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CD REVIEW – THE UNION – by Martin Sielaff

I missed out on Leon Russell until now.  I never listened to his stuff and really didn’t know much about him.  I did a little research in anticipation of this review and found that while I hadn’t heard Russell, I had heard a lot of the songs that he’d written.  Nobody born after 1960 could have missed out on Elton John.  This collaboration evidently came to be as a product of Elton John’s inspiration.   Russell evidently is one of John’s earliers inspirations. The Union is quite good and leverages both men’s talents.

It requires no time to “get into” or develop a taste for.  I suspect that is entirely due to Elton John’s influence.  This is a guy who’s music is always undeniably “catchy.”  It just is.  My personal preference is for his earlier, less flamboyant, diva-ish work, but regardless, the man’s got talent.  However, this is more than a catchy album, it’s one made for grown ups.

While The Union hearkens back to a lot of Elton John’s earlier material, both thematically and musically, theme-wise, it’s kind of a down-beat and melancholic collection.  The music has a rich, dramatic and sometimes flamboyant texture.  A lot of the songs have almost a gospel sound to them in the background vocals.  Somehow this seems to work, in spite of the seemingly odd juxtaposition.  Aside from good lyrics, and a sometimes funky gospel tint, the pianos provide a lot of the vibrancy in the music.  Both artists are more than merely accomplished pianists and complement each other hugely.  Some of the songs have a melifluous ragtime sound.  The tracks Hey Ahab and A Dream Come True feature the fluid sounds of fingers rippling over the keys.

When I first heard the CD, my initial thought was, “this is what you get when the people are making music because they want to, they don’t need to give a damn whether anyone else likes it.”  That can either be a really good thing, or a very bad thing.  In this case, it’s a good thing.  Just as Mark Knopfler has moved beyond Dire Straits, this album feels like it’s definitely unconstrained by externals.  Many of the songs feel like grown up versions of familiar Elton John standards.  I could hear echoes of Elton John’s Disney soundtrack piece Circle of Life in the chorus of The Best Part of the Day, Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting in Monkey Suit, and $800 Shoes seems like a grown up version of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.  However, the music is much more than an evolution of earlier work, it really is a true collaboration, although it’s definitely tilted more toward Elton John than Leon Russell.

For listeners who take the time to listen to the lyrics they will discover another parallel to Knopfler’s later work and that is songs that tell a story of forgotten or little-remembered people.  Jimmie Rodgers Dream is just such a jewel.  Jimmie Rodgers is considered by many to be the father of country music.  To be sure, the steel guitars and western twang make this song seem like a “country and western” piece.  The lyrics incorporate a lot of detail from Rodgers’ short life.  There are railroad references which hearken back to his moniker, the singing brakeman, there’s a line which refers to his tuberculosis, his wife Carrie, and the shortness of his life.  The lyrics are somewhat haunting as you picture Rodgers sitting by himself in a lonely hotel room dreaming of home (Meridian).

In this room all alone
I dream of you
In this drawer I found someone
I never knew
Now I pop a top and stay up late with Gideon
And fall asleep to visions of Meridian

In addition to Elton John and Leon Russel, T-Bone Burnett’s influence and musical stylings are strongly in evidence.  After hearing him perform with Alison Krauss and Robert Plant some years ago, I’d like to think I can hear his influence in producing this album.  This may be my imagination, but he also collaborated on writing a few of the songs on the album.  However, the best, and most surprising collaboration comes from Neil Young’s participation on what I think is the best song on the CD, Gone to Shilo.  The song is about the Battle of Shiloh, and Young’s etherial sounding voice on the verse he sings is chilling.  It is presumably from this song that the album gets its title.  It starts with some haunting piano strains and Russell telling the story of “Luther” going off to fight for the union at Shilo.  Young’s verse melds the sadness and worry of goodbye with the chilling knowledge of what is to come at the battle.

April’s come and the air smells fresh with rain

They watched his shadow fade around the bend
He’s headed for a different kind of thunder

And the stunned surprise in the eyes of dying men

Young’s distinctive voice appears again in the background, giving the song a haunting, melancholy aspect as it ends with the warning:

After all this, if we should prevail
Heaven help the South

When Sherman comes their way


All in all, The Union was an excellent purchase and one that is sure to age well and provide years of listening pleasure.  It introduced me to Leon Russell and proved that Elton John still has some musical life left in him.  I’d give this one 4/5 sawblades.

