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Monday, January 23, 2017

Elton John – Tumbleweed Connection

Year: 1970
Record Rating = 10
Overall Rating = 13


On a surface level, there isn't that much to differentiate Tumbleweed Connection from Elton's eponymous LP, or even his oft-ignored debut: ballads combining his piano and vocal talents with masterful orchestration, rockers with a balance of funkiness and old-school boogying as well as a balance between his Jerry Lee Lewis-inspired piano playing and whatever major accompaniment there is on a given tune (horns, guitar, harmonica, you name it), and maybe some tunes with a psychedelic/progressive or country influence. The difference this time around is, despite the lack of discernable hit to make the casual fan interested, this is probably Elton's most consistently great record, and the added conceptuality in the lyrics – Bernie Taupin seems to have developed an interest in 19th century Americana – and occasionally in the music only add to the coherence of it all.

Other than being able to divide songs into ballads and rockers (and some songs fit both categories), songs are easily divided into categories of highlights and non-highlights. The latter category is definitely not bad. In another context, a few of these four songs could be at least minor highlights, especially the two on side one. I'm particularly quite fond of "Country Comfort", one of the few songs to focus on the "simple living" aspect of the 19th Century America bend; with the honky tonk piano, mandolin or mandolin-like guitars, country-blues guitar fills, sweet fiddle and a warm, soothing pedal steel guitar solo on the musical side, and Elton's welcoming vocals telling tales of fixing his grandmother's barn and the like to a catchy, yet non-trivial country melody, the only thing missing to complete the picture is a nice bourbon in your hand and the smell of fire-burning wood in your yard. Its fellow first side track, "Come Down in Time" is just a fine orchestral ballad; it's nothing that makes me jump up for joy, but with probably one of the most complex melodies I've heard from Elton (yet one that manages to be attractive in its complexity) and a steady flow of plucked violin strings, swelling bowed strings and weeping clarinet/French horn, it's definitely a step up from simple background music that you can accuse other of his ballads (especially later ballads in his career) from being.

The side two lesser tunes include the lone outside contribution, "Love Song" – by prominent backup vocalist on the album and a folk singer-songwriter in her own right, Leslie Duncan – is a pretty duet between Duncan and John. If the acoustic arpeggio pattern borrowing – dare I say even ripping off – the Beatles' "Dear Prudence" raises concerns, keep in mind that the melody is a creation of its own, really soft and softly delivered, yet poignant whenever the hopeful, nostalgic melody steers away into brief moments of melancholy. I'm not quite sure what the point of the sound of children playing in the background is for, unless the song is supposed to be about childhood crushes, but either way, it doesn't negatively impact my opinion of the song. Finally, "Amoreena" seems to lie somewhere between funky pop-rocker and psycho-pop, and while neither style is taken to any outstanding heights as Elton actually could if he chose to, the mid-tempo, stuttered guitar/piano interplay is engaging and the nearly sexual twist the melody takes whenever the watery phased guitars come in is interesting. It's nothing great, but it shows that even at his relative low points, Elton John in his prime avoids anything pro forma.

Among the six highlights, they're relatively evenly divided between ballads and rockers, with three ballads, two rockers, and one half ballad/half rocker. Two of the ballads, "Where to Now St. Peter?" and "Talking Old Soldiers" were the last songs I considered highlights (initial attempts at writing this review from a few months ago had "Come Down in Time" and "Country Comfort" as a fifth and sixth highlights in their place, but over time I found the album to be much less frontloaded than that suggests), but I'm glad I gave them a chance, because they're really gut-wrenching pieces of work. "Where to Now St. Peter?", as the title suggests, is religiously motivated: the lyrics tell a story about a dying soldier looking to God in his final moments, desperately pleading "I may not be a Christian/but I've done all one man can". In both the music and the vocals, this desperation is made evident thanks to a quasi-progressive rock setting – frequently changing rhythms from slow and lethargic to energized and pounding, piano arpeggios battling for attention with powerful guitar solos drenched in watery effects (pun intended) – and of course, a fantastic vocal delivery, ripping its way through a complex melody with the occasional powerful falsetto thrown in (my favourite being the extended ending of the first line of each verse).

"Talking Old Soldiers" is also linked to the theme of death, this time the impact of others' death on your conscience, in this theatrically inclined "talking ballad", if such a term exists. Elton essentially delivers a monologue in the role of a soldier at a bar/saloon lamenting the loss of his fellow soldiers to old age, and mostly does so in a half-spoken way, which of course is the key to the theatrical element of the track, although even the clearly defined melodic aspects of the vocal parts (most impactful in soaring lines like "Well do they know what it's like to have a graveyard as a friend?") have a quasi-operatic feel to them. Musically, the song is as bare as possible, with only slow, meticulous piano chords and fills to accompany Bernie's lyrics, which even then are relatively dispersed and can easily be forgotten by the listener once drawn in by the story/vocals. While there are times I wish there were more instruments in the mix – for instance, the final three or four lines where Elton wishes his listener to "keep well" and "have another drink on [him]" and so on are sung in a way that always make me expect a melodically similar saxophone line to follow – perhaps that would take away from the effect, perhaps even make it overbearingly cheesy that such a minimalistic arrangement has no chance of doing.

