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Posted on October 13, 2010 by Josh Hurst
There’s a lot of love on this one– not only does Sir Elton sound like he’s trying harder than he has in years, generally speaking, but he’s pulling out all the stops not for the sake of his ego, but his idol. The story goes that the impetus for The Union was for John to use his celebrity to restore his all-time musical hero, Leon Russell, to the public eye, but what those noble ambitions rolled into is a full-blown duet album, complete with dueling pianos and trade-offs on vocal and songwriting duty (the latter is also split with Benie Taupin).
John’s taking this one seriously, and his ambitions– for this to be a monstrously successful album, mostly for Leon’s sake– haven’t been very veiled. His vision of the project extends to his choice of producer; he put in a call to T-Bone Burnett, despite having never worked with the man before, simply out of the hope that this record might blossom into something as high-profile and celebrated as Raising Sand. Burnett’s not a bad choice for this rootsy, country-infused, but still very mainstream affair, though I’m inclined to say that, for the next go-around, Joe Henry or Buddy Miller might make for favorable alternatives. The good news: It isn’t as sleepy as Raising Sand. The bad news is that T-Bone is in a bit of a rut as of late, and The Union carries with it all the baggage that a T-Bone production entails in 2010. The edges of this thing are so rounded, the atmosphere so hazy, that nothing here really pops, sonically speaking– something that’s a little bit of a problem when you come to a rocker like “Hey Ahab,” which never catches fire the way recent John bangers like “Just Like Noah’s Ark” did, or when you realize that the blazing inferno of Robert Randolph‘s steel guitar cameo is somewhat lost in the mix. It’s also a rather overlong project– 14 songs, which is about two ballads too many– though in truth, I’d rather this one be a little on the lengthy side: It’s a good omen that this creative rejuvenation, for both Russell and John, isn’t a minor or a temporary thing.
And it is– make no mistake of this– a creative rejuvenation; it’s not an all-cylinders-firing masterpiece on the level of, say, a Love & Theft, not as daring as Paul Simon’s Surprise or as vital as Neil Young’s Le Noise, offering not new contexts so much as reminders of why the old stuff was so good. It is, in other words, very much a wheelhouse album, sounding like the common ground between Russell’s 70s albums and John in his country/Western mode, as per Tumbleweed Connection. The distance between those two isn’t that far, so the feeling of this record is one of comfort, but not of complacency. Both men are writing, singing, and playing with vigor. T-Bone’s production emphasizes the country leanings with steel guitar and gospel choirs; his obtrusive touch can do nothing to sand down the grit or dampen the warmth that comes from the chemistry between the two musicians, the the simple joy they’re obviously finding in playing together, their mutual respect and affection making this feel like a perfectly gracious, generous collaboration. It’s a comeback for Russel by simple virtue of the fact that he’s making vital music for what will probably be a respectable audience, after literally decades of being lost in the woods. For John, it at least equals, and perhaps slightly bests, his own excellent, albeit minor, comeback album from 2006, The Captain and the Kid.
The record’s greatest charms come from how laid-back and low-key it is; the album never calls attention to the fact that it’s actually the most varied thing John has been involved with in quite some time, nor does it play up the bluesier aspects of “The Best Part of the Day” the way that the more cinematic Tumbleweed may have. Really, that song could almost pass as a ballad from John’s more adult contemporary days, its country-ish melody being the thing that saves it and makes it fit here. The low-intensity vibe of this thing means that some of the best songs take some time to really distinguish themselves– I’m thinking, in particular, of the steel-drenched country shuffle “Jimmie Rodgers’ Dream,” the jaunty handclap beat of “A Dream Come True,” the minor-key, metaphysical blues tune “There’s No Tomorrow.” It also means that some of the most addictive material here is also the least flashy; the two most durable cuts on the album, it seems to me, are a pair of sturdy country-rockers– “If It Wasn’t For Bad” and “I Should Have Sent Roses”– which impress with their sheer craft, the gentle propulsion and forward momentum implicit to the music and the lyrics.
What else? Neil Young stops by to cameo in “Gone to Shiloh,” a ghostly Civil War ballad in which he, Russell, and John each take a verse. “When Love is Dying”– which hits even closer to John’s AC days than “Best Part of the Day” does– is nevertheless winsome for its totally low-key sincerity, and for the nice, natural vocal trade-offs from the two singers. “Monkey Suit,” drenched in horns, is a welcome chance for John to rock out a bit. And even if it’s no “Noah’s Ark,” I do rather like “Hey Ahab,” its lyrical concerns of obsession and failure sounding like a nice metaphor for the artistic life and the pursuit of the muse– good, slightly meta- themes for an album like this.
