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Thursday, April 3, 2014

Billy Joel: Songs In The Attic

BILLY JOEL: SONGS IN THE ATTIC (1981)

1) Miami 2017 (I've Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway); 2) Summer, Highland Falls; 3) Streetlife Serenader; 4) Los Angelinos; 5) She's Got A Way; 6) Everybody Loves You Now; 7) Say Goodbye To Hollywood; 8) Captain Jack; 9) You're My Home; 10) The Ballad Of Billy The Kid; 11) I've Loved These Days.

What is the more ethical choice — put out a live album of your greatest and best-known hits, or put out a live album of your obscurities from the vaults (or «from the attic», to be more precise)? Maybe the most ethical choice would be not to put out a live album at all. Concentrating on hits is too redundant and predictable, whereas concentrating on the rarities is pretentiously vain — isn't there a reason that they were obscure in the first place? shouldn't one just give people what they want? isn't there a sort of «look-at-me-how-great-I-am» mentality issue here?... and so on.

In the case of Billy Joel, whom I certainly do not consider a «great» artist, this dilemma is even more pronounced. But I am happy to say that the concept behind Songs In The Attic — getting his «new» audiences, turned on to him since the success of The Stranger, to get better acquain­ted with the man's past — is pretty darn classily executed, by means of two things: (a) a thought­ful, meticulous selection of material that manages to avoid most of the lows and focus on all the highs; (b) a relative reinvention of many of these songs; formally — to better fit Billy's format of playing with his more or less permanently assembled band, in reality — to try to improve on the original production and arrangement flaws wherever possible.

The reinventions are never too radical, though; they are mostly done in the spirit of «virtual re­mastering», which is quite impressive considering that these are actual live recordings. Billy's singing, in particular, has never been better: he pays full attention to getting all the harmonies right, and does not spare his voice any trouble — even turning it into a snappy roar at the climac­tic moments of some of the tracks (ʽCaptain Jackʼ). Meanwhile, the backing band bravely takes it upon itself to compensate for the lack of overdubs, with David Brown's thick electric guitar tone replacing string arrangements (ʽThe Ballad Of Billy The Kidʼ); or, sometimes, it actually makes the arrangements denser than they used to be (ʽEverybody Loves You Nowʼ now has a frantic acoustic strum pushing it forward, in addition to Billy's flashy piano rolls).

As for the setlist, well, it did not manage to shift my original disappointed feelings for ʽShe's Got A Wayʼ (a song that feels as melodically unfinished to me as ever), but, apart from that, it is a fairly representative and solid selection from Billy's pre-mass popularity years, very evenly dis­tributed between his first four solo albums (the only thing that's lacking is an ass-kicking organ grind from Attila — I mean, would it have hurt the man to throw in a ʽCalifornia Flashʼ every once in a while, just for some good plain fun?). To keep the concept stable, he keeps away from all the pre-Stranger hits (ʽPiano Manʼ, ʽThe Entertainerʼ) and popular tunes such as ʽNew York State Of Mindʼ, and it helps, since Billy's hits always tended to be selected from either his most repetitive or his corniest strata of material.

Some fans almost literally swear by Songs In The Attic, convinced that it is the album to succes­fully prove that Billy Joel is «The Artist», or, at least, that the album managed to breathe a wholly new strain of life into the old songs. I would not go that far: the essence of the songs always re­mains the same, no matter how many extra piercing guitar solos David Brown prefers to add to the new ʽCaptain Jackʼ. But if you only have room for two or three Billy Joel albums in your col­lection, it goes without saying that Songs In The Attic would be a good substitute for the entire 1971-76 period — with mostly the best selections, and each performance either fully matching the power of the original or slightly improving upon it, what you get here is a comprehensive overview of the man's formative years, recorded in pristine sound quality.

Oh, and, just in case you didn't know it, the audiences did go wild over the old songs; sometimes, it has to do with Billy's choice of location (at least one show was recorded in NYC, so every time he mentions Brooklyn or any other such place on ʽMiami 2017ʼ, the crowds go nuts), but usually, they just love him regardless of which East Coast city he is playing in. And, for the record, there is a shitload of different locations from which the selections (recorded in June/July 1980) were made, but the Westernmost we ever get was Milwaukee (Wisconsin) and St. Paul (Minnesota). (Not that Billy never played California since relocating back to NYC, but perhaps the crowds were slightly less enthusiastic back there — especially if he ever tried to play ʽLos Angelenosʼ to any of them).

Anyway, the popular reaction shows that at least the people who actually went to see Billy play live were already well familiar with his back story. But this did not prevent Songs From The Attic from still going triple platinum and reaching an impressive (for a live album) No. 8 on the charts — and while that might be pushing it a bit too far, it certainly agrees well with my own thumbs up on the issue.

Check "Songs In The Attic" (CD) on Amazon

1 comment:

  1. When “The Stranger” came out, I thought, “What’s the big deal?” I didn’t realize that he wasn’t all that known yet by most people. That was the point that he began to descend into corny, slickly produced smarm (“Just the Way You Are”, “Honesty”, “It’s Still Rock n’ Roll to Me”). So, this release came as a very nice surprise to me.
    These are very solid renditions of what I always thought was his best period (in a minority on that, I know). Some of the songs lack a little bit—“Captain Jack” is more effective with a fadeout than a cold ending, but one can’t do that live. “..Billy the Kid” needs its orchestral arrangement to totally make its tongue-in-cheek point. The one selection I could totally do without is “Los Angelenos”, which still seems, even in this setting, like a throwaway. He should have put in “The Entertainer”, instead, which probably was hilarious in concert.
    Since the band performs on every track, the performances are consistently strong. His best release of live material.

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