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THE UNION — Host Review– by Erich Sielaff

No Degrees of Separation

The Union – Elton John /Leon Russell

When we were kids, my best friend Dave Pela and I used to connect our favorite artists to each other by finding common side musicians on their albums or producers or arrangers.    This has become cliché in later years, as X degrees of separation, but at that time it was just a fun little pastime.   Dave was better at it than I was, because while I studied album liner notes, and Rolling Stone magazine, Dave did all of that, and read “Creem” magazine too.   He is an aficionado.  Plus I was a late arrival to contemporary music.  

But that is another story for another time.

Elton John and Leon Russell were musical favorites as a teen.  Leon’s distinctive piano rolls, chord progressions and melody lines, and lyrical choices were unique and incredible.    (I heard “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” by Leon Russell months before I knew it was a Rolling Stone song)    And “Masquerade” (from Carney) will never be a George Benson song in my recollection.    BB King’s Indianola Mississippi Seeds will forever be stamped by Leon Russell’s “Hummingbird”.     Mad Dogs and Englishmen was a whole other universe.    (Joe Cocker owes him a lot!)  Then Leon departed from conventional wisdom and blew me away in 1973 with  Hank Wilson’s Back – Volume 1, which was a rollicking true to the genre country tribute to some of the finest beer joint country music ever written.   

The first album I owned by Elton John was  11-17-70  which I can remember listening to over and over with headphones on in my bedroom at night.  I heard it first in high school on the radio on KDKB when it was a good station and they did albums at night.  That led me of course to buying it and his first album.     Long John Baldry had an album co-produced by Elton and Rod Stewart that bore his stamp, which I also acquired.   But I never bought Tumbleweed Connection and Madman Across the Water, which I probably should have.   I was playing catch up a bit with him, and as Elton became more flamboyant on stage, I became less interested.   Remember this was the era of plumage and glitter.   Feh!  I was from the school of romantic poetry and John Wayne and my musical choices reflected it.  I had little use for affectations.   I picked Billy Joel.  Meat and potatoes and lots of dessert.   

Leon Russell did a fine double album with Willie Nelson in the early 80’s and pretty much disappeared from my consciousness afterwards.    Elton became a diva and well, I have already waxed on that.   (Though he did a great album in 1990, Sleeping with the Past that reaffirmed his credentials IMHO as a whale of a performer and songwriter)   

I never figured these two dots would meaningfully connect for me all these many years later.   

Times have changed, and this project, The Union was not well publicized.  I guess with Lady Gaga around, who needs a couple of aging geniuses.   The whole project was unknown to me until my wife Sandi, came up with 2 tickets to their concert at the America West Arena.   I had seen Leon Russell in concert a few times, but had never seen Elton John, so I said, ‘lets go!’    Until we got there, I thought this was a concert with Leon opening for Elton.   Still playing catch up.  What a fantastic surprise.  

I won’t do a review of the concert here, and I know I have laid an excessive foundation, but what’s past is always prologue.  

Now the album:

From the opening chords of “If It Wasn’t for Bad”, I knew this was going to be good.    Leon Russell delivers a solid performance on a fun song.   I love the added bars with the very signature Leon Russell chord progression.   A nice opener.   Following this is Elton John’s “Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes”, which I haven’t figured out yet, but its got a great line “the winter of your discontent came 20 years too late”…. Maybe a revisit of Marilyn.  (Or maybe not).  Nice song, waltz time and a fine little melody.   

The keys start pounding with “Hey Ahab”, with more than a passing nod to the gospel meets rock and roll feel of Mad Dogs and Englishmen.    A driving song that you can’t keep still while listening to.   Nice to hear Jim Keltner again (who is on most of the album) on drums.   The song ends with a splash.   (You get it.)

The albums best song is next.  “Shiloh” is amazing.   It grabs you the first time you hear it.    Delivering the opening lyric is Leon Russell, which makes it all the more melancholy, bringing it an element of vulnerability and subtle phrasing on the chorus.    I can almost see the peach blossoms falling on the ground around the dying men, when Neil  Young surprises with a lead harmony vocal that takes you into a whole other dimension.    Hard act to follow.

But they do it and they do it well.  “Jimmy Rodgers Dream” is a real toe-tapper, as Lightfoot might say.   Great follow up.   Nice steel work by Keefus Ciancia, and you start to hear the work of T Bone Burnett.   Fits right in.     

Back on a more serious note is the dirge-like “There’s no Tomorrow” with its rolling drum lines and fatalistic lyrics.   A fine piece of work.   One I look forward to hearing everytime I spin the CD.

“Monkey Suit” follows which is the first completely unremarkable song on the CD.   Not bad, but nothing here that makes it noteworthy.    Plus the song was about 2 minutes too long.   “The Best Part of the Day” is a nice love song and a reminder that Bernie Taupin is still a very fine lyricist.  

