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This is a review of the 1995 Mercury C.D release.
Recorded at Trident Studios London, January 1970
Released: April 1970
Producer: Gus Dudgeon
The first thing that is clear listening to Elton John's second album is the maturity and quality of the songwriting. Gone are the awkward experiments of the debut, 'Empty Sky' has become a distant memory despite being released just months before. This is the album which broke Elton John in America and many Americans believed it to be his debut, given that it was self titled and 'Empty Sky' didn't appear till several years later. There are several well known songs on the album including 'Your Song', 'Take Me To The Pilot' and 'Border Song', all of which were successful songs replayed and covered many times over the years.
The album fits more fully within the emerging singer-songwriter genre of the late 60s/early 70s, and comparable artists would be Cat Stevens or James Taylor. The album also features two important firsts; producer Gus Dudgeon takes the controls here, as he would on most of Elton's successful 70s albums and orchestral arranger Paul Buckmaster gets to grips with several of Elton's musical ideas, fleshing out songs nicely with impressive string orchestrations.
Overall this album feels much more polished than 'Empty Sky' and the use of a proper recording studio must have helped!. Here is my opinion of the songs:
1. Your Song [4.04]
Hmm...hard to comment on this song, its so well known and is undoubtably a classic, but I've heard it so much that I've grown a bit tired of it!. Recorded exactly 40 years ago this month, its amazing how much 'Your Song' is still trotted out....weddings being an obvious example. Or as the backing to a romantic scene in a film or in an advert......It is a great song, but I don't need to physically put the song on because its kind of ingrained in my mind...not sure if thats good or bad!....anyway a classic evergreen present on any 'best of' Elton John. In case anyone hasn't heard it, its a romantic ballad....[!!]
2. I Need You To Turn To [2.35]
Some Harpsichord here from Elton backs this short pleading ballad. A nice orchestral backing from Paul Buckmaster and some Harp from Skaila Kanga make this a pretty addition to the album if not quite the juggernaut of songwriting that was 'Your Song'.
3. Take Me To The Pilot [3.48]
A great staccato blues piano performance from Elton here. A Gospel rave up worthy of Aretha; another classic covered many times in the future by a variety of different artists showing its crossover appeal. The lyrics are a bit nonsensical, but the tune is good enough to gloss over this!.
4. No Shoe Strings On Louise [3.31]
A Country and Western number. Reminded me of some of the stuff from The Rolling Stones 'Sticky Fingers' album, like 'Dead Flowers'. This was recorded before that though, so maybe the Stones borrowed from Elton?. Not an essential track but glues Side 1 of the original album together nicely.
5. First Episode At Hienton [4.48]
Sounds a little out of place somehow, sort of reverting to the debut album's experiments, as if Elton wasn't quite comfortable with his own style and was still searching for something. Another lush ballad with swelling string passages; a slightly dated sound. Still far better than any of the material on 'Empty Sky'...that Leonard Cohen influence rearing its head again?....
6. Sixty Years On [4.35]
Some more lush strings usher in some Harp playing for a second somewhat morose number in a row on the album. On vinyl this would have been seperated by the fact that this opens Side 2. Played together with the previous track running on in C.D format makes for a slightly depressing middle section. Paul Buckmaster's string arrangements must be congratulated giving the song an ethereal quality which would have been missing otherwise.
7. Border Song [3.22]
A total classic, covered by the Queen Of Soul herself Aretha Franklin on her 1972 album 'Young, Gifted and Black' [see my review!]. Elton and Bernie write as though they've been dishing out Gospel classics for years. Another highly covered Elton track, in a word; brilliant. My joint favourite on the album.
8. The Greatest Discovery [4.12]
I think this is a great song, my joint fave with 'Border Song'. I owned an Elton John tape when I was young called 'The Collection', bought from Woolworths, and this was on it. It's about a child who wakes up one morning to find he has a new baby brother. Some beautiful Cello playing from the 'Buckmaster'. Yet another ballad, but there we go!.
9. The Cage [3.28]
One of 2 'rockers' on 'Elton John' with 'Take Me To The Pilot', there's a slightly irritating affected vocal here [more than usual!], but a groovy R'n'B track showcases the huge range of Elton's compositional ability. Ballads, Gospel and now R'n'B being convincingly produced. The Moog synth solo in the middle is a little jarring, but forgivable in the Prog-Rock era!....
10. The King Must Die [5.21]
A rather melodramatic ending to the album. Not one of my favourites, but a far better conclusion than that dished up on 'Empty Sky'.
3 Bonus tracks
1. Bad Side Of The Moon [3.15]
2. Grey Seal [3.35]
3. Rock 'n' Roll Madonna [4.17]
The bonus tracks are all of a decent standard in keeping with the album, the most interest to me was 'Grey Seal' which appeared again in a different version on 'Goodbye Yellow Brick Road'.
The album once again features Elton's friend Caleb Quaye [older brother of Finley] as the principal guitarist, though because of the ballad nature of many of the songs is given less to do than on the debut. This album was recorded before the important introduction of Davey Johnstone on guitar. Once Elton got his band together [which would begin to take shape on the next album] he would be unstoppable for the next 5 years.
My personal verdict on the album is that it is a little too Ballad heavy for my taste, I prefer it when Elton rocks out a little more. Also Bernie's lyric writing was still in its development stages as some of the lyrics here are a bit silly. I would nevertheless heartily recommend this album and in many ways its a perfect start to an Elton John collection. Can be bought for less than £5 on Amazon UK marketplace, though as of 2008 there is now a 'deluxe' edition which features a whole extra disc of outtakes and BBC Sessions, maybe when I get my next cheque from Dooyoo I'll get this!.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Your Song
2 I Need You To Turn To
3 Take Me To The Pilot
4 No Shoe Strings On Louise
5 First Episode At Hienton
6 Sixty Years On
7 Border Song
8 The Greatest Discovery
9 The Cage
10 The King Must Die
11 Bad Side Of The Moon
12 Grey Seal
13 Rock And Roll Madonna