Saturday, May 24, 2008

Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters

Honky Chateau opens up with the Honky Cat, ready to leave the hicks from the sticks in his rear view mirror and make his mark in the big city, specifically New York. And on this, the album's penultimate track, he finds that having made that mark it's not all it's cracked up to be, and disillusionment has set in. The Cat has seen the casual hardheartedness that exists in certain circles, and sums his experience up thusly:

Subway's no way for a good man to go down
Rich man can ride and the hobo he can drown
And I thank the Lord for the people I have found
I thank the Lord for the people I have found

But he's not entirely soured upon the experience, taking pains to inform that there are some good people...just not enough of them. Feeling discontent, he decides

This Broadway's got
It's got a lot of songs to sing
If I knew the tunes I might join in
I'll go my way alone
Grow my own, my own seeds shall be sown in New York City

Taupin has often seemed to have a love/hate relationship with New York City many times, and this is an eloquent summing-up circa 1972.

Music is Elton on piano plus chiming mandolin by Johnstone and understated percussion by Olsson. As befits the subject matter, it's given a melancholy melody, one that's quite catchy and creates an air of reflection, almost a calm-after-the-storm feel. I suppose that it doesn't close the album (which would seem most fitting, given its bookend status with "Honky Cat") because of this downbeat feel; it would seem that John wanted to finish on an upbeat note, hence the upbeat, somewhat silly doo-woppish finale of "Hercules".

Elton and Bernie updated/revisited this track several years later, in the late 80's, on his Reg Strikes Back album; I've only heard a couple of excerpts, and a look at the lyrics reveals a too-broad, almost crass update, set to a blaring typical 80's Big Production Sound...a disappointment typical of Elton's output in that decade. The Indigo Girls did a decent live cover that appeared on their Rarities album.


Friday, May 23, 2008

One Horse Town

Ushered in by the sudden return of James Newton Howard's bombastic orchestral arrangement, which almost makes it seem like an extension of the album opener "Tonight", "One Horse Town" is an equally abrupt departure from the dominant Blue Moves psychodrama in its depiction of a dissatisfied young man who lives in a rural community and yearns to escape to the bright lights of the big city.

And that link is quite remarkable in its own right; it's a swaggering cock-rock electric guitar riff, accompanied by dissonant keyboard sounds (or perhaps percussion) that reminds me of someone striking a soda pop bottle with a drumstick, and the strings swirl and eddy around this in the background. Then, abruptly, the tempo increases, the strings become more prominent as the guitar steps back into rhythm mode, and we're off with the song proper as Elton steps up, spitting out the lyrics.

It's an odd vocal performance; Elton sometimes struggles to keep up with the headlong rushing tempo, and in doing so alternates between lower register asides and falsetto passages...along with his notorious penchant for weird pronunciation quirkiness that comes to the fore as he sings about the old folks on the porch and how "they'll peeek (pick)...ahwl noyt..."

In Taupin's lyrics, there's a bit of casual condescension directed at the local yokels of this "Alabama mud-bed town", but this is Bernie writing in character with a smile rather than a scowl so it's easy to look past it. For example:

Saw a Cadillac for the first time yesterday
I'd always seen horses, buggies, bales of hay
'Cause progress here don't move with modern times
There's nothing to steal
So there's not a great deal of crime

As far as the rest of the arrangements go, it at least rocks out a bit but the bells and vibes and busy strings kinda work against it insofar as the subject matter goes; it would have been a wonderful country-rock Tumbleweed Connection or Madman Across the Water-era track, but it sounds a little off on the more urbane and polished pre-Disco Blue Moves. Still, I like this track and this album could have used a few more of these.


Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Grey Seal

"Grey Seal" is one of a select few Elton songs which exist in two released versions. Originally written in 1969, and issued as the flip side of his "Rock and Roll Madonna" single in January of 1970, lyrically it's very much in the anti-Higher Education (a la Roger Waters' "Another Brick in the Wall" years later), anti-authoritarian, vaguely sci-fi mode that Taupin seemed to find himself in in those early days (a la Empty Sky's "Hymn 2000"), with lines like these:

On the big screen they showed us a sun
But not as bright in life as the real one
It's never quite the same as the real one


I never learned why meteors were formed
I only farmed in schools that were so worn and torn

All very yearning and searching for meaning and truth in that late-60's early 70's youth-must-be-served way.

Musically, the original version is more restrained and conventional when compared to the 1973 remake, which speeds the tempo up and takes advantage of Davey Johnstone's studio prowess as the lanky guitarist serves up soul-brother wah-wah guitars and jazzy flourishes in the breaks between verses. Elton plays frantic triplets ("Pinball Wizard" style) on a regular piano instead of the somewhat dinky-sounding electric piano of the original. The first version's ending is somewhat different; Elton sings scatted vocals over strings and vibes and the song works towards a faded-out conclusion, but the remake features the whole band vamping towards a frenetic finish, with minimal string accompaniment.

Don't know why they chose to redo it and add it to the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album; maybe they felt like they needed another track to pad the running time, who knows. I haven't read anything about it one way or the other. The new version is, I think, an improvement but the song itself, in either rendition, just isn't that strong.

Lyrics and samples of both versions

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Lady What's Tomorrow

A folky, gentle ballad with lyrics that seem to convey a "let's live for today" type message, best summed up by somewhat bucolic lines like

Now look and see the lilac tree
The lily pond, the skylark's song
The open air but no one cares
If branches live and die out there

Unfortunately, this being early Bernie we get a clunker like this repetitive stanza:

Look up little brother
Can you see the clover
Oh sorry but it's over
Now there's concrete and no clover

Despite a decent enough melody, and although the sentiment of the song gets across, this remains one of Elton's less memorable selections.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

High Flying Bird

Don't Shoot Me's album-closer is a plaintive little elegy, which tells us of an apparently high-spirited young lady that meets with a bad end.

Bernie floridly describes her in the opening verses:

You wore a little cross of gold around your neck
I saw it as you flew between my reason
Like a raven in the night time when you left

Apparently the singer is trying to be a steadying or calming (or restrictive, more like) influence on her, because in the chorus he laments:

My high-flying bird has flown from out my arms
I thought myself her keeper
She thought I meant her harm

And indeed, someone seems to have meant her harm, as the second stanza informs us:

The white walls of your dressing room are stained in scarlet red
You bled upon the cold stone like a young man
In the foreign field of death

Perhaps Bernie means to imply that she's a suicide, or the singer him/herself may have done the deed, in jealous rage- or perhaps he's adopting a paternal voice, saying in so many words "I told you so". I guess it's open for interpretation. Either way, this "you should have behaved yourself and listened to me" tone is a little troubling, and unfortunately consistent with so many of Taupin's songs that dealt with women.

Elton bails this song out, though, providing the pathos with a strong, beautiful melody and once more, using those stellar Elton/Johnstone/Murray/Olsson group vocals in all the right places.

Lyrics and a sample.