Other than that, the only direct references to The Union‘s origins are in “Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes,” a handsome little ballad on the bluesy tip. John sings it, and its lyric is one of admiration for a man who was once heralded as a visionary, but was all but forgotten while he was still in his prime. As a reverent, affectionate nod to Russell, it’s fairly obvious, but no less touching because of it. It’s a modest and heartfelt moment, perfectly befitting a record of this sort– one that isn’t perfect, but is certainly warm, charming, and easy to embrace.
Thursday, October 14, 2010
The Union is a rare gesture in a dying business: an act of gratitude. Elton John repays a long-standing debt of inspiration to Leon Russell — particularly the rowdy merger of soul, country and gospel rapture Russell perfected as a writer, pianist and arranger on 1969 and '70 albums by Joe Cocker and Delaney and Bonnie — by putting Russell in front of a classy big band, on his first major-label album in a decade. "Your songs have all the hooks/You're seven wonders rolled into one," John sings, ever the fan, in "Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes."
The song, actually about grand entrances and past glories, is almost Russell's story in miniature. It could be about John too. Both men are a long way from their early flamboyance, when Russell ran the R&B big band on Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour and John was leaping from clubs to arenas in oversize glasses.The Union often feels like a conversation: the two trading sober and grateful reflections, in songs like "The Best Part of the Day" and "A Dream Come True," on the costs and prizes of a life at the top.
That exchange runs through the music. Singing in a strong, elastic growl and matching John's piano work with low-end rolls and top-note sparkle, Russell jars the younger man from his routine sheen, back to the natural fiber and grandeur of 1970's Elton John and Tumbleweed Connection. On The Union, produced by T Bone Burnett, John and Russell share the resurrection. Each goes back to what he first did best. Then they do it together.
As a songwriter, Russell is as eccentric as his voice. His love songs hurt far more than they show at first. "If It Wasn't for Bad" is finely tuned deception: pop strut, Sunday-service glow and mounting bitterness in that gnarled drawl. Bernie Taupin wrote the words to the Stax-heartbreak shuffle "I Should Have Sent Roses," but the chewy vocal agony is Russell's. When he and John trade lines in "When Love Is Dying," against a choral arrangement by Brian Wilson, John goes for the wrenching high notes. Russell sticks to his odd gritty register, heavy with turmoil.
Russell first became famous for his sharp mischief inside the churn on those Cocker and Delaney and Bonnie LPs, and he works for John the same way: salting the vocal choruses and piano-funk exchanges in "Hey Ahab"; ringing John's earnest rounded tenor with gravelly warmth in the dusky country song "Jimmie Rodgers' Dream." John, in turn, drives this alliance like the eager version of himself that first played with Russell on a 1970 tour. The Civil War tale and Band hommage "Gone to Shiloh" could have come fromTumbleweed Connection; the brassy romp "Monkey Suit" would have fit on 1972's Honky Château.
There is an urgency here too, as if John and Russell know they almost waited too long to bond. "There's No Tomorrow" is built, with new words, on a 1966 grim blues march, "Hymn No. 5" by the Mighty Hannibal. John takes the sober verses; a pedal steel guitar lines the track like gilt on a coffin. But Russell brings the light and common sense. "There's no tomorrow/There's only today," he sings in that rough, eerie voice, just in front of the choir, like a man back from the brink and glad to be at work.
- Rolling Stone
The limited-run channel called Elton! will launch on Friday, October 15 at 3:00 pm and will run until Friday, October 22 at 3:00 am on SIRIUS channel 33 and XM channel 27.
Academy Award winning director Cameron Crowe discusses the making of The Union, scheduled to be released October 19, and highlights from John and Russell’s storied careers. Producer T Bone Burnett and long-time Elton John collaborator, Bernie Taupin will also be featured.
The special guest DJ sessions will feature actor Robert Downey Jr. and tennis superstar Andy Roddick. The two will play their favorite Elton John music and share stories about individual songs.
Elton John: America is in a horrible place
Sir Elton John has condemned a spate of anti-gay slurs in America.
The suicide of gay student Tyler Clementi, who studied in New Jersey, has caused a host of stars to get involved in an anti-bullying campaign. Tyler was reportedly picked on because of his sexuality, and Elton said that this kind of attitude towards gay people was not the America he knows and loves.