Things are starting to feel a bit bogged down, but not for long.   Leon Russell’s piano leads us into “Dream Come True”, which is just what we needed.     Well done by Elton and Leon.    Nice keyboard work by both of them and a lot of fun.    A hand clapper.  

“When Love Is Dying” sounds like a Leon Russell song until the chorus, but then its solid Elton.    Nice song and makes great use of Leon Russell’s unique delivery in the opening verse.    I am not sure what Brian Wilson’s contribution was to this.  Nothing harmful, but certainly nothing with the distinctiveness of Neil Young’s earlier contribution on “Shiloh”.   If I hadn’t read the liner notes, I would not know he was there.  

“I Should Have Sent Roses” is a collaboration between Leon Russell and Bernie Taupin.    Nice song, and the guitar fills are really fine by Doyle Bramhall II.  

“Hearts Have Turned to the Stone” is one of the 3 songs penned exclusively by Leon Russell for the album.   I really like this song.    Vintage Leon vocals, great horns here, nice piano solo in the middle and great background vocals, punctuated by T-Bone guitar chords.  

This is a good record.    If I have one complaint, it’s too long.   And it drags in places.   And in the wrong places.  It needed to end on a higher note.   The last two songs come very close to spoiling the broth.

“You’re Never Too Old” sounds like maybe they were a little too old to be singing these last two songs.   I felt a bit like Igor was there dragging one leg behind him while I was listening to it.  (Close your eyes, you can almost see Marty Feldman)  Come on guys, let’s not be so maudlin.   The bridge picked up things a bit for a bit but not long enough.   

“In The Hands of Angels” is Leon’s tribute to Elton John, and it actually came off better live.  Leon has been in poor health in recent years, and apparently according to what I read, he underwent surgery shortly before the album was recorded.   He sounds weak and fragile on this song and the angelic background chorus lent the feeling that immediately after the song was recorded, Leon laid down and died.    Not the way I wanted the album to finish.    

Maybe there was a reason that most albums from that era were around 40 minutes.    There is wisdom to leaving audience wanting more.    This one could have probably ended at 10-11 songs and been a real delight.  I wouldn’t have felt cheated.    I probably would have omitted the last 2 songs and “Monkey Suit”, and finished with “Dream Come True”.  I would have left the rest as “bonus tracks”.    Then there would be something extra for the version that came with the DVD with all the interviews from the project.  

Ah, marketing.   But I am truly fine with the one abridged CD as described above.   All in all, The Union is really a very nice album.   And it was very cool connecting these amazing artists with only one set of liner notes.  

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The Union- Elton John and Leon Russell- Dave Pela

 

In 1970 there were three albums released around the same time that to me were the future of music. They were the greatest thing I had ever heard and they all happened at one time. Those albums were Cat Steven’s “Tea For The Tillerman” and the albums titled “Elton John” and “Leon Russell”.

It was a couple years before I could actually afford to own them but I knew people who did. After a couple more albums, Cat got a little boring for me, and then became Yusef Islam. I guess there is one sane Muslim in the world. I hope it’s him.

I was a big fan of Elton until, like everyone whose music I adored; he became a commercial hit machine. After “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” I couldn’t stand him. Everything Leon did never quite measured up to his first two albums (“and The Shelter People” being his second). The Hank Wilson persona was a highlight, introducing me to some classic country songs I had never heard.

Although their early music was a revelation to me and always a part of that time of awareness that defines your life, I lost interest in both of them over the years.

What is amazing about this record is the fact that Russell was such an influence on Elton. I never suspected that there was any connection between their music but in retrospect, it is obvious listening to Elton’s first album (which was really his second) that there is an influence in “Take Me To The Pilot” and “No Shoestrings On Louise”.

The two songs for me that had an entwined thread were “Your Song” and “A Song For You” .  They were often played back-to-back by William Edward Compton on KCAC. I always thought they were more competitors than comrades.  I am appalled that although Elton John is a household word, people are not aware of Leon Russell. A few seasons back on American Idol, one of the contestants sang, on two occasions, a song that he introduced as “Donny Hathaway’s A Song For You”. Barb was startled (both times) when I threw the remote at the big screen and yelled “It’s a Leon Russell song!”

I was a little leery of this album. I feared that Russell had succumbed to the old man vocal disease- i.e. Bob Dylan is even more un-intelligible, John Stewart turned into Walter Brennan and Lightfoot’s vocal chords were snorted into his sinuses. What is amazing is that Elton John voice has not changed over the years. Clean living? I doubt it. Although Leon sounds his age, he always has. In the liner notes, Elton reveals that Leon had major surgery prior to this and the recording was beneficial to his recovery. It is obvious that he felt better on some tracks than others. I went back and listened to his early material and back then he had a slight lisp as he does now.

