but worked as if it were the first idea.
First ideas are always best. Elton and Bernie's first ideas were, are and always will be the best.