April 20, 2014

Elton John’s New Album “The Union” Is His Best in 30 Years

I had no idea who Leon Russell was. All I knew was, I love Elton John.  In fact, my iTunes library has 250 or so of his songs, including favorites like “Come Down in Time”, “It’s Getting Dark in Here”, “The King Must Die”, “Bitter Fingers”, “Old 67″, “Razor Face”, “Dan Dare (Pilot of the Future)”, “Tiny Dancer”, “My Elusive Drug”, and “I Can’t Steer My Heart Clear of You”.

The office has joked that there is a direct pipeline between my checkbook and Elton John’s bank account because every time he releases something, I hit the “buy” button without hearing a single note.  As long as we’re making money, Elton will still be eating because I’ll gladly exchange our capital for his songs.  Plus, most of you know that Aaron and I appreciate music because both of us covered our $140,000+ (each) undergraduate education mostly with music performance scholarships, so much of our college years were spent analyzing Haydn symphonies, performing in Lincoln Center at Avery Fisher Hall, and riding tour buses with the school’s choirs just as much as they were GAAP accounting and time value of money formulas.  It was a great time in my life, made even more so because my classmates were awesome and incredibly talented – they really were a great group of people.

Young Leon Russell

Elton John says that Leon Russell was his idol. He remembers touring with him and Bob Dillon and other musicians coming to meet Leon because he (John) wasn't famous yet.

Recently, Elton John decided he was going to stop writing pop albums and start recording live bands, on analog, with people he liked, just like his Tumbleweed Connection days.  The first of these endeavors, The Union, was released with legendary musician Leon Russell who has played with most of the great musicians of the 20th century but who fell off the map to live a normal life.  In a sense, Leon Russell was to Elton John what Elton John is to a lot of singer songwriters today.

I bought the album on iTunes a few days ago totally on faith – as I always do with a handful of musicians (Elton, Sarah McLachlan, Enya, Goldfrapp, Jill Scott, Annie Lennox, Nobuo Uematsu, Robbie Williams, The Scissor Sisters, etc.) for $15.99 and I have been playing it non-stop.  It sounds like Elton John.  The quality of the underlying songs is terrific because if you imagine a young Elton singing them, they would have been right alongside songs like “Amoreena” and “Son of Your Father”.

Leon Russell

In addition to having his own songs, Leon Russell played with virtually ever major act in the 20th century, from the Beatles and Rolling Stones to Eric Clapton, the Beach Boys, Willie Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Frank Sinatra ... the list is endless.

This isn’t pop music. You’d never hear an agent in LA pushing these songs.  But they are great.  You can picture a bunch of great musicians playing in a studio in Tennessee solely for the joy of making music, not for selling records.  It’s more akin to two friends playing and you having the privilege of listening in on the session.  (Yes, I realize the album was recorded on the west coast but it doesn’t sound that way.)

Songs like “Hearts Have Turned to Stone” … it reminds me of the music I heard during my childhood from family in the Ozarks and the fields of Kansas.  I had no idea who Leon Russell was but I’m going through his catalog now discovering these amazing compositions.  How did this man ever fall out of the spotlight?

Anyway, my day is scheduled.  I have to write several articles for About.com, a division of The New York Times (it gets long writing that every time – I wish there were a keyboard macro for it).  Then, I have to deal with some paperwork issues that are causing problems because someone, somewhere screwed up and now I have to get the accountants involved to fix it.

But you can be sure that as I go through my day, Elton John and Leon Russell will be blasting through the Bose speakers as loudly as possible.  If you like this kind of music, or you appreciate the underlying piano styling of great performance musicians in the old-school American style, buy the album.  (For me, it’s the piano riffs and licks that do it.  They are brilliant).

Elton John Leon Russell The Union