Tuesday, February 24, 2015

CD Odyssey Disc 709: Elton John

I have a whole lot on the go tonight (a lot for us ‘no kids’ types, anyway).

I started work early, stayed late and then took a power nap. Now I am writing this review before I finish watching a taping of the Bruins/Canucks hockey game (It is 1-1 after the first. Go Bruins!).

Later my friend is coming over to do a little gaming and then it is a late dinner, a little TV with Sheila and early to bed to do it all over again on Wednesday. Whew!

Disc 709 is…. Caribou
Artist: Elton John

Year of Release: 1974

What’s up with the Cover? This looks like one of those mall photo booths, where they put you up against a fake backdrop and encourage you to pose with a bunch of goofy props. Hey, Elton, just because they provide all those ridiculous clothes and accessories doesn’t mean you have to use them.

What’s that? Those are your regular clothes? Well, alright then…

How I Came To Know It: Just me drilling through the Elton John collection, since Sheila caught my up on him a few years back. This was my most recent purchase, and I’ve probably only had it a year at most.

How It Stacks Up:  We now have seven Elton John albums (as promised when I reviewed “Yellow Brick Road” I have added both “Honky Chateau” and this album to the collection. I would put “Caribou” 4th, just edging out “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” which has slipped since I reviewed it back at Disc 526.

Rating: 3 stars

Chronologically, I consider “Caribou” Elton John’s last record worth owning, but I still consider it part of his golden age. It is a bit of a mess in places like “Yellow Brick Road” but the fact that Elton wisely keeps his excess down to a single album helps considerably on that front.

The album starts with a bang with “The Bitch is Back” which feels like Elton getting in touch with his not-so-nice self. Here is the Elton of Excess, doing what he wants when he wants, and not caring about the consequences. Hearing “The Bitch is Back” I was not at all surprised to learn that a year later Elton would have a drug overdose. The song feels like a cry for help. An overblown, rude, obnoxious cry for help, but a cry for help nonetheless.

After this the album descends a bit into mediocrity. “Pinky” and “Grimsby” are both meandering affairs that are held up by Elton’s considerable talent on piano. On “Pinky” he layers a rich emotional texture into the song, and on “Grimsby” he delivers a frenetic energy that helps offset the song’s clunky rock guitar. Despite this, both songs felt to me like they were missing the genius of other songs from earlier in his career.

I could say the same about the countrified “Dixie Lily” but I won’t because I have a soft spot for Elton when he gets all honky tonky. He is better at it than most actual country singers, and his ragtime piano made the whole song feel like it was written in 1874 rather than one hundred years later.

Then John is back being weird with the deliberately obtuse “Solar Prestige A Gammon” and the directionless “I’ve Seen the Saucers.” The latter tries to throw minor chords in to create an aura of strangeness, but instead it just pokes a big hole in the melody. Both songs are examples of how you can lose your way when experimenting as often as you make new discoveries.

I love the slow build of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me” which I recall was one of the first Elton John songs I admitted liking. (Growing up in a heavy metal culture meant you had to automatically dislike Elton John to be cool. How sad and foolish we can be when we’re young).

The song that came out of nowhere to surprise me was “Ticking” – a song abut a supposedly good kid losing his mind; stabbing a waiter and murdering 14 people in a bar before being tragically killed by police. Er…spoiler alert.

The piano in “Ticking” is sublime, racing forward to the song’s inevitable end, tripping over itself as it lurches into despair and madness. Despite being almost eight minutes long, but I never feel like it drags.  The music perfectly captures what it feels like to run downhill, gaining speed until you eventually lose control.

My version of “Caribou” is an extended re-issue, so instead of ending with “Ticking” we get four bonus tracks. That’s a bit disappointing, because “Ticking” would be such a great ending, but the bonus tracks are actually pretty interesting. You get “Pinball Wizard” (the movie version), a couple of B-sides and…”Step Into Christmas.” OK, I take it back – they should have stopped with “Ticking.”

Best tracks: The Bitch is Back, Dixie Lily, Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me, Ticking

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