Sunday, 28 February 2016

Album Review: Wonderful Crazy Night by Elton John

Elton John released his new album “Wonderful Crazy Night” on the 5th of February. Before I review this album, I’ll share what I think of Elton’s recent work. In 2010, Elton began working with producer T-Bone Burnett on a collaborative album “The Union” with an artist named Leon Russell. I didn’t enjoy that album as I’m not into Leon’s music. He followed that album with 2013’s “The Diving Board”. I found it better than “The Union” as it was a solo album and thought it had many good tracks, but did not consider it to be a good album as it had too many ballads and a classical influence on some tracks which I didn’t like. I’ll say my issues with T-Bone now. Prior to this album, he used session musicians whom I don’t find as good as Elton’s band. His choice of drummers hit the drums too softly, and in some cases do subtle drumming which I don’t fancy. The production he had done before this album for Elton wasn’t clear sounding.

Now with this album, T-Bone remained, but it brought about the return of Elton’s band that he tours with on an album for the first time in nearly 10 years. Elton’s current band includes his original members (guitarist) Davey Johnstone and (drummer) Nigel Olsson as well as (percussionist) John Mahon and newcomers, (keyboardist) Kim Bullard and (bassist) Matt Bissonette (who both joined the Elton John band due to the tragic deaths of keyboardist Guy Babylon in 2009 and bassist Bob Birch in 2012). This album also features Elton’s original percussionist Ray Cooper on some tracks. “Wonderful Crazy Night” goes in a more rock direction (something I’ve been wanting more of from Elton especially in contrast to “The Diving Board” which had little rock, being a stripped-down album with not much guitar) and Elton co-produced the album with T-Bone this time, (a good sign as I think Elton’s a talented producer).

I will now go through the Deluxe Edition of the album track by track, followed by what I think of the strengths and weaknesses of the album.

Elton John - Wonderful Crazy Night album cover

Elton John - Wonderful Crazy Night album

1. Wonderful Crazy Night
This is a pop rock song with a blues influence that uses acoustic guitars. I think it’s produced well, the band plays well, has great piano playing from Elton including a solo. Although those aspects of the song sound good, it has a weak melody and the lyrics sound rather silly. Thankfully it is worst track on the album.

2. In The Name of You
This song is a real improvement from the previous one and does rock. It starts off with an interesting guitar effect. I should mention that I have a problem with the mix. Davey plays a lot of rocking electric guitar parts, but they are too soft in the mix and it doesn’t sound clear. Still, it’s good to have a guitar solo by Davey and I find it one of the best tracks on the album. The chorus feels so Elton which I like. This song had the audio officially shown on YouTube before the album’s release and I’m including it here.   

3. Claw Hammer
The song opens with a guitar riff that sounds like world music. Elton mentioned that this riff was written on piano. I think it would have sounded better on piano, but it does sound unique. Davey does simple brief rock guitar parts on the verses that add to the song. Elton gives a good counter melody on piano to the guitar riff when it returns. The song has a jazz influence near the end, where Elton does good improvisational playing which is added to by horn instrument sounds on the keyboards by Kim Bullard. This song is musically diverse.

4. Blue Wonderful
A good song, but I wouldn’t say I’m fond of it.

5. I’ve Got 2 Wings
I feel something is lacking in the melody compared to the rich lyrics. This is one of the few songs on the album where I thought the lyrics are better than the melody. The tune also seems too similar to ‘I Must Have Lost It On The Wind’ from 2006’s “The Captain and The Kid”. Getting to the lyrics, as a Christian I love it how Bernie Taupin (Elton’s lyricist) writes about Utah Smith, an African-American preacher born in 1906 who travelled with a Gibson guitar and two wings on his back preaching via music in the 20th Century. I find it great that Bernie wrote it from the preacher’s point of view (with Utah Smith reflecting on his life after he died) this time as when he mentioned religion in the past, it was usually not in a positive way. Every verse begins with the unique and innovative lyric of “I am the Elder Utah Smith”. I find the line in the Chorus “I went from paper wings to the real thing at last” very touching. There is also Elton’s humming in parts of the song which also sounds good.

6. A Good Heart
This is how you do a ballad with a good melody and the full band sound. It’s the best ballad and one of the best tracks on the album. Nigel’s powerful drumming is great here and Davey’s guitar playing though simple adds colour to the song.

