I’ve been playing piano for as long as I can remember, which means I’ve been interested in the work of piano players for most of my life.
My list of favorites has grown and changed since my naïve younger days – Yanni is no longer on it, for example. Ben Folds is pretty high on the list, as is Tori Amos, especially her early work. (Can we just agree that whenever I mention Tori Amos anymore, I mean “especially her early work”?) Brad Mehldau is my favorite jazz pianist right now. I saw Bruce Hornsby live a couple of months ago, and he was fantastic – his chord phrasings are like a fingerprint.
And then there’s Elton John, with whom I have had a complicated relationship (no, not like that) for much of my life. I was an early adopter of MTV in the ‘80s, so my first exposure to Elton was the ridiculous video for “I’m Still Standing.” I never would have pegged him for a piano player from that, or from subsequent schlock-fests like “Sad Songs” and “A Word in Spanish.” Oh, and that terrible duet with Kiki Dee.
But my father, he of the Columbia Record and Tape Club subscription, had a copy of Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player, Elton John’s 1973 effort, and I listened to that again and again as a child. It never occurred to me until later that the guy who wrote “Have Mercy on the Criminal” and “Texan Love Song” was the same guy behind “I Don’t Want to Go On With You Like That.” I probably wouldn’t have believed it. And then Elton went on to score The Lion King, and, well, that just cemented my impression of him as a mall-pop sellout.
And then I heard Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. I still remember the way my jaw dropped the first time I spun “Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding,” the piano-prog opening track. The whole album was terrific, a double record full of ambition and sparkle. And go figure, the five albums before it and the three albums after it were all great too. In the 1970s, Elton John was a pop messiah, a superb and inexhaustible songwriter – he and lyricist Bernie Taupin could do no wrong. The stretch from Elton John to Rock of the Westies is one of the finest streaks any pop musician has ever released.
So what happened? Well, the ‘80s, and a lot of drugs. Blue Moves and A Single Man were fine, and then everything for 20 years was a mixture of cheeseball and unlistenable. I remember in the ‘90s Elton would keep staging comebacks – Made in England was touted as a masterpiece – and keep taking only baby steps forward. I stuck with him, but 1997’s The Big Picture was very nearly my exit. It’s excrement. And then he jumped full bore into shitty musicals with Tim Rice, and I figured that was that.
Are you ready for the latest plot twist, though? Elton’s been on an upswing lately – no, he has, I swear – and his new album, The Diving Board, is his best in nearly 40 years.
You read that right. Nearly 40 years since the man has made an album this good. Elton is back behind the piano – there’s nary a synthesizer to be found on this one – and he and Taupin have delivered their best, most consistent set of songs since I was in diapers. Elton’s older now, and his voice has aged, but it’s in wonderful, full, rich form here. In T-Bone Burnett, he’s found a sympathetic producer who convinced him to go with the sparest arrangements he could, and write from the heart.
You can hear the difference right from the opening track, “Oceans Away.” A moving tribute to soldiers lost overseas, the song is performed with nothing but piano and voices, Elton harmonizing with himself beautifully. The mood remains melancholy on “Oscar Wilde Gets Out,” a song that could have easily found its way onto Elton’s classic ‘70s records. A gliding piano figure, a minimal drumbeat from Jay Bellerose, some subtle strings, and a haunting melody. That’s it. You get to actually hear Elton John play piano on this record, more than you have in decades.
There are 12 songs and three instrumental interludes on this album. Of all of them, only “Can’t Stay Alone Tonight” never takes off, its lazy-hazy groove stuck in second gear. Elton coasts a little on “Mexican Vacation” and “Take This Dirty Water,” both New Orleans-style piano-pounders, but both songs shimmy convincingly. Everything else – literally, everything else – is tremendous, and it only gets better with repeated listens.
There’s very little here that could be called rock, but that’s OK, because Elton is at his best here when he’s diving deep, playing the minor keys and singing from a place of pain. “My Quicksand” is the first truly moving song he and Taupin have written in ages, Elton’s dark chords driving things forward, slightly goofy lyrics and all. It’s tops here, until you get to track nine, “Home Again.” You may have heard this one – Elton performed it at the Emmys. It’s simply gorgeous, Taupin’s words capturing the recursive nature of age perfectly: “We all dream of leaving, but wind up in the end spending all our time trying to get back home again…” The melody is heart-rending, the arrangement powerful, the horns perfectly balanced in the background. It’s the best damn Elton John song of my adult life.
But really, there are very few weak moments here. Even a late-period showtune like “The New Fever Waltz” scores. I’ve been a fan of Elton John long enough to have given up on ever getting a record like this one again – the good ones all came out before I could even read, I have said – so The Diving Board is the best kind of surprise. Even if he never makes another one as good as this again, it’s so nice to get the good Elton back for just an hour. Thanks, Sir Elton, for making this one something special.
