Amazing commercial featuring Elton John

Wow, this is awesome.

  

Elton John & Leon Russell: The Union


RIYL: Leon Russell, classic Elton John, aging gracefully


For the majority of the ’70s, Elton John was positively unstoppable – and for much of the ’80s, he was so creatively bankrupt that by the time he returned to limited form with 1987’s Reg Strikes Back, it was such a welcome surprise that he’s been handed a pass for most of the lukewarm adult contemporary pop he’s released in the intervening two decades and change. Compared to Leather Jackets and Ice on Fire, late-period Elton like Songs from the West Coast and Peachtree Road is a step up, but those albums still lack the heat and creative energy of his best work, and a lot of the positive reviews he’s gotten over the last couple of decades have come through a combination of blessed relief and the standard grade inflation enjoyed by veteran artists who manage not to suck outright.

Leon Russell, meanwhile, has never released anything as half-baked as the junk Elton was peddling at his nadir – but then, Leon never had as far to fall as Elton, and he’s had the luxury of carving out a low-key career for himself as an indie artist in between tours and session cameos. If people know Russell’s name at all, it’s usually because of his early ’70s work; his more recent releases might be second- or third-tier stuff, but they had fewer people to disappoint. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that the prospect of Elton and Leon teaming up for The Union, while intriguing, had the look and feel of a classic rock setup – the kind of project with a strong concept, and executed by performers with undeniable talent, but bound to underwhelm because the artists can’t, or won’t, light their creative spark.

So here’s a happy surprise for anyone who’s suffered through Elton’s post-’70s work and wondered when he’d shift back out of second gear, or been frustrated that Russell hasn’t found more suitable showcases for his talent: The Union is not only the best thing either of them have done in years, it’s a vibrant, rootsy template for how many of their peers (coughBillyJoelandRodStewartcough) can get their mojo back.

What’s the difference? It’s true that some of the songs have more bite, including the rave-ups “Monkey Suit” and “A Dream Come True,” as well as the winking first single “If It Wasn’t for Bad,” but there’s also plenty of room for sleepy ballads like “The Best Part of the Day.” What really sets it apart is T Bone Burnett’s production, which strips back the synthetic varnish that both artists have leaned on too often and exposes the knots and whorls in their finely aged voices – and, more importantly, captures some of the best-sounding piano tracks either of them have laid down in the last 30 years. It’s obvious that a lot of money went into The Union – Booker T. Jones, Jim Keltner, Brian Wilson, Neil Young, and Robert Randolph are some of the guests – but it all went into capturing pure performances, rather than dressing them up. This is a loose, vibrant record, and while it isn’t entirely free of the schmaltz that’s plagued Elton’s later albums in particular, it’s obvious that having Russell as a foil (and Burnett’s strong, minimalist hand in the studio) has brought out the best in him. The musical fruition of a friendship struck up 40 years ago, The Union brings Elton John and Leon Russell full circle – and should bring a smile to the face of anyone who’s been holding out hope that both artists would find their way back to what made their music special. (Mercury 2010)

Elton John MySpace page

  

Alice in Chains: Black Gives Way to Blue


RIYL: Soundgarden, Godsmack, Staind

In a sense, the fact that Alice in Chains have reformed and released a new album isn’t all that improbable. Though their earliest albums were marked by the passionate, fiery vocal performances of original lead singer Layne Staley, he began to withdraw during the band’s later years as his addictions got the best of him. By the time of the band’s final, self-titled album in 1995, Layne – who eventually died of an overdose in 2002 – sounded almost like he wasn’t really there, a shadow of his former self.

Alice_in_Chains_04

Fourteen years after the original band’s swan song, Layne Staley’s ghost is ever-present throughout Black Gives Way to Blue. Guitarist and chief songwriter Jerry Cantrell blended his voice so well with Layne’s back in the day that whether he’s singing to his own multi-tracked vocals or in harmony with new lead singer William DuVall, one could be forgiven for thinking that Layne had come back from the dead to add his stamp to the record. Not only that, the album has more in common with Alice in Chains than with any of the band’s other records; Cantrell shares the lead vocal spot more frequently than he did on Dirt or Facelift, the overall tone is more melancholy and dire than manic mindfucks like “Sickman,” “Real Thing” or “Them Bones” ever aspired to be, and other than “Take Her Out” and the catchy lead single “Check My Brain,” pop hooks are few and far between.

