Release Date: Oct 19, 2010
Record label: Decca
Genre(s): Singer/Songwriter, Pop/Rock, Adult Alternative Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Contemporary Pop/Rock, Album Rock
It was easy to miss Leon Russell's cameo appearance on last Saturday's X Factor, dedicated to songs by the judges' musical heroes. For one thing, his name wasn't mentioned. For another, it was hard not to be distracted by news that Simon Cowell's musical heroes apparently include Kelly Clarkson and Boney M; here was a pretty jaw-dropping insight into his record collection.
There’s an appealing logic in pairing these piano men for a duets album after decades of mutual admiration. On The Union, Leon Russell’s raspy wail makes an apt foil for Sir Elton’s still-luxuriant croon, and the duo settles cozily into producer T Bone Burnett’s arrangements. Both artists have done more durable work in the past, but who can begrudge two old pals having so much fun? B Download These:Wry lament If It Wasn’t for Bad at amazon.comMournful Civil War march Gone to Shiloh? at amazon.com See all of this week’s reviews .
The impetus for the collaboration between Elton John and Leon Russell on The Union comes from a pure artistic place, one devoid of commercial considerations beyond making a few bucks for one of rock’s forgotten heroes. Unfortunately the creative execution results in a rather ponderous disc that’s ambition exceeds its reach. Despite an A-team of producer T-Bone Burnett and guest artists like Neil Young and Brian Wilson, The Union comes off feeling incomplete and half-baked.
Was anyone shocked to hear Elton John admit, while running down a brief list of influences on Elvis Costello’s business-casual talk show Spectacle, that he’d engineered his early style by following Leon Russell’s blueprint? After all, his faux Russell number at the end of that broadcast, while effectively fun, wasn’t anywhere near as immaculate a Pentecostal blues facsimile as “No Shoestrings on Louise” (with its diphthong-heavy elocution) or “The Cage” (with its “Ah-ah, woo-woo” gospel chorus), both from his eponymous sophomore breakthrough. Still, if John unabashedly aped the left hand-led piano style of tracks like “Hummingbird” and, later, the textural use of synthesizers that characterized Russell’s Will O’ The Wisp, he’s wisely sustained himself through creative droughts by avoiding Russell’s neurotic and often alienating persona. Both are consummate professionals, but where Russell abhors the undignified and self-destructive tight-wire act of audience whoring, John will prance about in feathers and silk singing his early hits until your retainer is exhausted.
Wait, wait, wait. Come back here. It’s cool – it’s totally understandable that you saw that pair of names, said meh and wanted to skip. It’s not like Elton John hasn’t spent the last decade and change taking it upon himself to expand the possibilities inherent in the phrase ‘groan worthy,’ and Leon Russell’s career as of late hasn’t been exactly what you’d call notable.
A sincere collaboration between artists who complement each other well. Paul Whitelaw 2010 When musicians of a certain age collaborate on a duets album, the results often reek of creative stagnation and the sound of mutual back-slapping. Not so with The Union, a sincere collaboration between Elton John and an artist to whom he owes an avowed debt, Leon Russell.
Rather than a true joining together, The Union delivers the best Elton John/Bernie Taupin album in decades thanks to Leon Russell's Dixie omnipresence. The team behind 1970's Tumbleweed Connection and Honky Château ('72) contribute eight of 14 tunes, the best of which, "Gone to Shiloh," sounds like a Leon Russell song, a Civil War lament beginning with the Oklahoman's waves of grain vocals and a fragile verse by Neil Young. Chugging rocker "Monkey Suit" might already be slated for John's next greatest hits.