Thursday, November 11, 2010

An Unholy Union

The Union
Elton John and Leon Russell

Look: I love Elton John as much as anyone. I have about ten of those songs in permanent rotation on my iTunes and never mind when one comes on. Even the ones with odd titles like “Border Song” and “Burn Down the Mission” have grown on me immeasurably in recent years. But then he stopped snorting so much coke and the good songs became fewer and far between, the odd sparkling gem on a record full of schmaltz. He started writing for musicals. More than Elton John, however, I love Leon Russell. I grew up with his beautifully clanging voice and tinkling keys; “Song For You” has always been my favorite song, bar none. Always. The Temptations do a good version. Sadly Donny Hathaway’s one seems to be the only one Americans have heard. But the original is a perfect few minutes of sound; it still leaves me breathless. The audacity of the final note alone is enough to make it a classic. Do yourself a favor and listen to it. Much to his credit, I have heard Elton give Leon his props in interviews, even to people who have no freaking clue to whom he’s referring.

So it is with considerable interest that I come to this collaboration between the two: the not-quite-accurately named The Union. Its path into my hand has been greased by the adulations of weeks of Rolling Stone slobber, so I’m prepared for glorious things. After all, Elton has done some passable duets; Justin Timberlake, for example, was a fine singing partner on that song they did. And let’s not forget whatshername he had that hit with back in the days when he had hair and wore silly clothes. The first time around, I mean.

But I pop the disc in and the first thing I hear are those half tone notes that can be sublime when offered as a quizzical turn here and there in a Leon Russell piano-driven song, but jar your ears when they presented at the front end of a song, without context. I fear a sad clown at the circus redux (not my absolute favorite parts of Russell’s legend-making self-named album), and sure enough, that’s what I get. All the way through the song only two things come to mind: first, that there are too many instruments on this record cluttering up the sound, like a kid let loose at the toppings bar of an ice cream shop; and second, that it sounds suspiciously like it’s all on there to camouflage the fact that Russell is slurring his words. Well, he did have a stroke. He always slurred a little, but this sounds like old man slurring as opposed to artful note-bending.

Each and every song on this album sounds the same, pretty much, as all the rest. They all sound like late-career Elton John show tunes. They sound like the result of entering a recording studio with a flamboyant queen who is footing the tab. If I close my eyes I fear I will see jazz hands. Each song seems to open with Elton’s trembling baritone leading the way for Russell to follow, as a back-up singer might, to flesh out the vocal. Some of this stuff is dreadfully plodding and morbid; “There’s No Tomorrow” makes you wish ardently that was in fact the case. Neil Young lends a bit of sparkle in the Civil War joy fest that is “Gone to Shiloh,” but it only reminds you that, unlike most of his peers, good old Neil can still sing. Halfway through I can’t recall actually having heard Russell sing alone. Come to think of it, I can’t recall having heard his piano playing either. In fact, the only solo Russell gets is on the very last track. I like to think he recorded it on a lark when Elton went for a pee, telling the engineers with rapid hand signals to keep the tape spinning. Still, the lovely backup girls were in on it, which tells you something. Interestingly, it is called “In the Hands of Angels,” which might be an inside joke.

Like many awesome records, this has been ushered into being by the able hand of producer T Bone Burnett. I get the feeling the gentle giant was bowed by the raw wave of diva power at the mixing board. It is uncharacteristic for him to be attached to music that sounds so muddy. I saw Leon Russell in a tiny club 16 years ago, where he played to about that many people. I took my parents. It was the first time we had ever been anywhere as a threesome. They are big Leon Russell fans. I ordered a beer, my first. The great man appeared, walking on a cane over to his piano, like an apparition. He looked like a funky Santa Claus. This must have been just before he slid into the oblivion these liner notes hint at. But when he touched that piano; when he opened his mouth and sang; the air changed. It was magic. I like to think this is what Elton had wanted to capture a little of, the dream of pure talent he’s chased all these years, and I’m glad, don’t get me wrong, that he has reached into that chasm and pulled his old hero out to reap some of the benefits of his fame — but honestly, anyone not familiar with the Leon Russell of old will be unconvinced of the genius of the new one dragged to the stage here. I would love to see Russell take a leaf out of Johnny Cash’s book and step out into that spotlight alone, and dare to sound like the man he is, rather than the man he was. Who can forget Cash’s take on the Nine Inch Nails song, “Hurt”? That’s what I’m talkin’ ‘bout.

If one song summed The Union up, it would be the aptly titled “When Love Is Dying.” Think an ABBA song arranged by Andrew Lloyd Weber, sung by Elton John, accompanied by Liberace. It is the most honest song here: when love is dying, it just might sound something like this. Congratulations, dude: you killed

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