The third ballad (although technically the first in album placement), "My Father's Gun", is my favourite, though. It's a funereal ballad where the main character bids farewell to his father in a bitter tale of family redemption; despite Bernie Taupin technically having no business writing about the Civil War and Southern pride, and despite the lack of subtlety in this endeavour, he manages to accomplish this in a fairly poignant way (I especially like the lines " I laid his broken body down below the Southern land/It wouldn't do to bury him where any Yankee stands"), and of course the musical and vocal accompaniment adds to this poignancy. Initially based on snappy acoustic guitar chords, distant echoey piano rumbling and bluesy guitar fills, the song transforms into a set of majestic piano chords enveloping the listener with bass emphasizing the melody in all the right places before peaking at every refrain, a full band gospel-styled arrangement where dreary horns and powerful, fill-based drumming complement the other instruments. And Elton's vocals seamlessly go along with the song's ebb and flow, really getting into character as if he's a broken down man who lost his father before pride takes over and he vows to fight.

Of the rockers, the two on side one are much more emotionally lightweight, but in terms of music, they follow the path set by "Take Me to the Pilot", albeit with the Americana influence at the forefront as needed for the particular album. In that sense, "Ballad of a Well-Known Gun" is a perfect opener for the album: funky guitar riffage and soloing flying everywhere combined with a mid-tempo grooving rhythm section/honky-tonk piano just energizes you so that you can get sucked into the tale of an outlaw on the run, hopeless due to his recognisability. The high points of the tune are twofold. Obviously, there are the vocals, especially in the hyper-catchy refrain based in country-gospel backup vocals (which feature Dusty Springfield!) or in the coda that loops around said refrain, which avoids being too repetitive thanks to Elton's ad-libbed falsetto around the title. But Quaye's guitar playing is simply outstanding, topping anything from the previous album, as he slows down or speeds up, plays chord-based sequences or bends or funky chicken scratches, whatever is needed to make you picture a cowboy twirling his gun around his finger ready for a showdown.

"Son of Your Father" takes us away from the West and into the bayou, with a New Orleans-style swamp-boogie groove. Once again, the basis of the tune is in thumping rhythmic piano and funky guitar riffs and solos (this time not in a straight-ahead bluesy tone, but with a hint of phaser as if Quaye was playing deep in the swamp), but the addition of dirty, swampy, often chord-based harmonica riffs and Muscle Shoals-like horns that become more and more prominent as the song goes on add the necessary spice and variety. Much like the album opener, this tune has a fine gospel-based refrain, this time going for a much more cathartic feel as the vocalists explode cheerily as they praise rural life in Bernie's folksy lyrics (I especially like the line "with blood and water, bricks and mortar/He built for you a home"), but it's also in the refrain where the horns truly get to shine, emphasizing the exuberance of the vocals.

Finally, there's the closing "Burn Down the Mission", a six-and-a-half minute mini-epic that builds from a mournful ballad to stormy rocker and back again, concluding with an explosive finale. In the ballad parts, there are twinkling piano chords backing a beautiful melody (beautifully sung, of course), with a slowly building arrangement of acoustic guitars, melodic bass and droning organ, before an epic refrain around the lines "Burn down the mission/If we're gonna stay alive/Watch the black smoke fly to heaven/See the red flame light the sky". I'm not sure what it's supposed to be about, but the imagery here is great. Speaking of imagery, the post-refrain instrumental sections, the song's rocking parts, are the musical interpretation of what the refrain describes: as the rhythm picks up, the drums and percussion (bongos, I'm guessing) go ballistic, the orchestration swirls about madly – in the first instrumental section with the horns more prominent, in the second with paranoid strings as the focal point – and Elton not only thumps on his piano like there's no tomorrow, he also adds some sputtering organ at the end of the song, completing the image of a building engulfed in flames resulting in collapsed rubble that intermittently combusts. In short, as much as I love "My Father's Gun", this more artsy tune deserves to share the top spot with it.

Despite getting the highest grade for a 3-star artist (a 13/15), I'm not sure if Tumbleweed Connection is Elton's best album, although it can certainly be tied for that position with its fellow 13/15 album. It's still an album I've come to love as a great balance between roots rock and art rock, as played by a guy with plenty of singing and piano playing talent. Maybe if they managed to integrate the two bonus tracks from a 1995 reissue into the album proper, it would seal the deal for the album as Elton's best. As is, you can enjoy them just fine tacked onto the end. "Into the Old Man's Shoes" is yet another song about father-son relationships, this time as a fine up-tempo country ballad; there's nothing spectacular about it, although the pounding chord sequence after each verse line and the "Like I'm a wicked way of life" are fine hooks in their own right, and the light bluesy guitar solo is a nice touch as well. It wouldn't be a highlight as a regular album track, but it would be comfortable among the still well-written and performed lesser tunes that did make the cut.

Yet it's the early version of his next studio LP's title track, "Madman Across the Water", that deserves special attention. If the official version from 1971 is prog-rock emphasizing the former (more on that in the Madman Across the Water album review), this one clearly emphasizes the latter. It's another slow build-up, with scraping acoustic guitars, moody pianos, fat bass and backwards cymbal sounds for the verses, and a quasi-disco-ish refrain featuring a forceful falsetto vocal and stiff guitar lines from guest guitarist Mick Ronson. But it's Ronson's other playing on the tune, the mighty guitar soloing with a juicy, biting tone, that really ought to capture your attention. At the song's most intense, the way his guitar-hero theatrics fight for space with bombastic drumming are a real treat. So if you're looking to get Tumbleweed Connection, make sure it's a version with this track. It's not perfect in a technical sense throughout its 8 minutes, but it's a great experience of a tune and delivers the album another highlight, so it's worth it.

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