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Thursday, May 8, 2014

Billy Joel: Storm Front


1) That's Not Her Style; 2) We Didn't Start The Fire; 3) The Downeaster "Alexa"; 4) I Go To Extremes; 5) Shame­less; 6) Storm Front; 7) Leningrad; 8) State Of Grace; 9) When In Rome; 10) And So It Goes.

It is really a huge consolation that Billy sat out most of the Eighties in the lap of Phil Ramone. But as the last year of the decade swung around and everybody felt it was time for another shot of artistic expression, Billy suddenly decided to modernize. He fired much, if not most, of his regu­lar band, put together a huge crowd of session musicians, and exchanged Phil for Mick Jones of Foreigner fame in the producer seat. Whee! Granted, it could have been much worse, but fortu­nately, Phil Collins was not available at the time.

The result is an album that, in genre terms, stands somewhere on the intersection of «arena rock» and «barroom rock». (Maybe think of a barroom converted to a mini-arena, or vice versa). Gone altogether are the old-timey jazzy and vaudevillian stylizations, replaced by steady 4/4 beats, macho blues-rock guitar chords, and singalong choruses. Loud drums, bombastic synthesizers, and singing verging on the point of shouting also become the norm of the day as Billy tries to «make himself look big» by having everything puffed up around him; the only catch is, Billy himself is not what you'd call a «big guy» at all, and that translates, way too often, to a rather ri­diculous effect (the title track is an obvious example).

Worst of all, to paraphrase the man himself, «that's not his style» — this sudden desire to make music in the style of Foreigner goes against Billy's natural melodic skills, and, most importantly, why should he want to imitate this music? It takes little effort to churn out a bunch of simplistic arena-rockers; but unless they happen to be accidentally adorned with genius vocal hooks or master riffs, they are usually worthless — and Billy has had very little experience with «master riffs». Vocal hooks are better handled, to some extent, but the playing and production style leaves little place for subtlety.

It does not help, either, that the album begins with one of the corniest numbers the man ever had the gall to come up with — ʽThat's Not Her Styleʼ is a misguided lyrical defense of his then-cur­rent wife Christie Brinkley ("some people think that she's one of those mink-coated ladies..."), listing all the popular accusations with such precision and detail ("gave the pilot somethin' extra for a perfect ride"  — really?) and doing it in such a moronic singing tone that the only thing it manages to convince us of is that that is her style very much indeed (but maybe that's exactly the way it was intended to be... irony?).

I have sort of mixed feelings for the album's grand slam number. Some might say that ʽWe Didn't Start The Fireʼ only went to #1 because all the teenagers of America started buying it as a handy shortcut replacement for textbooks on modern history. Others might object that it has got one of the catchiest choruses in Billy Joel history, which helps overlook the crappy-sounding keyboards and the musical monotonousness. I would classify it as one of those harmless «novelty» numbers that quickly run out of fun potential — along the lines of the Beatles' ʽAll Together Nowʼ (al­though the latter at least had a far more tasteful musical arrangement, but then it wasn't put to­gether in 1989, either). There is some serious incongruency between the song's nursery-rhyme aura and the «seriousness» of the message, however — "we didn't light it but we tried to fight it" does not say much about how they were fighting and what they were fighting — was it Belgians in the Congo, Ben Hur, or hula hoops?.. Silly old Billy, always getting himself in some kind of fix with his «moral lessons».

The rest of the songs fluctuate between the already mentioned uninspiring/uninspired arena-rockers (title track; ʽState Of Graceʼ), cartoonishly soulful adult contemporary ballads (ʽLenin­gradʼ, a souvenir from Billy's Russian trip that might have healed a few simple psychological traumas back then, but now comes across as one of those oddball artistic children of Perestroika — "the Russians love their children too" and all that stuff), and a couple attempts at «art pop» songs, marred by production excesses and superfluous pomposity (ʽThe Downeaster Alexaʼ, which must have increased Billy's popularity with baymen worldwide, but sounds fairly crass and manipulative otherwise).

Some fans have praised the closing number, ʽAnd So It Goesʼ, as the best song on the album and maybe even an all-time classic — too much praise, I'd say, for a number whose melodic potential is completely exhausted in the first twenty five seconds (possibly in the first five seconds, as I am quite sure any professional musicologist would be able to predict the next twenty). Those few bars of solo piano are indeed quite nice, and at least the entire coda sounds refreshingly simple and unadorned next to the glossy production of the original.

But if anything, it is a glaring example of what is altogether wrong with the entire album: horrendously lazy songwriting. In the past, Billy had always used his ideas sparingly, distributing interesting chord changes and vocal modulations between songs in a miserly manner, but Storm Front is the first album where you really begin to wonder whether he has reached the bottom of the barrel. Of course, no talent lasts forever, yet it still seems odd — Billy had shown so much discipline in not allowing himself to «burn out» over two decades of music-making that the qua­lity dropdown of Storm Front is surprising. Perhaps we should blame it all on Christie Brinkley. You know — Christie Brinkley, Mick Jones, crappy drums and synth tones, Leningrad, miss my Dad, rock is just a passing fad, we didn't jump the shark, no we didn't jump it, we just tried to hump it... sorry, what I really meant to say was just a thumbs down.

Check "Storm Front" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Storm Front" (MP3) on Amazon


  1. "We Didn't Start the Fire" may not be that inspiring on its own but it gets partly redeemed by the fantastic video. The last trace of that old-timey creative fun before all them half-naked, half asleep women performing a zombie-style dance took the lead..

  2. So here's a thought: Does the fact that Phil Ramone co-produced Paul McCartney's deeply unpleasant "Spies Like Us" - not to mention the Return To Pepperland tracks, half of which sound just as bad - mean that Billy Joel deserves a considerable amount of the credit for the tasteful sound of his mid 80s albums after all?

    Or is this simply another case of the gods arranging for Paul to one-up Billy in everything he does? ("Your records sound better when Phil Ramone produces them? Well, mine sound better when he DOESN'T!")

    And here's another: Is it just a coincidence that if you take the baby boomer nostalgia trip verses of "American Pie" (and extend it for two more decades) and the hooky nonsense chorus of "It's the End of the World As We Know It," you get "We Didn't Start the Fire," or was that the actual thought process behind the song?

  3. "We didn't jump it, we just tried to hump it . . . ."
    Thanks for making me snort-laugh while drinking coffee this morning, George. Now I will always hear that line as part of "We Didn't Start the Fire."

    1. "Leningrad, miss my dad, rock is just a passing fad" is the part I'm never going to be able to stop hearing.