Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Less of a Thinking Man

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Billy Joel, Glass Houses.
What do you do if you're a piano man who wants to rock? You can try standing up at the keyboard, like Jerry Lee Lewis, or banging the 88s hard enough to turn them into a sort of horizontal rhythm/lead guitar, a la early Ben Folds.

Or, as Billy Joel did on this half-great record from 1980, you can just scrap the piano--that sedentary, inherently orchestral berth, with its embarrassment of harmonic riches tending all too easily to fall into showtune-cocktail-cabaret lushness--and pick up the six-string, the tool of authenticity and directness for folk troubadours as much as rockers, the phallic weapon with which a frontman leads the troops into three-chord battle. It's a yin/yang I know well firsthand; I only ever felt like a bandleader when I was out front with a guitar on, whereas at the keyboard I've always felt like either a sideman or like a singer/songwriter with a backing band (issues I still hadn't worked out when Rufus Wainwright knocked me flat).

I can't be sure what brought on Joel's new guitar focus; in retrospect it seems clear he'd heard Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, The Cars, probably even The Clash--the traces are there for the finding, and not just in the defensive lyrics of "It's Still Rock and Roll To Me"--but also because he always had one ear, or one ventricle, in Beatlemania, and even tunesmith Paul rocked a lot harder at the axe than on the keys. The homage is clear from the start, in the chiming George Harrison riff that opens "You May Be Right," right up to the end, with the strummy, McCartneyesque ballad "Through the Long Night," which sounds like the love child of "For No One" and "Michelle." In between there's a lot of fine, tossed-off ear candy, some relatively credible hard rock (he did once co-front this outfit), and a certain Joel-standard quota of cringey sax solos and groaner lyrics.

But if I ever wondered why the raw, despairing "All for Leyna" stands out from this collection--and it still does, swarming synths and all--I realized on this revisit one big reason why. It's because this sad, sweaty stalker's plea is the only track on the album led by piano, though even that piano sounds nerve-jangled, out-of-tune, as woozy and warped as the song's grief-stricken narrator. I'm always impressed by Joel's craftmanship, sometimes turned off by a certain clammy closeness in his personality (he's a bit like the earnest loudmouth at the bar who won't let you leave until you hear him out), and often embarrassed by his pretensions to cleverness or grandeur, but I'm almost always a sucker for his gutpunch moments of naked, needy cray-cray, from the vicious "Big Shot" to the turgid "Until the Night," and "All for Leyna" is the best of this neck-vein-popping lot. Maybe that's because it's straining all the harder to rock next to all these ostensibly macho guitar moves.

Jack Lechner Exactly right.
Joe McDade My parents took me to his concert at the Arizona State basketball arena in November of '79 (we listened to Jimmy Carter in a press conference about the hostages on the drive out). His two previous albums had been the breakouts: "The Stranger" had put him on the map and "52nd Street" had put him on top. It was the first time ever I had heard "All for Leyna" and "You May Be Right"; we all wanted to hear "Big Shot," and he didn't disappoint, as it was the last number, pre-encore. Brought the house down.

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