BILLY JOEL: STREETLIFE SERENADE (1974)
1) Streetlife Serenader; 2) Los Angelinos; 3) The Great Suburban Showdown; 4) Root Beer Rag; 5) Roberta; 6) The Entertainer; 7) Last Of The Big Time Spenders; 8) Weekend Song; 9) Souvenir; 10) The Mexican Connection.
Brace yourself for a serious statement — this is not just a «piano pop» album, but a sprawling panorama of California circa 1974. A couple of instrumental tunes and a couple of universally suitable ballads can be still tied in with the general concept, which revolves around the perceptive and insightful singer-songwriter sick and tired of the gay, nonchalant, sunny lifestyle on the West Coast that yields only superficial comfort and prevents the artist from aspiring to higher goals, because how can you ever aspire to higher goals with mountains of coke and hordes of bikini-clad beauties blocking the sun from you? "Such hot sweet schoolgirls, so educated", "going into garages for exotic massages" and all that. Tough, ungrateful life without any redeeming qualities whatsoever. Damn all that hot sun and light sea breeze.
The music honestly reflects the darker, sterner processes in Billy's mind — it is now less oriented at a «rootsy» sound and seems more influenced by the progressive movement, as the man procures himself some trendy synthesizers (most prominently heard on ʽThe Entertainerʼ), rolls out some dark piano colors, strengthened by hard rock guitars (most prominently heard on ʽLos Angelenosʼ), and does everything in his power to come up with an album that would be traditionally «accessible», yet not too overtly «commercial» — the only single was ʽThe Entertainerʼ, a song that actually bashes the ideology of entertainment and the structure of the charts so explicitly that even the public seems to have gotten it: few people bought the single, even fewer people bought the album, and in the end, Streetlife Serenade cost him some public support without compensating for any extra critical favor.
The basic problem remains the same as before: the ambitions of the artist are by no means matched by artistic genius. ʽThe Entertainerʼ raves and rants about the cruel industry ("It was a beautiful song / But it ran too long / You're gonna have a hit / You gotta make it fit / So they cut it down to 3:05"), but if the lyrics do indeed refer directly to Billy's struggle with the record industry people over the length of ʽPiano Manʼ — well, Billy, not everybody in the world agrees that ʽPiano Manʼ actually deserves a six-minute running time; it's just a generic waltz, for Christ's sake, not a Beethoven's 9th or even a ʽHey Judeʼ, for that matter. How about some modesty here? For that matter, without all the righteous anger ʽThe Entertainerʼ could have been a nifty little pop teaser, vocally catchy and with fun use of the synthesizer, but using that sort of melody for a Big Cultural Statement is off-putting.
If you «mentally delete» most of the lyrics and some of the heroic posturing, Streetlife Serenade isn't too bad, though, and should probably rank up there with «second-tier» Elton John albums (although, of all the songs, only ʽLast Of The Big Time Spendersʼ sounds directly like one of those semi-inspired Elton ballads). ʽStreetlife Serenaderʼ has an inoffensive, nicely flowing piano melody whose lack of dynamic flow is somewhat compensated by nuanced little flourishes that show Billy's romantic classical piano influences without compromising good taste. ʽThe Great Suburban Showdownʼ skilfully combines pedal steel with synthesizers and ends up sounding like a Bee Gees song circa Life In A Tin Can — yet another record with a brotherly spirit about how boring life can be in L.A., but ʽShowdownʼ would have probably been a highlight on it. ʽWeekend Songʼ is a good one to enjoy on a lonesome evening when you'd like to get drunk and go on the town but lack the money, the spirit, and the real will to do so.
And then there are the instrumentals. ʽRoot Beer Ragʼ sounds pretty much the exact way as the title would suggest — with a few whiny whees from synthesizers that creep up behind your back every now and then, but mostly just relying on the good old honky tonk and Scott Joplin for inspiration. ʽThe Mexican Connectionʼ begins like an incidental piece of elevator muzak, cuddled around a pretty, but repetitive pop riff, but then does break into a Mexican part, also justifying the title. In the end, both provide some harmless fun.
What totally kills off Streetlife Serenade, though, and opens up all sorts of possibilities for getting seriously irritated, is its — and Billy's in general — total lack of any sense of humor. So ʽRoot Beer Ragʼ is «funny», because, you know, it's ragtime played light and fast, that's always funny by definition, but we are not talking about that: we are talking about how deadpan serious this whole thing plays out, even if the man simply cannot handle «serious» on the same level with the truly «serious» performers. Even the irony is delivered with a vengeful attitude, but even when Billy Joel was playing Attila the Hun, he could never begin to hope to scare the shit out of you — much less now, when he is playing lyrical pianos and futuristic synthesizers.
The whole thing is about as huge a Social Artistic Statement as you'd expect from the average Miss North Carolina, memorizing answers to generic questions on family values and world peace from cue cards. And I sure wish I could forget about it and just enjoy the tunes, but the awful thing is, the tunes just aren't that great — decent, not great — to win over you on their own. They are served to you on the same platter with personality, and you can't really separate one from the other. The only reason I can sit through an album like this without cringing is that I honestly like Billy's voice and phrasing — even when he is splurging out banalities, he sounds more like a genuine human being than, say, Tom Jones or David Coverdale, and for that alone, Streetlife Serenade should be redeemed from the numerous accusations by professional «Joel haters» who could spend their time more wisely hating somebody else. Leo Sayer, for example. Why don't we all go hate Leo Sayer? He sold a lot of records, too.
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