Release Date: Apr 1, 2014
Record label: Universal
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Blues-Rock, Album Rock, Country-Rock
Leon Russell is one of rock’s legends. Whether solo (slow, moody hits like “This Masquerade”) or paired with the likes of Joe Cocker and Elton John (Life Journey’s executive producer), Russell brings a touch of the old South to all he surveys. Same here. Though Russell uses his craggy, soulful caterwaul and playful piano stylings on classics like “Georgia on My Mind,” Russell-penned originals such as the jump-boogieing "Big Lips" and the swinging "Down in Dixieland" are this winning deck's aces.
Following on from The Union, the 2010 duets album he recorded with his lifelong fan Elton John, the 71-year-old Russell goes it alone on a sprightly collection of standards and pop evergreens that arguably inform his own previous work. Renditions of Duke Ellington’s I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good and Hoagy Carmichael’s Georgia On My Mind may be essential components of the Great American Songbook, but both benefit from their laconic Leon makeovers. The unmistakable vocal drawl gives the songs an added texture, deftly embellished by some suitably loose-digit piano flourishes, particularly pleasing on That Lucky Old Sun and a mournful reading of Billy Joel’s New York State Of Mind.
Prior to his Elton John-endorsed career resurrection via the 2010 duet album The Union, Leon Russell cranked out self-released oddities to little notice. Once The Union again made Russell a draw, there was little chance that he would revive his MIDI keyboards, and Life Journey indeed stays far, far away from those cramped, tinny settings, preferring to revive the loose-limbed, woolly Tulsan rock & roll that made his reputation. Working with Tommy LiPuma -- a veteran producer who had never recorded with Russell but who helmed many successful jazz sessions, including George Benson's Grammy-winning Breezin' -- Russell primarily sticks to standards, whether they're by Robert Johnson, Hoagy Carmichael, or Billy Joel, and that's how it should be.
Leon Russell’s voice sounds like parched earth, cracked and its essence crawled out: raw, blistering, molten to the touch and savory in all the right places. From the opening of Robert Johnson’s “Come On Into My Kitchen,” Russell’s authority is buttressed by a swagger that is as comfortable as it is saucy. Seventy-one years old, he’s recorded as part of Phil Spector’s house band, anchored George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh and the legendary Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour, in addition to founding Shelter Records and penning the seminal “A Song for You” and “Superstar.” Now the reclusive Tulsan finds new spark in various forms of classic American music.
After 50 years as a session player, producer, songwriter, label owner, rock star and – on 2010's The Union – as Elton John's duet partner, Leon Russell could tell tales strong enough to curdle milk. Instead, the 72-year-old pianist crafts a less slanderous but equally colorful musical autobiography on Life Journey, a wry collection of blues, jazz and pop oldies fleshed out by two Russell compositions, the ribald rocker "Big Lips" and the big-band finale, "Down in Dixieland." Russell's croon may be raspy, but it's always eloquent: Dig the fondness he brings to "Georgia on My Mind" while coaxing from his keys a kindred finesse that's alternately yearning and joyous. .
Longtime musical mercenary Leon Russell has played with everyone from Dylan to The Stones, but there is nothing like listening to him take the mic for himself. On Life Journey, his first solo record since 2006 (The Union, his 2010 album with Elton John, may have done wonders for Russell’s career, but had a little too much Elton John for my taste), is a mix of originals and his swamp organ take on songs like “Fever,” Paul Anka’s “I Really Miss You” and Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind. ” Unlike many, when Russell covers a song, even one as mediocre as Billy Joel’s tourism slogan in waiting, he slathers each track with his trademark honky tonk piano and his gruff as a black bear guzzling honey vocals and makes them entirely his own.