"People were saying gays should be beaten up, we're not part of God's universe. What kind of mentality is this?” he asked USA Today. “When I first came here, it was such a loving country. It's never been in a more horrible place. This is not the America I love."
Elton, who is in a civil partnership with David Furnish, is currently promoting his new duet album with Leon Russell.
But the talented pianist has decided to use press opportunities to campaign for more tolerance towards gay people in America.
"We've come so far, with a black president, it's mystifying that this can still be going on," Elton said. "Jesus Christ taught tolerance. That's the example we should follow. We should forgive, understand, be compassionate. We're not all the same. Thank God! It would be so boring."
Elton works hard to benefit AIDS charities, such as his own, the Elton John AIDS Foundation, and has referred to himself as "probably the most gay man in the world".
He believes that opposing political parties in the US should stop trying to score points from each other and exchange concepts on how to stop homophobic bullying.
October 13, 2010
Report on The Union Listening Party
Rocket members went to New York for The Union
By Liz RosenthalA Rocket member reports on The Union Listening Party.
"My husband and I had a wonderful time last week at the eltonjohn.com-sponsored Listening Party for The Union. First of all, it was great to see so many familiar faces, friends from many years of Elton Fandom. The gathering was small, but the minimal crowd was to our benefit, because we felt that much more special. If everyone had attended who had signed up for this event, perhaps some of us might have gotten 'lost in the sauce.' (All I have to say to those who didn't come due to the weather is, "WIMPS!")
"The Piano Room at Yamaha, which boasts the swank address of 689 Fifth Avenue, is even more impressive than it appears on the Yamaha web site. Not only is there a gorgeous black grand piano poised onstage for another tinkling, plus, of course, seats for 150, but also many more grands behind the seats, pointing in various directions. It was just the sort of atmosphere you would expect for an Elton John album listening party! Before taking our seats, however, we were handed our own little 'kits', housed inside a plastic blue or pink folder, complete with (Xeroxed) note from Elton thanking us for attending the event, a pen, a booklet of lyrics for all 16 songs, including the two bonus tunes, the deluxe CD's back cover art, and a couple of pages of foolscap on which to write our impressions of the songs. The Editor told us that she was going to be Xeroxing our notes/impressions for Elton.
"She described the circumstances behind Elton's idea of working with Leon - a story that many are familiar with, given the number of articles on the Internet that have appeared over the last few months recounting the circumstances: it was January, and Elton and his partner David were on safari in South Africa. The lions roared, the elephants trumpeted, the plovers fluttered, and the native grasses bent in the wind. (Okay, that last sentence I just made up, although it might have happened!) David was listening to Leon Russell on his iPod, Elton found out, and immediately began weeping about the old days, when Leon was such a huge influence on him. The Editor aptly observed at this point that whenever Elton cries, it means great things are ahead. One need only think of Billy Elliot!
"John Higgins gave us a little background on the recording process, fresh from his conversation with T Bone Burnett, the album's producer. Most interesting was the fact that Elton decided they should divide the piano-playing duties with Elton tackling the rhythm parts and Leon the melodic parts. Apparently, Elton very generously wanted to give Leon every opportunity to shine. However, I'm sure there was a little overlap in duties here and there - due to my impression from listening to the right speaker for the first go-round and the left speaker for the second. (I accomplished this through the delicate process of sitting on the right side of the room for the first listening and the left side for the second listening. Not an easy task to perform, but I managed it!)
Here are the songwriting credits for each track:
If it Wasn't for Bad: Leon Russell
Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes: Elton John/Bernie Taupin
Hey Ahab: Elton John/Bernie Taupin
Gone to Shiloh: Elton John/Bernie Taupin
Hearts Have Turned to Stone: Leon Russell
Jimmie Rodgers' Dream: Elton John/Bernie Taupin/T Bone Burnett
There's No Tomorrow: Elton John/Leon Russell/James Timothy Shaw/T Bone Burnett
Monkey Suit: Elton John/Bernie Taupin
The Best Part of the Day: Elton John/Bernie Taupin
A Dream Come True: Elton John/Leon Russell
I Should Have Sent Roses: Leon Russell/Bernie Taupin
When Love is Dying: Elton John/Bernie Taupin
My Kind of Hell: Elton John/Bernie Taupin
Mandalay Again: Elton John/Bernie Taupin
Never Too Old: Elton John/Bernie Taupin
In the Hands of Angels: Leon Russell
"My overall impression of the album, after hearing it twice through, is that, at different times, it's rootsy, folksy, rockin', melancholy, irreverent, funky, romantic, bluesy, gospelly, and a pleasure through-and-through. People should be aware that Elton and Leon are on all the tracks, regardless of who wrote the song. Sometimes they trade off verses, other times one may provide harmony and/or backing vocals. Both play piano on most, if not all, of the tracks.