This is a rather large album to take in. There are sixteen tracks; twelve would have been easier. It’s interesting to guess without reading the songwriting credits, whose song is, did they collaborate, was one just adding back-up to something already finished? The propensity seems to be to add a gospel chorus to any Russell songs. If you listen to his first album, that gospel influence is pre-dominant. The most satisfying part of this album is that it is a return to the sound of “Tumbleweed Connection”- that version of Elton John that I like the most.

 

Trivial Threads-

 

Jason Scheff (background vocals)- He replaced Peter Cetera (high vocal and bass) in Chicago. His dad Jerry Scheff  played bass for Elvis.

 

Martin Grebb (b.v, keyboards)- Grebb has been a member of Leon’s touring band but he is more famous as a member of The Buckinghams in the late 60s –“Kind Of A Drag”, “Hey Baby, They’re Playing Our Song”, etc.

 

Rose Stone (b.v.)- Rose is Sly’s sister. She was the black lady with the blonde afro in Sly & The Family Stone. Her little sister Vaetta was part of a trio called Little Sister. Sly produced a couple of discs for them but they mostly sang back-up on the Family Stone recordings. Another member of Little Sister was Mary McCreary who later became Mrs. Leon Russell. They recorded two albums together- “The Wedding Album” and “Make Love To The Music”. After they split, Mary resumed her maiden name and has had a career as a Gospel singer. Apparently she wasn’t available to sing here but Sister Rose was.

 

Leon- Before his solo career, Leon was a studio musician with fingers in every pie. He did most of the arrangements and keyboards for Gary Lewis & The Playboys. This should not be held against him. Although he was not credited, it was obvious on Bob Dylan’s “Watching The River Flow” who was playing piano.

            Also before his solo career, he was a part of The Asylum Choir who released a couple of albums that were re-released after he became famous. The other half of TAS was Marc Benno. Benno had a varied career as a solo artist, band leader and session man after his work with Russell. He played bass on The Doors “LA Woman” album. Although The Doors didn’t have a bass player on stage (Ray Manzarek played foot-pedal bass), they always had one in the studio. Jerry Scheff (see above) was the bass player on most of their albums. Benno also fronted a band called The Nightcrawlers. It featured a young Texas guitar player named Steven Vaughan. It was the recording and song-writing debut for the late Stevie Ray.

 

Reggie- Reginald Dwight took his stage name from two former band-mates John Baldry (an artist who bears exploring!) and sax player Elton Dean. He played piano on The Hollies “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”. Leon, on his 2nd album, wrote “Crystal Closet Queen” about Little Richard but it could have been about Elton.

 

The songs-

1)      If It Wasn’t For Bad Luck- sounding like his old self, this has the sound of Leon piano.

2)      $800 Shoes- Seems to be describing Elton. Down deep he is a piano player like Leon, but their careers took different path. He opted for glamour of commerciality, while Leon always stayed true to himself.

3)      Hey Ahab- Sounds like a reject from “Madman Across The Water” with the Leon piano and gospel background thrown in. Not my favorite.

4)      Gone To Shilo- My favorite. Sounds like something from “Tumbleweed..” with “A Song For You” thrown in. The same Western theme with a touch of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by The Band. Apparently Levon Helm wasn’t available so Neil Young filled in. Young’s voice, like Elton’s, has not changed.

5)      Hearts Have Turned To Stone- pure Leon. He’s in good voice here.

6)      Jimmie Rodger’s Dream-  Good duet, another highlight. The Gideon/meridian rhyme is about as bad as Lightfoot’s “morning after blues from my head down to my shoes” but I will overlook that because I really like the song.

7)       There’s No Tomorrow- This is collaboration between Elton, Leon, T-Bone Burnett with a writing credit given to James Timothy Shaw. Shaw was better known as The Mighty Hannibal. He was an R&B singer who scored a minor hit in the mid 60s with “Hymn #5” which was largely banned because it was an anti- Vietnam war song. There’s No Tomorrow is a re-working of that song.

8)       Monkey Suit- All Elton with all the Leonisms added in.

9)      The Best Part Of The Day- Since Elton is paying homage to his influences, it is pretty obvious that Gary Brooker was one of them. You can easily hear this as a Procol Harum song. The piano/organ bridge is pure PH.

10)   A Dream Come True- Pure Leon Boogie.

11)   I Should Have Sent Roses- Leon’s health improved on this song, a collaboration with Bernie Taupin. Don Was and Booker T. drop in for a visit.