While the title track tastefully pays tribute to the band’s fallen singer, its much-hyped Elton John appearance on piano ultimately disappoints; what could have been an epic memorial and a signature piece of the reborn band comes off more like a demo, and one that’s still searching for a bridge and a suitable conclusion, ending far too soon. Even now, Alice still has one up on copycats like Godsmack and Staind, but Black Gives Way to Blue falls just short of what they’re truly capable of achieving. (Virgin 2009)

Alice In Chains MySpace
Click to buy Black Gives Way to Blue from Amazon

  

Strive: Fire

Listening to Strive’s Fire can be a little disorienting – immersing yourself in the band’s piano-heavy pop creates an effect similar to what it might feel like to hit your head and wake up in 1988, on Johnny Hates Jazz’s tour bus, where the singer from When in Rome is doing the nasty with Elton John. Nothing on the album is as disturbing as that mental image, of course, but the songs strongly evoke memories of the late ‘80s heyday of melodramatic, thickly polished pop – and singer Derrick Thompson really does sound like the singer from When in Rome. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, and really, if Fire had been released in ’88, Strive would be selling out arenas with Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant – but in 2009, there isn’t a non-CCM station on the planet that’s going to slip any of these tracks into heavy rotation, particularly when they’re as unintentionally funny as “On Our Way,” which is supposed to be some sort of tribute to the downtrodden people of Africa but ends up just ripping off the melody from Ben Folds’ “Brick.” Fire may trigger a mixture of nostalgia and ironic pleasure in listeners old enough to remember the ‘80s, but music this simplemindedly earnest is liable to be little more than an amusing curiosity for everyone else – and when you’re aiming for sweeping grandiosity with every track, as Strive so clearly is, that’s a pretty big problem. (GoDigital 2008)

Strive MySpace page

  

Introducing…”Spectacle: Elvis Costello with…”

If you’re a regular reader of Premium Hollywood, then you may recall a time this past summer when I was as giddy as a schoolgirl about having met Elvis Costello…not only because I’m a huge fan, but also because it gave me a chance to redeem myself for the fool I made of myself the first time I’d met him. The reason the summer encounter came about was Elvis’s appearance at the TCA Press Tour, where he had turned up to promote his then-upcoming Sundance Channel series, “Spectacle: Elvis Costello with…”

That was July. Now, it’s December…and the series has finally come up.

The premise of the show is, to simplify it to the most basic pop culture terms, like “Inside the Actors Studio,” except the focus is on music rather than film. The good news, however, is that Elvis Costello is rather less fawning than James Lipton, and the guests – at least for the most part – appear to have been taken not from the latest Billboard charts but, rather, from Elvis’s own rolodex. Certainly, there are some former chart-toppers to be found amongst the 13 episodes of the series (which will hopefully prove to be the first of many seasons), but the variety of musicians involved is such that it’s clear the scheduling was the work of an individual rather than by committee. With that said, it never hurts to kiss the ass of your executive producers, so it’s possibly not a coincidence that the first guest on “Spectacle” is Sir Elton John, whose name appears in the show’s production credits, but, hey, everybody likes Elton!

If you consider yourself to be a music geek, then you’ll go nuts over “Spectacle,” since Elvis sits down with some of the biggest-selling and/or most acclaimed musical performers of the 20th and 21st centuries…plus Bill Clinton…and basically just gets geeky with them. Yes, he’s a fine interviewer, having at least honed his skills a bit by guest-hosting an episode of “The Late Show with David Letterman,” but in truth, the best parts of the conversation with Elton are when the two of them wax nostalgic about Leonard Cohen, Laura Nyro, and Leon Russell, among others.

It would be cruel and unusual punishment to have these artists onstage without ever playing a note, of course, so you will be unsurprised to hear that there’s a fair amount of music performed as well. The episodes start with Elvis performing a song by that evening’s guest, so you’ll be hearing a nice version of Elton’s “Border Song” tonight (come next week, prepare to have Elvis serenade you with one of Lou Reed’s finest ’60s compositions), but Elton himself takes to the piano and has a bit of fun with demonstrating the similarity between his own style and that of the aforementioned Mr. Russell, and the two of them duet nicely on David Ackles’ “Down River,” an American singer-songwriter who never earned quite as much fame Stateside as he did in the UK. (The first time I’d ever heard of him was when Howard Jones covered his song, “Road to Cairo,” on the Elektra Records’ anniversary set, Rubaiyat.)

Beyond Mr. Reed’s appearance next week and President Clinton’s chat the following Wednesday, you can look forward to upcoming episodes which feature James Taylor, Tony Bennett, the Police, Rufus Wainwright (whose praises are sung by Elton tonight, as it happens), Herbie Hancock, and many others. I’ll offer up another post next week with a bit more specifics as to what you can expect with Laughin’ Lou, but if you catch the show with Elton, be sure to leave your thoughts.

Oh, and ignore Elvis. You should tell everyone about “Spectacle.”

  

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