Sunday, October 24, 2010

Should’ve Put More Cayenne Pepper Into The Sugar Bowl: Leon Russell and Elton John Make A Record

By Lars Trodson

If the background story of how a record got made counted toward its musical quality, then “The Union” would be a masterpiece. As it stands, it’s a moving reintroduction to one of America’s great lost singer-songwriters, and one that, with hope, will spur Leon Russell to go and make some more of his personal and idiosyncratic works all on his own.

You have to admire the passion that Elton John put into the project. After apparently hearing a song of Russell’s while on safari more than a year ago, John got in touch with Leon Russell himself, and with his producer, T. Bone Burnett, and in less than a year a veritable army of singers, musicians and Annie Leibovitz’s staff converged in L.A. to produce “The Union.”

It’s a meticulously made record, to be sure. Elton sounds as robust as ever, just as Russell’s reedy voice is cracked and unsteady. That doesn’t bother me. I like the late recordings of Frank Sinatra as much as any he ever made, those mediocre duets with a voice made haunting by too much heartbreak and booze and too many cigarettes. Russell’s voice on “When Love Is Dying” is as unvarnished as anything you’ll hear in a modern recording -- it has a little Willie Nelson twang to it, in fact -- but that makes it beautifully human in an era or airbrushed voices and digitized high notes.

But “When Love Is Dying”, as with all the songs on the record, is overproduced. It’s got a big group of background singers, and what should have been a delicate little tune comes totteringly close to a kind of Broadway showstopper. Russell tries to bring it back to earth, but he gets drowned out. (The background singing arrangement on this song was done by none other than Brian Wilson.) I know that Elton wanted to get Leon back onto a big canvas, but he and Burnett should have listened to what Rick Rubin did with Johnny Cash on his last recordings. Jesus, those are beautiful, and it could have been like that here.

The song that comes closest to this (but is still overbaked) is “Gone To Shiloh”, with verses sung by Leon, Elton and a very welcome Neil Young. Wait for the unplugged version of this to come out.

The other thing that is disconcerting is that there are a couple of good old fashioned Elton songs here. They are fine in and of themselves but shouldn’t have a role on a Leon Russell record. “Monkey Suit” (lyrics by Bernie Taupin, who contributes to more than half the songs) is a middling rocker that would not have been out of place on “Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only The Piano Player” from 1972. What’s it doing here?

Also with “Never To Old (To Hold Somebody).” It’s the kind of big ballad that rejuvenated John’s career in the early 1980s. Russell sings on this tune, but he has to compete with more gospel background singers and Elton’s flowery piano.

The record closes out with a Russell composition, “In The Hands Of Angels.” This is a bit of autobiography. It’s a song of musical resurrection. Leon Russell, a couple of generations removed from “Tight Rope” and “A Song For You”, sounds plaintive, wounded and grateful. But then those goddamn gospel singers billow up again from the background.

Elton & Co. should have let all that go and allowed the grand old white haired man shine through. Next time.