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Elton John & Leon Russell
The Union Mick Middles , November 5th, 2010 06:12

Payback time? A late present for a lost muse? Without doubt. Consider, if only for a moment, Elton John and partner, David Furnish on South African safari in January 2009. Furnish is ploughing through Leon Russell's Retrospective. Elton John is silently crying. It's a poignant moment that would lead to the creation of this unlikely album. Indeed, the moment when Elton acknowledged the debt he owed to the mystical Oklahoman man who carved himself deep into the LA blues scene of the late 60s.

To gain a perspective, one has to dig back to August 1970 when Russell, in wake of his enigmatic stint as 'ringmaster' on Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen, visited The Troubadour on Santa Monica Boulevard to catch sight of the young piano-playing English man, Elton John. An (almost) immediate bond was struck between the pair. Elton, in particular, became all-consumed by the mystical boogie-piano of Russell as well as the broad scope of his Americana vision. It must be noted, at that precise moment, most of the British rock glitterati were hovering around the rather shy American – Clapton, Harrison et al – and a wave of quiet hype only served to deepen his enigma. Elton John, in particular, was utterly consumed. Indeed, his breakthrough hit, 'Your Song' was an openly close relation to Russell's 'A Song for you'. Immediately in the wake of that success, Elton's Tumbleweed Connection is fully haunted by the Russell ghost….a ghost that would be screaming from the shadows during the later hit, 'Honky Cat'.

While Elton John's career trajectory saw him conquer America – against insurmountable odds – Russell's star would gradually dim. That said, in 2010, his influence has never been more prodigiously active, despite the fact that the man was living modestly, selling low budget albums on the internet and performing at ramshackle blues clubs.

This imbalance was certainly not lost on Elton John. More than well aware of the huge debt, and in an attempt to quell his 40 year desire to make an album with Russell, he decided to seek out the man himself.

Ok, so that's a bit nut-shelled but the background to this sweet sixteen song set is important, as it seeps into every moment, adding the most vibrant poignancy in ballads and rockers alike on an album – and how rare is this? – recorded around two contrasting pianos.

There are four people involved here. John and Russell, of course, spar and tease and twist throughout and one can only compliment Elton John's respectful reign on his own ego as, time after time, he pulls back, allowing Russell space and freedom to shine. Bernie Taupin is naturally ever-present on the credits and legendary producer T Bone Burnett guides this potentially unsteady ship. Nevertheless, it is the physical presence of Russell, no longer a mere ghost, who adds muscle to the production, both in rasping vocals and, more so, in the distinctive funk-tones of that extraordinary piano. In places, he even seems to take a dominant position and there is no escaping the fact that, without Russell, this might well have surfaced as a bona fide new Elton John album, not a universe away from the excellent Songs from the West Coast.

But Russell adds a lovely antiqueness to the entire affair and evokes the feel of Elton John pre Captain Fantastic; how Elton John might have sounded if not tugged by the necessary force of glam… with all the fun and crassness that ensued.

What is most interesting here lies in the very construction of the songs. The album's finest moment, the rollicking romping 'Monkey Suit', literally builds from two crashing gospel pianos and a chorus to die for. Ramp it up on the hi-fi and it's a sure fire bitch of a track that seems, at once, liberating and strangely subversive…never thought I would be saying that about an Elton John song in 2010. By stark contrast, 'I Should Have Sent Roses' is a rather mundane country-esque affair, written by John and Taupin prior to these recordings. Having said that, and surprisingly perhaps, one of the finest lyrics here – and the lyric sheet is almost novelistic in scope and intensity – also arrives from the Bernie Taupin nib. A hilarious Tom Waits tale of a fractious relationship revolving around the "I can't say I liked you much, but you are my kind of hell," chorus. This tale of low life from New York to Bucharest contains line after line of exquisite imagery. "We just go round and round like a dull thud in a bell" etc. What a lovely summation of a troubled union.

If anything, the album is a touch too long. Strangely, it is the first six songs that tend to merge rather too easily. Indeed, it is the aforementioned 'Monkey Suit' that sits in the pivotal position as song eight, that seems to release the true autumnal colours here…for it an album of brown and gold. Late in life and late in the year. However, while never being a fully-fledged Elton John aficionado - despite catching him live in the moment of his first hit…12 shillings at Stockport College in 1971 – I feel justified in claiming this to be his finest outing for three decades. As for Russell, he is truly back where he belongs:out from the sticks and centre stage. Welcome back, ringleader,

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