Wednesday, September 21, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 916: Billy Joel

I’m just back from dental surgery and my freezing is wearing off. I’ve taken a painkiller but now I’m nervous it’ll impact my writing ability. I promise to do my best to walk the line between “ouch!” and “huh?” as carefully as possible.

That said, if I sound a little overly harsh during this next review, it is because my mouth hurts. Also, the album sucks. If I begin to ramble, that is the painkiller kicking in. Also, the album bored me. Feel free to ascribe motivations for the writer’s voice as best humours you.

Disc 916 is….Storm Front
Artist: Billy Joel

Year of Release: 1989

What’s up with the Cover? As you may know, mariners have long used flags to pass signals between ships. This black square inside a red square is a storm warning. In the case of this album, it is also a warning that there is one good song amid a sea of content that will mostly make you angry. Hence the red.

How I Came To Know It: I bought this album against my better judgment because it had the song “The Downeaster Alexa” and I am a sucker for a sea shanty.

How It Stacks Up:  I have a greatest hits package by Billy Joel (which tragically does not include “The Downeaster Alexa” and hence this review) but that doesn’t stack up. I have one other studio album, “The Stranger” which is so far above “Storm Front” that ranking “Storm Front” only second is kind of insulting.

Ratings: 2 stars

Billy Joel’s got nothing much to say on “Storm Front” but don’t worry, he compensates for it with a lot of bombast. Joel is a natural songwriter and storyteller with a bevy of American classics to claim as his own, but sadly they don’t appear on this record.

OK, that was unkind. There is one song I consider a Joel classic on this record, and that’s “The Downeaster Alexa” so before I get back to hammering away at the other nine tracks (and before the freezing is completely gone from my gums), let’s give the man some well-deserved credit.

The Downeaster Alexa” is a song about a commercial fisherman, trying to make a living off the coast of New England in the face of dwindling stocks and rising personal debt. This song is filled with the mix of despair and defiance that comes when a man knows his life’s work is collapsing around him, but steadfastly sticks to it. The captain of the Alexa fishes deeper, travels farther, mortgages his home and does whatever he can to continue to do the job he loves.

The melody undulates like a proper sea shanty, and the heavy bass drums in the background are evocative of a million different commercial fishing sounds: the thump of the engine, the crash of the waves and the general sense that the bottom of the ocean is very far down indeed. Yes, I’ve been commercial fishing and felt/heard all of that. My brother has done it far more often, and this song always makes me think of him (and worry about him when he’s at sea).

Unfortunately, that’s almost it for the good stuff on “Storm Front.” The production is full of pointless flourishes that make everything sound busy and the songs try to be bigger and more important than they are.

This is right in the middle of Joel’s marriage to Christie Brinkley and the record suggests things aren't great at home, but those suggestions are vague and deflected. Songs like “That’s Not Her Style,” “Shameless” and “State of Grace” all overreach and feel like Joel is trying to convince himself of something rather than just speak from the heart. “I Go To Extremes” is some kind of apology for the over-reach, while simultaneously doing more of it. Maybe these songs would work if it weren’t for all that goddamn excess production everywhere, but I doubt it.

I usually love the way Joel sings a song, but on most of “Storm Front” it sounds like he’s trying to channel Joe Cocker and falling short. His strength is heartfelt storytelling, not bombastic blues-inspired rock. Apart from “Downeaster Alexa” the album just plays again and again to his weaknesses.

“Storm Front” was Joel’s most successful record since “Glass Houses” going all the way to #4 in Canada, and #1 in the U.S. Maybe it is fitting that the worst track on the record is also the most commercially successful. “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is just a laundry list of headlines from the previous four decades. The best you can say about this song is that Joel strings them all together so that they rhyme in a clever way. But so what? This song is nothing more than sitting around saying “’member when?” to your drunk buddy, when he’s already passed out. It is like sitting in front of the TV, drool at the corner of the mouth, clicking through the channels.

Joel attempts a story later with “Leningrad” and this approach is at least more of what makes him interesting (delving into the struggles of the individual caught in the tide of history, rather than the tide itself). Unfortunately, “Leningrad” isn’t that great of a song. Not bad, but just not good enough to rescue a record this forgettable.

The album ends with “And So It Goes” which I have a soft spot for. It’s just piano and Joel’s mournful voice but it captures a bitter honesty lacking earlier on the album. Here Joel strips things down to some painful truths of a love about to be lost. In some ways “And So It Goes” is an apology (lyrically and stylistically) for the earlier tracks. The lyrics are a bit maudlin, but having poured out my soul to a woman more than once in my life, I can attest that maudlin is called for sometimes.

I like “Downeaster Alexa” and “And So It Goes” but I’ve got a large music collection with a lot of songs that do a better job of dealing with their respective topics. I’d run through the long list of them by decade, but as “We Didn’t Start the Fire” teaches us, that would just be annoying. Instead I’ll talk about those albums when I roll them, even as I bid this one a not-so-fond adieu.

Best tracks: Downeaster Alexa, And So It Goes

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