12)   When Love Is Dying- Since Neil Young couldn’t qualify as a member of the Old-Man-With-A-Shot-Voice-Club, they dragged in Brian Wilson and his shattered vocal chords to dub in a background chorus. Brian has always been a master of the recording studio and his voice still sounds beautiful because of that. Great song.

13)   My Kind Of Hell- Madman Across The Water returns.

14)   Mandalay Again- Probably the best duet on the album.

15)   Never Too Old- When we visit my parents every Sunday, part of our job is to keep my mother occupied to give my dad a break from his role as care-giver. Occasionally when mom and I are playing a hybrid version of gin dad will walk by and put his hand on her shoulder. They will smile and give each other a kiss. You’re never too old to hold somebody.

16)   In The Hands Of Angels- Leon’s final comment on this project. Painfully honest. This bears too much of a resemblance to “In The Arms Of The Angels” by Sarah McLaughlin. Sarah got arms, Leon only gets a hand.

 

To summarize, this is a good album.  It is touching because it recognizes someone who deserves recognition. I’m not sure if Leon Russell could have done a solo album now that would be as listenable as this is. He has continued to record over the years with on-line album sales. I hope this is not the last we hear from him. Reading the liner notes and watching the Cameron Crowe DVD that came with, he seems quite humble and grateful to be accorded so much attention. It is far better to collaborate  with one of your mentors than to do a tribute album when it is too late.

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Watertown- Dave Pela

 

             In the early 60s, right after we moved here, we always got our haircuts at the Westown Barber Shop. It was tucked in at the back of the plaza, right down from the Amber Inn. It was a traditional shop with about ten chairs and each barber had their name on a plaque above their station. My favorite was Russ Formica. He was a young, good-looking Italian guy who looked like one of the Four Seasons. Bob Gaudio, the producer of this album,  was the one he looked like. The Four Seasons were one of my favorite groups at the time (1964-65).

 

            Enough of the digression. I remember when this album came out. I recall it being hyped as a concept album and that it was produced by a rocker. Until I bought it, my recollection was that Lee Hazelwood was the producer. My confusion probably stems from the fact that Hazelwood wrote and produced most of Nancy Sinatra’s forgettable work.

 

            This was not a big-selling album and died pretty quickly without much notice or acclaim. Apparently a TV drama was planned based upon the storyline. Sinatra seems to have lost interest in it and it never happened. This album would have been as popular as the rest of his work at the time if it had a different title and cover. Had he called it “She Left Me” and had used the photo that appeared on “Cycles” two years before (the weary looking one), it would have been instantly recognizable to his middle-aged fans.

 

            The albums he released prior to this during the 60s usually contained his latest single release and several covers of popular songs. This album was different. It was all original music, nothing familiar with a point of reference for his older, less adventurous fans. At this point in his career, Sinatra had lost some favor with the public. His marriage to Mia Farrow had ended and the dynamic of the record-buying public was changing. The music is very similar to his folk-country hits of the time- “Cycles”, “Loves Been Good To Me”.

 

            Sinatra pioneered the idea of a concept album long before Frank Zappa, The Kinks, The Who, or Pink Floyd got credit for it. “Sings for Only The Lonely”, “In The Wee Small Hours”, “Moonlight Sinatra”, and “September of My Years” all had a unifying theme to the songs.

 

            In the album credits, Frankie Valli received special thanks. I imagine he was a friend of Sinatra’s who hooked him up with Gaudio. The lyricist Jake Holmes had co-written with Gaudio The Four Seasons’ album “Genuine Imitation Life Gazette” – a bizarre psychedelic artifact from 1968 from whence Ian Anderson stole the cover idea for “Thick As A Brick”. Holmes went on to write many nauseating commercial jingles.

 

 

The Tracks-

 

Watertown-

            The intro to the TV drama. It is the only song not sung in first person. Watertown is a pretty drab place with local characters, like Mayberry in New York. People who stay there are doomed to become local characters. The song is the pre-cursor to the final song- we see a man standing in the rain at the train station looking for a familiar face.

 

Goodbye-

            We never really know what the issues are in this broken relationship but we see how it ends. She decides to leave, she has the decency to meet him somewhere and tell him goodbye. They are different people- she is cheesecake, he is apple pie. Whatever ended their relationship, it had ended for her long ago. She left him and her children to “find herself”. Not uncommon, even in 1970. It happened to my brother a few years later.

 

For Awhile-

            Remember what is what like to get dumped by a girl? You go through five stages. 1- Hurt and dismay. 2- Self-blame- you will change anything to bring her back. 3- Anger. 4- Hatred. 5- Indifference- you don’t care anymore. Usually by the time you reach indifference, she shows up again

The  poor guy here never gets past stage one. It has been over a year and everyone else in town figures he is getting over her, but he hasn’t.

