(5 / 5)
Live albums, compilations and tribute records with lots of stars turning out to pay homage to a hero or heroine, can often turn out to be an anti-climax. All hype and no substance.
Never easy to find anything worth bothering with from the above list, in my personal view. Often a huge disappointment. So I read the press release about this star-studded ensemble of country artists covering the songs penned by Sir Elton John and Bernie Taupin across a 51-year partnership, with more reservation than restoration!.
But I admit, I was curious to get hold of a copy from those nice people at Universal Music to give it a fair chance. While giving the baker’s dozen tracks a spin, I kept getting a visual image flashback to the many times I have been to Nashville over the years, and the bumper stickers and signs inside most buildings on Music Row, which scream out: “It starts with the song”.
Another one I have seen there is:“It is all about the song”. Amen to that. A poor song cannot be made great by even the best singers and musicians. But a good song can be made great by the right vocal and the right music track.
So there cannot be any dispute that Sir Elton Hercules John CBE and his old pal Bernard John Taupin can craft a decent song, after collaborating on more than 30 albums which have sold more than 300 million copies.
But can the assembled cast on this album, do those songs justice? It’s a heady group. Nashville’s finest from modern day country and Americana stars to the legends of yesteryear. So they all know their way around a tune and a microphone, for sure.
But back to the topic of songwriting. Nashville is probably the # 1 city for songwriters on the planet. Every other building on music row is a song publisher. There are more recording studios in the area than just about anywhere else in the world, too. The royalty collection agencies have huge HQs in Music City: BMI, ASCAP etc.
Nearly every bar tender, cab driver, waiter or waitress and office worker is a songwriter and/or a singer. Fact is; most are better than some of the guys and gals who have had big success. The unusual thing about that place is; the songwriter is just about as equal to the artist in Nashville.
The labels, publishers and collection agencies treat the hit writers like stars. They realise without them, there is no music business. They lay on “Number One Parties” for those lucky enough to pen a song that hits the top of the charts. It’s big business and serious dollars in the pockets of all concerned.
And not many hits in the charts there are penned by solo writers these days. It’s usually two, three or more writers joining forces, and meeting up for a co-writing session that spawns the hit singles and hit albums.
Then the publisher and song plugger do the rounds to pitch and place those songs with artists, their management, record producers and record label A & R execs. As and when that song is snapped up and “put on hold”, the excitement builds and it is then a waiting game to see if the song makes the album.
But it is not until the song is recorded and included on the record and then released, that the celebrations can begin. What they call “getting a cut”. Then fingers crossed it sells a shed load and hits the charts. Kerching!
In songwriting, especially in Nashville, it is all about the chemistry. That special moment when two or three people meet up in a room, at a house, music publisher’s, demo studio or wherever, and they may not have even have met before, and see if they click.
Sometimes there’s instant sunshine and you can smell, taste and feel the electricity; and almost touch the potential for a hit or ten. I’ve been in rooms where that has happened. You all go quiet, look at each other and say: “That’s a hit”. When it is; you never forget that moment.
But zillions of times that chemistry is just not there, or the muse is sleeping in that day! In Nashville, most co-write sessions are done, just like the recording sessions there, in three hour bursts. Sometimes the writers can start and finish one, two or more songs in that time, or just play around with ideas to be gone back to on another day.
The stars aligned and luck had its place when the likes of Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, Goffin and King, Simon and Garfunkel and David and Bacharach sat down together to write lyrics and music. Now all instantly recognisable brand names as songwriting teams and hit machines.
Add to that illustrious list; Elton John and 68-year-old Bernie Taupin by all means. A dream team as a unit since 1967, when it comes to penning some of the biggest hits from the 1970s to today, and many, many awesome album tracks.
In the next few years, there’s likely to be a flood of tributes to British superstar Elton John, as he travels the globe on his farewell tour before packing in the touring and winding down his career at the age of 71.
So getting in early is “ Restoration: Re-imagining the Songs of Elton John and Bernie Taupin – Nashville Edition”. There’s a second album, with modern day pop stars gathering together to do the same job, called “Revamp: Re-imagining the Songs of Elton John and Bernie Taupin”. Not heard that one as yet.
The one I have hold of kicks off with a biggie. “Rocket Man”. From 1972, on Elton’s “Honky Chateau” album; the single made it to # 2 in the UK and # 6 in the US. Covered by the world and his wife and kids ever since.