7. Looking Up
This song is a bit like the title track, in that it’s a rock song that’s produced well, has great piano playing from Elton, the band’s plays very well, but with a melody that I wouldn’t say is the best. However unlike the title track, this is a good song, as it has much more energy being faster paced and rocking harder with electric guitars. Elton’s piano playing is excellent here and I really like the piano riff featured throughout. The lyrics have a positive message about looking up. The production of this song is done well as it places the piano and guitars prominent in the song without conflicting with each other.

8. Guilty Pleasure
This track sounds like something off the “Made In England” album, specifically ‘Please’. Although it is a rock song, it doesn't rock very well, as the acoustic guitars are too high in the mix (except for the electric guitar solo) and the piano and electric guitars sound too low. It would have been better if the piano was higher in the mix with the main guitar sound that of electric guitars and the acoustic guitars being minimal or not there at all. Still, I do like this song.

9. Tambourine
This song is good, but I feel it has a bit too much of a happy pop sound. The acoustic guitars are too high in the mix and Elton doesn’t play piano in the first verse. I suppose I don’t mind it the first time, but I don’t like it how Elton doesn’t play (or we can’t hear) piano in the second verse. As a Baptist Christian, I do like the line “like a Baptist banging on a tambourine”.

10. The Open Chord
I feel similar about this track to the previous one, although it has piano throughout the whole song. It seems too similar to ‘Too Many Tears’ from 2004’s “Peachtree Road”, which I didn’t find to be one of the best tracks from the “Peachtree Road” album but preferred it to this one.
11. Free and Easy
We’re now going into the songs of the Deluxe Edition. This track does have the happy pop sound of the previous two, but unlike those two I would come back to it often. The melody is nice.

12. England and America
It’s great to have a rock song once again, with this one being the hardest rocking song on the album. While some similarities can be found with previous Elton songs, this one doesn’t sound like Elton, but more like one another rock singer would have done in the 80s as it has a real 80s rock sound. This song has a good melody and Elton shows creativity writing a rock song differently to his usual style. Kim Bullard does great organ playing. Elton makes a special effect in the verses of the song where his piano notes go up the scale and there is a good moment where most of the other instruments stop and Elton’s piano sounds much louder. One of the best tracks on the album and a great way to finish it.

Now that I’ve gone through the album track by track, I will go into what I see as the strengths and weaknesses of the album. I would have liked it if the melodies were stronger and didn’t have the issue which sometimes comes up of a song sounding too musically similar to an existing song. Elton has been referring to the album as the most rock album he’s made since “Rock of The Westies” (1975), which was the hardest rocking album he’s ever done. While this is the most rock album he’s made in a while, I feel that it just isn’t true as he’s made albums that rocked harder than this, since “Rock of The Westies”. I would love it if Elton did make a Rock of The Westies 2 but with sophisticated Bernie Taupin lyrics. Anyway, back to the album regarding the rock issue. There are cases (like the Claw Hammer chorus and Guilty Pleasure) where the acoustic guitars are too high in the song when a rocking electric guitar sound would be better suited.

I still don’t think T-Bone is the ideal producer for Elton. Elton wanted to make a rock album, and as he loves working with T-Bone he chose him. As T-Bone is not known for making albums which really rock, he isn’t a great choice for that idea. However, I do think that T-Bone really improved as a producer on this album to the point that the album is almost well produced. This album has a mostly clear sound which he hadn’t produced for Elton before. The production does follow the Elton John sound on this album. I also think the improvement in production comes from the fact that Elton co-produced this album. I need to give credit to the Elton John band. They play with a lot of energy, and I love the presence of two original members Davey Johnstone and Nigel Olsson. Davey brings his familiar style of playing in both rock and slower material. Nigel drums powerfully on this album which is a welcome contrast to T-Bone’s choice of drummers previously. There are some songs where Nigel hits the drums softer in whole or part, but there isn’t a song featuring subtle drumming.  

I do have issues with this album, but I definitely am glad to have an Elton John album that I like for the first time in almost 10 years. It’s great to have the return of the Elton John band and an album that goes in a more rock direction. I do recommend this album, specifically the Deluxe Edition.    

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