 

Michael & Peter-

            This song is heart-wrenching. I recall when my children were young, looking down at their angelic faces when they were sleeping. In their innocence, you could imagine who they truly were. He is looking at his children and seeing her. He can’t escape her- his kids, the house, her mother, she is never gone. He quickly changes the subject and talks of mundane things and people. Her mother helps with the kids. Obviously, she knew all along that her daughter was a flake. Maybe she was a flake too when she was younger.

            He mentions the gardener, the guy he will be in 30 years and the weather but still comes back to how she wouldn’t recognize the kids. Obviously she has not returned even once. “The air still has a country smell”- the boring life she has left behind. “That’s all the news I have to say, maybe soon word will come my way, tomorrow”. Maybe he is getting ready to move to stage 3.

 

I Would Be In Love (Anyway)-

            In hindsight you only remember the good stuff. Released as a single.

 

Elizabeth/ What A Funny Girl-

            She has a name.  She was “out of reach, out of touch”. Again he dreams of only the good stuff but a dream “has to end, when it’s real not pretend”.

 

What’s Now Is Now-

            The other single from the album. He’s still willing to forgive whatever she did to cause her to leave. I don’t find it noble for someone to forsake everything for love.  To thine ownself be true is preferable for me.

 

She Says-

            During the 70s if you heard any song with a children’s choir on it, you knew it was produced by Bob Ezrin (“School’s Out”  Alice Cooper, “Another Brick In The Wall” Pink Floyd). Ezrin had nothing to do with this song but maybe this is where he got the idea.

This song does not stand on its own, it is necessary part of the story but out of context, a head scratcher. It could have been fleshed out at the point of “the price is high”. Like his letters, she gives mundane info about her day that he wouldn’t care about. She says she’s lost some weight, I wonder how much he has lost.

The kids seem to have the right idea. Their reaction is “so she says” meaning they aren’t expecting anything from her, they don’t buy it like their father does. Obviously they have moved from resentment to indifference, unlike their father.

 

The Train-

            We are left with the scene introduced in the title song- a man standing in the rain at a train station. He has made all the changes she wanted but it ain’t the real thing- “we will look so much in love to people passing by”. Maybe he will finally get past the first stage and just get pissed at her and get on with his life.

An interesting interpretation of this whole album is not that she left him, but rather that she is dead and he has never accepted it. The letters in the drawer that were never sent and the fact that she  was never on the train seem to support that theory but there are too many others details unanswered that only make that an interesting , but not viable idea.

I can’t help see some influence from the Beach Boys “Pet Sounds” crop up in this album. That one was about loss of innocence, this one is about loss of love. The hollow sound that begins “Caroline No” (a drum stick hitting a pop bottle) is echoed in the percussion of “She Says”. At the end of “PS” we hear a train  passing by followed by barking dogs chasing it. Here a man is left alone after the train leaves.

 

Lady Day-

            This was not on the original album but was included on one of the cd releases as a bonus track. It was included on Sinatra’s next release “Sinatra & Company” part of which was recorded prior to Watertown and the rest cobbled together from assorted tracks in the can. After Sinatra & Co., he announced his retirement which only lasted a couple of years until “Old Blue Eyes Is Back” was released. Most of what he did after that album was embarrassing, the worst of it was the dreadful “Trilogy”.

            I can see why this track was left off the album, it doesn’t really fit in with the theme or his viewpoint. As an afterthought, it seems to give her version of it. There are two different versions of this song out there, the other is heavily orchestrated and sounds like the theme from The Godfather. It is on Youtube.

 

 

 

            I’ve really grown to like this album, if only because it was an album that I always was intrigued by. Listening to it on a cd, you get the whole story. When it was released as an album, you listened to one side or the other- neither side being stronger than the other. The lack of commercial success is due to the fact that it is pretty depressing, none of the songs are that great, and there were none of the cover songs that always popped up on Sinatra’s albums. We are spared the likes of Gentle On My Mind, Close To You, Mrs. Robinson, Sweet Caroline, etc. Having all the songs written by the same writers tend to make them all sound similar- almost a song cycle. His older fans, like my dad, weren’t interested in a pop-rock Sinatra album. Younger fans, like me, were more interested in real rock than one of our parent’s favorites. With age came greater appreciation of the man.

 

            I would still like to see someone create a one hour drama featuring these original recordings. I’m sure it would garbage like most of the TV entertainment produced today. It was a simpler, better time back then. Or maybe we just remember the good stuff.