Here it is the turn of country group Little Big Town. How do they do? In a word, “bloody good”. OK, two words then. A very unique treatment when you find out the background to the recording of their harmony-drenched version. Over to Little Big Town’s four members, Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman (formerly Kimberly Roads), Jimi Westbrook and Phillip Sweet.
“One of the main reasons why we chose ‘Rocket Man’ was because we were so intrigued by not just of course, Elton John, but by using the sounds from the Juno project. So we had all these Jupiter noises and we were like; what if we did an a cappella version of ‘Rocket Man’ on the Elton record. Frank Liddell (the producer) loved that idea and we were off to the races”.
NASA’s Mission Juno launched in 2011, to explore Jupiter. The sounds from Juno’s Waves radio instrument were used to create the sounds that have been weaved into the harmonies on Little Big Town’s “Rocket Man” track.
Next up is a newish kid on the block, Maren Morris with “Mona Lisas and the Madhatters” from “Honky Chateau”. A gorgeously bluesy and soulful vocal, in a real sultry Norah Jones vibe, and my fave of the 13 tracks here. Maren is a flipping awesome singer with a smoky tone and a great range. This song fits her like a glove. Really does.
28-year-old Maren has had much success as a songwriter herself, penning hits for Tim McGraw, Kelly Clarkson and many others. She won a Grammy for her song “My Church” in 2017, among five nominations. She is a succesful solo artist in her own right too. Would love to hear her and Elton sing a duet of “Mona Lisas and the Madhatters”. Oh yesss.
Don Henley and Vince Gill deliver the divorce saga, “Sacrifice” before the current hot property Brothers Osborne rock out on the quite wonderful and timeless track “Take Me To The Pilot”. You gotta check out this song on Elton’s mesmerising live album “17.11.70” which I recently re-discovered on CD after losing (lending!!!) my vinyl LP copy some years ago. “Burn Down The Mission” on that album is mind blowing.
Miranda Lambert doesn’t disappoint with her contribution, a rousing version of “My Father’s Gun”. Modern day Americana star Chris Stapleton stays true to his personal style on “I Want Love”.
Lee Ann Womack’s “Honky Cat” rendition is maybe the most country-fied track among the bunch I think. My late mother used to ask me to “play that one again, Simon” when I bought the single in 1972 when it first came out. I bought his next album, “Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player” the following year and wore it out.
Kacey Musgraves offers up a decent job on “Roy Rogers”, a deep cut from the “Goodbye Yellowbrick Road” album, and the legend that is Dolly Parton joins up with bluegrass queen Rhonda Vincent for a faultless version of “Please”. Pop queen Miley Cyrus spits out “The Bitch Is Back” in fine camp style with sassy attitude.
Dierks Bentley gets emotional on “Sad Songs (Say So Much)” and the penultimate cut, “This Train Don’t Stop” couples Rosanne Cash and the marvellous Emmylou Harris, and their voices are a perfect fit. The closer sees the legendary Willie Nelson deliver an under-stated killer cut with “Border Song”, in a wistful, almost melancholic moment.
The good thing about this collection is, no one set out to fix what ain’t bust, as regards most of the arrangements here. You don’t mess about with songs that are just about perfect from the second they are born. So there’s nothing revolutionary or brand new here. That’s a positive, not a negative by the way.
These artists, young and older, are all savvy enough to know they have been given gold nuggets in the way of material, and all they need do is give them a wee bit of personal polish. It proves that an artist should serve the song and not the other way round.
It also proves, if proof were needed, that these songs are timeless and still relevant many moons after they were written. Lets face it, Elton’s music has always been very American, and his musical sponge, soaked up the blues, country, gospel, pop, rock and beyond, from day one.
Elton John’s “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” tour kicks off in the US in September and will take in more than 300 shows across five continents in a three year period. His finale of 50 years on the road.I suspect while he may not want to trek around the globe living out of a suitcase (or 50!) again, we have not heard the last of the man on record.
For this superb tribute to Elton and his songs (on CD and vinyl LP), Dave Cobb, John Leventhal and Frank Liddell took the helm as producers. So it’s all their fault if you don’t like it. All down to the talents of the assembled artists if you do!
But do not forget; the material might well have something to do with it, too. Thank Elton and Bernie for that side of things. No tantrums and tiaras here – it’s all about the songs.
By Simon Redley
(2 / 5) ‘OK Zone’
(3 / 5) ‘Decent Zone’
(4 / 5) ‘Super Zone’
(5 / 5) ‘Awesome Zone’