"Leon's vocals are a lot better than one would have expected after seeing a bit of a recent live performance of his on YouTube. In fact, he sings pretty well, suggesting in tone and technique an unpolished Willie Nelson. As for Elton's vocals, it's impossible to say enough good things about them, but I'll try: WOW! HOLY COW! GEEZE-O-MIGHTY! PINCH ME, I MUST BE DREAMING! OMIGOD! To be a little more specific, I think that the quality of Elton's vocals keeps reaching new levels of beauty and interpretive versatility, and that this is obvious on The Union.
"Russell's songs are excellent - Elton and Leon really are more compatible than a lot of Elton's fans might have thought - and two of Leon's tunes book-end the album, If It Wasn't For Bad, which is terrifically catchy and perfect for radio, and In the Hands of Angels, which is a gospelly thanks to Elton for inviting him to write and record the album and (I assume) tour together.
"The rock tracks are foot-tappingly, head-bangingly, good - Hey Ahab, Monkey Suit and A Dream Come True, the last of which really channels Fats Domino. The first two are intense, funky numbers that grab you by the viscera and don't let go. With these and many of the other songs, Elton, Leon and the rest of the musicians get to stretch out toward the end and keep the groove going for quite a while, not in a Bite Your Lip kind of way but perhaps in a way that suggests a bit of the Grateful Dead. Just a little - don't worry. (In case anyone might be worried.)
Gone to Shiloh is an automatic standard, as is Never Too Old, live versions of which numerous Elton fans have heard many times via the official Simfy recordings and live radio feeds. The first is an account of one Northern soldier's experience in the U.S. Civil War during the Battle of Shiloh, an early but exceedingly bloody Union victory. Sherman was one of the Union officers leading the troops; he later was promoted to general, and, as some may be aware, led a "scorched earth" campaign through Georgia and South Carolina during the latter stages of the war. Hence the lyric, "Heaven help the South" - not that a belligerent at Shiloh in April 1862 could have foreseen what would happen in late 1864, early 1865, but Taupin the Narrator is permitted a little poetic license here.
"To return to Gone To Shiloh and Never Too Old, both work about as well on record as in live performance and are gorgeous, emotive songs. You can tell that Taupin had nothing to do with There's No Tomorrow, because most of the lyrics read thusly: "There's no tomorrow/There's no tomorrow/There's no tomorrow/There's only today." But it's a gripping song, nonetheless; the pessimism of the subject matter lessens with the heroic vocal delivery of the singers. Everyone should like it.
"When Love is Dying may become the most addictive of the songs on The Union. It comes close to being a 'power ballad' along the lines of The One, but without the drum machine, the synths, or the positive outlook. I'm disappointed to find that Mandalay Again is only a bonus track, as it's one of my favorites. (The other bonus is My Kind of Hell. These two tracks will only be included on the deluxe CD version of the album.) While listening to Mandalay Again, I couldn't quite put my finger on what was different about it, but it's just come to me. With its folksy, jazz-tinged melody and arrangement, it would be right at home on a Joni Mitchell album! Come to think of it, the song's got hints of Diana Krall, too.
"This album is chock full of appealing, vivid Bernie Taupin couplets: "Now I pop a top and stay up late with Gideon/And fall asleep to visions of Meridian" (Jimmie Rodgers' Dream), "Every pose you strike/Every frame they shoot/Shows you dressed to kill/In your monkey suit" (Monkey Suit), "There's a canyon where an echo hangs/Like the ancient bells of Notre Dame" (The Best Part of the Day), "I should have sent roses/When you crossed my mind/For no other reason/Than the fact you were mine" (I Should Have Sent Roses), "We just go round and round/Like a dull thud in a bell" (My Kind of Hell).
"During the break between the first album listen and the second, we were all offered refreshments, including sandwiches, cookies, fruit, cheese and a variety of beverages. One of the eltonjohn.com team mentioned as we munched away that there are plans to keep the album alive through next year with the release of a full-length version of Cameron Crowe's documentary about The Union. (A short version will be included in the deluxe CD release.) There is always something to look forward to in the World of Elton!"