 

 

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“Watertown” Review (by Erich)

Francis Albert Sinatra took some chances in a long career.    Some could argue that it was a bit too long, but none can dispute that it was an amazing career.   He leveraged a voice that was a pure and flawless thing, added the phrasing that came with experience, and to this day that voice stands alone.   

 

There are voices and then there are Voices.   Sinatra’s was incomparable.    The sheer number of imitators (or tribute artists) to this day that have tried to duplicate his phrasing, his tonality and of course, the attitude, speaks to that fact.   

 

Sinatra’s career was an evolution as a singer and as a man.  You cannot separate the man from the voice.   He had perfect pitch for most of his career and he was a perfectionist.   He could deliver the goods way before you could read his “life” in the delivery.   He grew up around his voice.  And as he grew up, he lost just a bit of the range and smoothness that he had as a younger singer, but not the pitch and not the phrasing.  The phrasing just got better.  It served him well.     

 

If you listen to his Columbia recordings and then the breakthrough Capitol recording of possibly the finest concept album ever made, “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning”, you can hear him evolve.  He delivered, depending on the material, a poignancy, a swagger, a grin, and always a truth that hadn’t been heard before, and in the succession of Capitol recordings that followed, what he did, made him a legend.  

 

These are the albums I grew up listening to in and around the Beatles, Chicago, James Taylor and the other music of my generation.   These are the albums that I would sit and listen to at 1:00 in the morning with a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other alone in my first apartment.   And in my second.   And so on.  

 

Sinatra did not take care of the “voice”.   He let it get ruined years ahead of its time by excess.  The last “pure” album he delivered was his first collaboration with Antonio Carlos Jobim in 1967.   What a gorgeous piece of work it was.   And he delivered it softly and flawlessly.

 

By 1969 when Watertown was released, he was straining and drifting.  His once perfect pitch was off in places and plain flat in others.   He held his phrase-ending notes too long as if hoping they would arrive right on target if he just didn’t let them go.   You can hear it in this album.  And you can hear it on every album that followed that 1967 Jobim classic album.  

 

And it is very uncomfortable.  

 

Watertown is a concept album about a small town divorcee.  Its only 37 minutes or so in length, and I read somewhere that it was supposed to be accompanied by a script and a TV story.     Maybe the context would have helped.  

 

It is hard to “not like” this album.   I wanted to desperately.   The problem with Watertown is not the arrangements, though they were unorthodox for him, much more “rock” than Sinatra’s typical orchestral support.   The problem is not the material necessarily, although frankly I thought it was pretty mediocre.  Sinatra has taken lackluster material and made it work (think “Strangers in the Night”)   The problem is that the album depended on him to overcome its flaws and deliver the story.   And he couldn’t pull it off.   The problem is the singer.  He failed to save the album.  

 

What Watertown really needed was the Sinatra of 15-20 years earlier.    It needed Sinatra when he had command of his powers.  By 1969, he was losing them, they were leaving him and that perfection was gone.   There are moments, but you hear way too many misses.   Where was the man that was supposed to deliver THIS music?   He wasn’t around much anymore.   Like Watertown, the town in the story, things had changed.   Something was missing, never to return. 

 

Those of us who continued to listen to him and to follow him, cut him a lot of slack over the years after 1973, after his return from a short lived 1971 retirement.    I think that he had to exit the stage for awhile, so we could adjust to the fact that we would not be getting “young blue eyes” back, but old blue eyes.    We didn’t mind so much by then.  We had some time to get used to the idea.   And maybe he needed time to get used to it too.  

 

But this was too painful.   He was still Frank then.  And we expected more of him.

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Record Club Album Reviews

Hi, its me, Erich.   My friend Dave Pela had an idea a month or so ago, that a few of us would start a “record club” and select an album that each of us in the “club” would buy, listen to and then review.   We would not share our thoughts until the due date for the review, and then we would send the reviews to one another!    I thought it might be fun to post them here, and might be entertaining for our listeners and readers to see.   (Both of them)    At any rate, the first album was selected by Dave, since it was his idea and he is the oldest.   :-)     He selected “Watertown” by Frank Sinatra, that was released in 1969.   We will post all three reviews on May 15th!   Stay tuned!

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Kip Fox Live at Compound Grill — Concert Review

For those of you who are regular listeners to the show, you will have heard Kip Fox either live or as part of our sampler selections from time to time.   His CD “Astronaut” is as good or better than anything I have ever heard come out of the national music mills…LA, Nashville or NYC (or anywhere else for that matter).    His show last night at the Compound Grill was up to his studio standards as well.  No surprise really.   

