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Piano Man is the first album Joel released after his time in piano bars and playing in clubs, which lends itself to the title. This period occurred after the poor showing of his first album, Cold Spring Harbour, an album that was originally released at the wrong speed, thus giving his voice a rather squeaky quality. But even though you will find a few gems on his debut, this can in reality be considered his unofficial debut album, where he begins to come into his own and provides quite a few good tracks. This was his first album to be released on Columbia records after his struggles with his previous contract with Family Records, one of the factors driving him to go into hiding in piano bars. The album consists of a lot of material which could in truth be considered influenced by the Wild West, with a few tracks lending either there music or lyrics to this, notably the Ballad of Billy the Kid. But it is also an album with quite a few undertones of a young man looking for his place in the world and in the music business. Some consider his first attempt at the epic to be Miami 2017, but I would say that Captain Jack off this album is much more of an epic and supersedes it by a few years. Much of the material on the album though never flowered much success, and it was only through Piano Man, now a signature song for Joel, that any true glint of stardom could be seen, but many of the tracks still remain concert favourites, and as such should be heard by any Billy Joel fan to see where it all began.
1. Travelling Prayer ****
This is the first example of a Wild West influence, coming in through the music, which is upbeat and almost march like, as Joel quickly recites the lyrics to this little tune. The song itself is simply a prayer of hope that his lover will be safe when staying away from him, owing itself to that of a love song of sorts, although the music would suggest crosswise. The banjo makes this more of a hoe down track, but it is a statement of intent from the 24 year old, not afraid to cross musical barriers and create this nice opening track.
2. Piano Man *****
One of the big highlights of the album which lends it its name. This song is a biographical account of his feelings from the piano bar he worked in, creating characters that he describes with vivid memory and passion, putting the song into context and bringing the listener along with him. The harmonica interjections are nice and make this feel like a more rounded track, also revealing a Bob Dylan influence, something that becomes more obvious from listening to My Lives. This was the only single on the album and is now considered one of Joel's best loved songs, with almost anyone able to sing along or at least able to recognise the track.
3. Ain't No Crime ****
This is more of a pop song showing a Motown influence with the backing vocalist and the jaunty feel that protrudes it throughout. This is another song that could be seen as a calling of youth, telling people that it is not a crime to be who you are and do want you want to do. It could also be seen as an expression of relationships and a young man's desire to find some meaning in it all. A nice upbeat song that is a mirror image of the last song, contrasting it nicely.
4. You're My Home *****
Another famous song from the album, this love ballad is a beautiful rendition of someone providing him with meaning and reason to go on. Whether this is a personal song is to be seen, but the emotion in his vocals is clear and may suggest as such. The instrumentation is solid and backs the lyrics well, but I sometimes feel that perhaps a sparser backing track may have given this a nicer feel, but it is a nice track regardless and worthy of a place among his greatest hits.
5. The Ballad of Billy the Kid *****
The main western influence on the album is this track about the famous boy thief, "robbing his way from Utah to Oklahoma". This is another nice upbeat track that really makes this album a good listen, comprising some nice narrative lyrics which make this age old story intense and give it a new lease of life. The almost orchestral feel of the track, in no small part down to the chorus, gives it an epic feel, which is a possible tag given that it is 5.45. But this is more about how the same story can be related to today, providing it with a modern comparison today, perhaps something from his years on Long Island.
6. Worst Comes to Worst *****
A very funky track which has some nice wah-wah guitar and an upbeat drum and piano line. This is again about not letting anyone tell you that you are wrong, just letting life go by and enjoying it for what it is. The lyrics themselves are nice and simple but provide a good message, and just really make for a nice upbeat track.
7. Stop in Nevada ****
Another narrative style of track which talks about a woman free of responsibility simple doing what she feels like, taking a stop in Nevada on the way. This has a duel feel, with a low key sound for the verses, but building up for the chorus lines and providing a bit of a punch. The instrumentation is much the same as the rest of the album, but still feels suitable and not overused.
8. If I Only Had the Words to Tell You ****
Another love song of sorts that still contains a suggestion of conflict within the relationship, but with the singer still remaining faithful to his other half. The jaunty piano line gives this an almost epic feeling, trying to build up to a finale as he calls out to the world about his love for the woman, and what he would give to say it in a manner suitable for the strength of it.
9. Somewhere Down the Line *****
A song which does feel as if it is designed to build up to the final track, but is in fact a good song in its own right, again talking about forgetting consequences and fears, and just enjoying where you are and what you are doing. It does though feel quite biographical, with the lyrics done in the first person, giving it an even more important ring and strength.
10. Captain Jack *****
The epic finale to the album, which is still today a fan favourite a concerts, check out the version on Songs in the Attic for a nice version. This is in truth a drugs song, which never really specifically says this, but the suggestion is there, and even though it does use other more vulgar terms, it relies on suggestion to guide the listener. The character from the title appears to be the dealer, which I think Joel hinted at in a couple interviews, claiming he was someone from his neighbourhood when he was young. It though is a good expression of some young people's desire to find a thrill greater than that which they already have, rejecting personal relationships and connections, instead getting high in order to find some meaning in the world. A great epic that should be listened to for its poignant lyrics and bleak expression of the youth of then and perhaps today also.
Overall, this is a solid album that is never really looked upon well by casual fans and critics, but if you give it a chance then I am sure you will enjoy at least some of it. And if you are a fan but still don't own this, then do so, not just for the historic value, but also to show the development of the singer and where some of his classic songs come from. His earlier records all hinted at an expression of youth and dismay at society and many of the songs on this do that idea justice, taking on an occasionally sinister tone, as with the final track, but smoothed over with some more up beat numbers that provide a good listen on this overlooked gem.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Travellin' Prayer
2 Piano Man
3 Ain't No Crime
4 You're My Home
5 Ballad Of Billy The Kid
6 Worst Comes To Worst
7 Stop In Nevada
8 If I Only Had The Words (To Tell You)
9 Somewhere Along The Line
10 Captain Jack