Elton John and Leon Russell – [Album]

Thursday, 18 November 2010

When I first heard about this album, it sounded like an odd pairing – a pop superstar and an old-time rocker whose brief moment of glory had come and gone nearly forty years ago. But once I heard the history behind it, the collaboration made much more sense. Elton John was the opening act for Leon Russell's 1970 U.S. tour; a point when Russell was the rising star, and John just a struggling beginner. Over the years, their status flipped and they lost touch, but John never stopped respecting the elder Russell. Now the time has come for John to return the favor and pull Russell back out of obscurity to help him achieve some new level of recognition.

Elton John's history is, of course, well known. For those of you not familiar with Leon Russell, here's a brief synopsis: Russell started out as an L.A. session musician in the Sixties, most notably as a regular in Phil Spector's crew. He organized and directed Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour in 1970 and performed with George Harrison at the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971. By 1972 he had perfected his own style, a combination of southern rock, blues and gospel; that year he released his biggest album, Carny, and toured to great acclaim. After that, the slow fade began and he spent much of the next thirty-five years playing small concert halls and even bars and honky tonks across the country.

So now Elton has pulled Leon out of obscurity and joined forces with him. The result is a rejuvenation for Elton, and, hopefully, a resurrection for Leon. Elton John is definitely reinvigorated here; forsaking the overdone pop of his recent years for the leaner style of early albums like Tumbleweed Connection and Honky Chateau. With that inspiration at the core of his performance on The Union, Elton joins the list of classic rockers finding new inspiration by returning to their roots.

Unluckily, while The Union kicks off quite strong, it loses steam halfway through. The highlights all come quickly; Russell's opening romp, “If It Wasn't for Bad” (“If it wasn't for you, I'd be happy/ If it wasn't for lies you'd be true/… If it wasn't for bad, you'd be good”) and the John/Taupin penned “Gone to Shiloh” – a powerful Civil War tale with a guest vocal from Neil Young. After that, things soon revert to a series of slow ballads though. While the individual songs are still strong, the consistent slow tempo and ponderous lyrics make the whole thing drag.

Perhaps the main disappointment is that only a couple of tracks (“Hey Ahab” and “A Dream Come True”) contain any sort of piano duel between the two keyboard masters. This is not only disappointing in itself (the potential for repeated jams is thrown away), but it also indicates that the two stars  didn't really push themselves like they might have.

So, although it is great to see Elton John return to his roots, and even greater to see some attention paid to Leon Russell again, I can only give the album itself a qualified recommendation. The first half (through “A Dream Come True,” the last lively boogie-woogie number) is very good, but the rest should only be approached in small doses.



The Union
is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .

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