BILLY JOEL: COLD SPRING HARBOR (1971)
1) She's Got A Way; 2) You Can Make Me Free; 3) Everybody Loves You Now; 4) Why Judy Why; 5) Falling Of The Rain; 6) Turn Around; 7) You Look So Good To Me; 8) Tomorrow Is Today; 9) Nocturne; 10) Got To Begin Again.
One would be hard pressed to think of a more confused and silly-running beginning of a professional career than Billy Joel's. So you have just formed one of the strangest combos in rock music and released one of the most maligned and ridiculed albums of all time, and you really have no one to blame for that but yourself. So what is your next move? Naturally, to elope with the wife of your drummer (Elizabeth Small / Joel, whom Billy would marry in 1972 and divorce ten years later when she got too old for him, a process that he subseuqently put in replay mode). When this, too, somehow failed to bring him artistic success, Billy started feeling like a brokedown table — and drank a whole bottle of furniture polish to remedy the situation.
Had he succeeded in that, B. J. would have forever remained in our hearts and souls as the «Meat Locker Hun», a perennial scarecrow to shoo novices away from dangerous musical excesses and distorted organ overdosing. Fortunately, the good fairy intervened at the last moment and turned the furniture polish into a 20th century equivalent of Brangäne's Love Potion: overnight, Billy woke up with a sick stomach and the tender, sentimental spirit of a romantic balladeer. No more ridiculous «hard rock» for yesterday's Hun — in July 1971 he was back in the studio, recording his first «proper» album for the soft-rock / folk-pop market.
Cold Spring Harbor is kind of a special record in the hearts of some of the fans. Although it is not really «transitional», since it pretty much lays down all the foundations of the Billy Joel formula for centuries to come, it still has its own distinct personality — the relative sparseness of arrangements, where, all too often, it is just Billy and his piano, sets it apart from the full-band style of Piano Man and subsequent releases, so we have sort of an Intimate Portrait of the Budding Artist here. Or maybe it's just the fact that he still got his moustache, I'm not really sure. In any case, there are backing musicians (such as Richard Bennett, Neil Diamond's resident accompanyist, on guitar; Emory Gordy Jr. on bass, etc.), but they are really only there to save the record from becoming too monotonous.
Of which there is a serious danger, since Billy's commitment to modern-day troubadour aesthetics is fairly unidirectional. Completely jettisoning his «psychedelic rock» persona, he now declares an open love for sweet piano pop in all of its forms — hearkening back to pre-war vaudeville and Hoagy Carmichael as much as being influenced by Carole King, Paul McCartney, and that whole newly nascent merger of pop, folk, country, and watered-down rock which, by 1971, had already became one of the most popular types of music in mainstream entertainment. Furthermore, Billy selects the «starry-eyed», «heart-on-sleeve» attitude rather than the self-consciously ironic or hyper-intellectualized approaches — nothing that would particularly appeal to fans of, say, Randy Newman or Joni Mitchell.
Under these conditions, the only thing that can save one's music is raw talent — playing, singing, composing, or, better still, any of these combined. The problem is that, on all these scales, Cold Spring Harbor registers as «okay». In the playing department, Billy's self-taught technique is impressive (he certainly spent far more time practicing than McCartney), but not enough to put him over any particular top — the instrumental ʽNocturneʼ, for instance, is not likely to make Chopin roll over, making its point with persistent repetition of the theme rather than throwing in any intricate variations. As a singer, he certainly earns more respect here than with Attila, and his tones and phrasing suit his melodies fairly adequately (it would have been much worse if he'd tried to pull off a Neil Diamond), but the voice lacks «that certain something» to carve out its own niche — as much as I like to poke fun at something like Neil Young's whiny soundwaves, they at least have their own personality, whereas the presence of any sort of «personality» in the ballads of Cold Spring Harbor (or any of its follow-ups, for that matter) is under doubt.
What remains are the melodies themselves: Billy's chief claim to fame — yet they, too, give the impression of «competence» rather than «genius». A song like ʽShe's Got A Wayʼ has all the external signs of a gorgeous love ballad, but falls quite a few slices short of a loaf, earning the listener's love with atmosphere rather than chord sequences or elegant, admirably symmetric construction of the vocal melody. You'd think there'd have to at least be some sort of an explosion in the bridge / refrain, but there is none, other than a slight pitch rise on the final "...I get turned around", which is basically just a simple cop-out of an unsolved problem, so it seems. The result is a «pretty», not too annoying, tune that never truly reaches for those strings that lead directly to the seat of emotions — and I'd probably rather take something as simple as Paul McCartney's ʽWarm And Beautifulʼ (a little-remembered tune from Wings At The Speed Of Sound) over this, as well as just about any other ballad on the album.
As it happens, Cold Spring Harbor wouldn't even begin making it into my personal Top 100 chart for 1971 (to be fair, nor did it with the general public at the time, although Billy himself used to ascribe this to an unfortunate incident in which the tapes were slightly sped up during the vinyl transfer, making him sound like a bit of a chipmunk — since the reissue, this has been corrected, but who really knows? maybe the record was more fun that way). In fact, it is a record that almost invites you to despise it: mediocre, generic, striving for lofty heights with trivial means, and I have not even begun to talk about the lyrics. (ʽTomorrow Is Todayʼ is said to be Billy's recollection of the furniture polish incident — "Made my bed, I'm gonna lie in it / If you don't come, I'm sure gonna die in it" is quite a furniture-polish-level couple of lines, to be sure).
Still, somehow, somewhere, just like Attila ended up surprisingly better than its reputation, Cold Spring Harbor also exudes a certain mystical charm that prevents me from cringing all the way through. Maybe it's a matter of production — all this minimalist flair, with minimal orchestration (Artie Ripp, the guy responsible for the speeding-up mistake, originally added orchestration to ʽTomorrow Is Todayʼ, but Billy later removed it). Maybe it's because some of the simple little vocal hooks — very simple little hooks — that Billy adds to sapfests like ʽYou Can Make Me Freeʼ or ʽTurn Aroundʼ are delivered in an accordingly simple manner: no pomp means no hate. But most of all, maybe it is because Cold Spring Harbor is very much a «homebrewn» affair: unlike, say, a Neil Diamond album or a Carpenters album, you do not get the feeling of The Big Corporate Machine backing up Billy's moustache. It's his own game here, sincerely conceived and honestly laid down. «Poor man's Paul McCartney / poor man's Elton John», for sure, but at this stage, this is at least an honestly poor man trying to lay down his feelings as best he can (and doing tolerably well), not a spoiled ugly millionaire divorcing his third wife.
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