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Elton John is 66 this year. I’m not sure how many generations separate him and England’s latest piano-pop prodigy, Tom Odell. I do know this – Odell is 22 years old, and he’s made a debut album that would be the envy of musicians twice and three times his age.
I first heard Odell thanks to Aaron Sorkin – the riveting, unforgettable “Can’t Pretend” scored an overly dramatic promo for the second season of The Newsroom. Every music fan knows this feeling – you hear a song that grabs hold of you, demands your immediate and undivided attention, and you must, immediately, drop everything you are doing and find out who created this song and how you can own it right fucking now. “Can’t Pretend” was such a song for me, the first one in a long while. The big chords, the rising-and-falling arrangement, Odell’s big, Buckley-esque voice, the entire amazing atmosphere of the song. Everything about it is perfect.
Odell’s debut, Long Way Down, isn’t perfect, but it’s really close. Odell writes good songs, and occasionally great ones, but it’s the way he performs them that makes this record the gem it is. His voice is elastic and dramatic, and he layers that voice atop itself, creating a wall of vocals. His playing is loud and bracing when it has to be, and tender and delicate at all the right moments. Best of all, his arrangements are striking and dramatic – he begins “Another Love” with fragile chords, but it builds into something enormous, massive, unstoppable. And he knows enough to bring it back down to earth before the end.
There isn’t a bad song on this album, although its centerpiece remains the untouchable “Can’t Pretend.” “I Know” is a swaying, Keane-style pop number with a wonderful crescendo; “Sense” is stripped back and gorgeous, rising from its own dark clouds; “Sirens” makes the absolute most of its simple, pretty piano line; and closing song “Heal” brought a tear the first time I heard it, its rising, hopeful melody backed by piano and little else. Odell even turns in a fantastic, respectful cover of Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” bringing a depth beyond his years to this treasure of a song.
The main stumbling block here is Odell’s lyrics, beyond doubt the product of a young man’s mind. In “Another Love,” for example, he aims for a portrait of a man who has spent all his affection on someone else, and has none left. But he doesn’t have the skill yet to paint the finer brushstrokes such a work needs – “I’d sing a song that would be just ours, but I sang ‘em all to another heart, I wanna cry, I want to learn to love, but my tears are all used up…” It’s fine, for what it is, but the music is so far ahead of the words that it’s almost jarring.
But that’s OK. As I mentioned, Tom Odell is only 22. I love the record he’s made – I’m not sure I’ve been this in love with a piano-pop album since Keane’s first two – but I’m over-the-moon excited now to follow his career, and hear what wonders he’ll create as he grows into his prodigious talent. His first album is great. I expect his fourth will be amazing. (And then, of course, he’ll get hooked on cocaine and slip into banal mediocrity for about four decades, before finally finding his voice again in his 60s and making a comeback album full of joyous melancholy. Seems to be what English piano players do. )
For right now, though, Tom Odell is my favorite discovery of 2013, and Long Way Down one of the year’s best. His potential may be limitless, but the music he’s making now is pretty damn great too.
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You know what time of year it is. This is the last column in September, and we’re rounding third on my annual top 10 list. So it’s time for the Third Quarter Report. Here’s where I reveal what the list-in-progress looks like right now. The last few months have been incredible, with superb album after superb album hitting stores. The list looks very different today than it did back in June, and given what’s to come for the rest of the year, I expect it will look pretty different in December as well.
For now, here’s the list:
#10. Little Green Cars, Absolute Zero.
#9. My Bloody Valentine, m b v.
#8. Elton John, The Diving Board.
#7. Laura Mvula, Sing to the Moon.
#6. Daniel Amos, Dig Here, Said the Angel.
#5. Tom Odell, Long Way Down.
#4. Frightened Rabbit, Pedestrian Verse.
#3. Daft Punk, Random Access Memories.
#2. Janelle Monae, The Electric Lady.
#1. Over the Rhine, Meet Me at the Edge of the World.
As you can see, several albums have gone up in my estimation, and some – The Joy Formidable, Everything Everything – have disappeared from the list completely. As the wonders get more plentiful, the list reflects my own taste more and more. I’m back and forth between the top two choices – some days Monae is number one, others OtR. I just saw Over the Rhine in concert last week, and the new material was glorious, so right now I’m leaning in their direction. But it could change next week.
Speaking of next week, we’ll most likely review Fish, or Peter Gabriel, or Justin Timberlake, or Deltron 3030, or Kitchens of Distinction, or… you know what? Drop by and find out. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am, and Twitter at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.