Kip was there with full band and performed a variety of new material and material from the aforementioned “Astronaut” and had the crowd in the palm of his hand.    But he was too busy performing to notice.   It is a rare thing for an artist to be blessed with good musicianship, good songwriting chops and a great band to help pull it all together.   Kip’s music and lyrics are not slick.  They are real.   He isn’t pretentious, he just goes out there and delivers great stuff.    A rare confluence of similitude.    And a real pleasure.

His set was a little over an hour and then after the audience had been trained by the two (considerably good) opening acts NOT to ask for an encore, Kip delivered a power punch of two songs to end the night.  He commented that he wasn’t sure he was asked to, but thought he should.   He was right, and he was asked. 

At least by me.  

Keep your eyes on Kip Fox.   And your ears.   He might not be a real Astronaut, but he is definitely going places.

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Time to write!

Hey! Drop us a line, pontificate on a musical subject! Tell us about your favorite music! Review a CD! What is your favorite Christmas song?

I have been working on the annual Christmas Sampler CD I send out to clients, so have immersed myself in Christmas just a bit earlier than usual!

Anyway, just a short howdy to say ……..well, howdy! Write us!

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D DAY 65 Years Later

Me again.   Pontificating.   Just being grateful really.    I remember as a kid watching the 20th anniversary TV commemoration of D DAY.   It seemed like ages ago to me then.   Like ancient history.   Black and white newsreels of the beaches at Normandy.    Ancient.   

 

Today, not so much.   I realize that 20 years ago, George Herbert Walker Bush was President.   2 of my kids were teenagers.   Desert Storm was 2 years away.   Not so long ago and not so ancient.  

 

But for all intents and purposes, to probably 50% of Americans, D Day is nothing more than a colloquialism meaning “kick off”.   If that.   How shortsighted we have become.  How historically challenged.   That scares me.   A wise guy said once if you don’t know your history, you are bound to repeat it.

 

I think about that these days.   About Hitlers brown shirts and the Hitler youth and the cult of the personality.  About Mussolini and the fascisti in Italy who thought it best to govern with the central banks, transportation, and all the powerful institutions as a tidy consortium of power concentrated in the hands of a power elite.  

 

I think about the millions of lives that it cost to break free of totalitarianism only because it was allowed to take root.   And how quickly it spread…….and how horrific the consequences.    I didn’t think about that when I was 8 years old.   I just watched some old ancient newsreels on television and wondered what all the fuss was about.   

 

Now I know.    God don’t let us go down that road again.    Please.

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Giving it up….Memorial Day remembrance

I am afraid it has been too long since I have added anything to the blog.  Part of it is time constraint, between the show and the real estate business, I haven’t had time to scratch my….er….nose.    But that can be an excuse.  I am sure I have found the time to do some things that were a complete waste of effort….like virtually anytime I sit in front of the TV for example.  Nuff said.   Well, its a three day weekend and I thought I would try to catch up on a few things.   The website being one of them.

 

So here we are.   Priorities are what they are, and this weekend I at least wanted to have on my priority list to think a bit about why this is a three day weekend at all.   We have a tendency in our culture to bandy words about without really thinking about their meaning.   Catastrophe, crisis and cataclysm have been the “C” words d’jour for politicians and a news media eager for money and ratings respectively.  

 

Sacrifice is another such word.   What truly does that word mean?   Entertainers use a phrase “give it up” for so and so, meaning show some appreciation and applaud, or cheer.    I am reminded that on this weekend, we are to remember those who truly “gave it up”.   I sit and write this on a Sunday afternoon in the freedom of my personal world because a lot of folks sacrificed it all for me to have that freedom.   To say what I want, to do what I want (within reason of course) and to make choices for my life and not have choices made for me.   Freedom is not free, as the saying goes.   But I didn’t pay that price.  Someone else did.   Think about the opportunities for evil in this world over the centuries.   In my parents lifetimes, two great foreign evils were vanquished, Naziism and Communism.   In the generations before, other evils like slavery were also ended.   But these breakthroughs of Freedom cost dearly.    Whatever we think about the world today, we have the freedom to express those thoughts because of what someone else did for us in the generations that preceded us.    

 

Evil will always be lurking the shadows waiting for us to forget……for us to become complacent and fat and fool ourselves into believing that we are entitled to blessing, instead of the real truth, which is that there are no entitlements.    We were given a gift.     We did not have it coming.   Today, and tomorrow on Memorial Day, I thank God and those who came before me that “gave it up” ……who gave it ALL up.    Think about it for a bit sometime this weekend between beers or songs on the AZ MUSIC CAFE show, and make it a point to tell someone else where freedom comes from.    

 

Have a safe and blessed Memorial Day!

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