album notes

Billy Joel: The Nylon Curtain
October 27, 2012, 3:29 pm
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The Nylon Curtain
Billy Joel
Released 1982

Allentown: 9.1
Laura: 7.9
Pressure: 8.5
Goodnight Saigon: 8.1
She’s Right on Time: 7.2
A Room of Our Own: 6.0
Surprises: 7.4
Scandinavian Skies: 7.7
Where’s the Orchestra?: 5.8
Notes Rating: 7.522
Commercial Success: 3.9
Cultural Impact: 3.5
Influence: 2.5
Album Rating: 10.822

It’s rare that a mainstream musician can record an album of high social weight and still remain successful. But Billy Joel did that in 1982, following his successful “Glass Houses” with a wildly different album, one anchored by anger and despair. “The Nylon Curtain” is that album – Joel’s coming of age into adulthood with brute force, and the perfect baby boomer album. It’s a distillation of an entire generation, in just about 41 minutes of music.

Really it’s hard to imagine Joel had it in him. Sure he was slightly social with tunes like “Only the Good Die Young” and “Big Shot,” but those songs were childish brush-offs, giggling fits of anger in an otherwise big-boy world. Joel never seemed like the type to get really serious. But by 1982 the American economy was dying, the cocaine was draining, the blood was spilling and the domesticity was burning hot. Not to mention John Lennon had been dead a few years. That made a major impact on Joel.

So “The Nylon Curtain” is the perfect storm, the kind that lifts Joel from fun mainstream showman to actual songwriter to be taken seriously. There’s “Allentown,” the weightless pop song heavy in foreshadowing and gloom, defined by a hollow sound despite its obvious pop bend. There’s “Laura,” the gritting experiment in echo that rivals most of Lennon’s work in “Plastic Ono Band.” And there’s “Pressure,” a sonically cutting song that somehow sounds pleasing to the ear. The first three songs of “The Nylon Curtain” are dark and deadly, ugly and awkward, and yet they sound incredible. The perfect storm.

Joel’s aim with “The Nylon Curtain” was to get serious, to position himself as a voice of his generation. While “Allentown” made a major social statement, and “Laura” damned with its domestic despair, and “Pressure” just kicked a whole lot of ass at the right time, “Goodnight Saigon” is the stunner in the middle. Sure, in retrospect it’s a tad overwrought, but in 1982 it was a major Vietnam statement, a unification of man at a time when the boomers were turning 30, needing a lift, hoping upon hope. Joel knew exactly what he was doing.

Historically Billy Joel’s albums feature some garbage in the back end, but even “The Nylon Curtain” doesn’t suffer here. “A Room of Our Own” might be the slightest track, but this hokey rock song predicted the splitsville fall of boomer couples a few years before they became vogue. “Surprises” is one of Joel’s cleaner and better pure pop epics. “She’s Right on Time” is dated but drives hard. And “Where’s the Orchestra?” is more an afterthought, but harmless.

The real stunner of the back is “Scandinavian Skies,” a trip like “Strawberry Fields Forever” that has Joel channeling Lennon again. He said at the time that Lennon influenced much of “The Nylon Curtain,” which makes obvious sense. The bleakness of the lyrics blended well with the hollow drums, the bleeding synthesizers and somewhat hazy vocals. But through all of that Joel kept a widescreen view, looking to glam up Lennon at any opportunity. And that’s when Joel’s at his best – when he’s blending Broadway with his influences. By 1982, he probably understood that. “The Nylon Curtain” is a little Lennon, a little Broadway, a little social statement and a little groove tucked into the mix. And for millions of baby boomers, the album was the medicine they craved. They needed a guy to tell them how it was and how it needed to be. That’s “The Nylon Curtain,” a dated album in retrospect, but a damn good album nonetheless. It’s the perfect storm of Billy Joel.


Billy Joel: Glass Houses
October 27, 2012, 2:45 pm
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Glass Houses
Billy Joel
Released 1980

You May Be Right: 8.8
Sometimes a Fantasy: 7.5
Don’t Ask Me Why: 8.5
It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me: 8.6
All For Leyna: 8.0
I Don’t Want to Be Alone: 6.5
Sleeping With the Television On: 7.3
C’etait Toi (You Were the One): 4.6
Close to the Borderline: 6.5
Through the Long Night: 6.2
Notes Rating: 7.25
Commercial Success: 4.6
Cultural Impact: 3.3
Influence: 2.5
Album Rating: 10.716

Imagine, just for a moment, that “52nd Street” never happened. That Billy Joel never dipped into New York seedy white man jazz for a brief spell in 1978. Now listen to “Glass Houses” … doesn’t it sound like a logical follow-up to “The Stranger”? The rock is harder, the ballads are more complex and the panache, so to say, has been dialed down to a growling adult disdain. This is much better.

Evidently Joel went harder and did “Glass Houses” for a few reasons. One is to bite  back at critics (notably Rolling Stone) who loathed his easy mainstream song and dance. But another important reason is punk. The burgeoning style, by 1980, was a force in music, and Joel must have seen his jazzy New York textures falling completely off the cliff with the likes of Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Ramones making huge moves. So he composed songs that felt punk, like the forced “Close to the Borderline” and the hokey but melodically awesome “Sometimes a Fantasy.”

It’s important to understand Joel’s idea of punk when describing these songs. “Sometimes a Fantasy” has Joel crooning like Elvis, who was as punk those days as Karen Carpenter. The song is redeemed by a crunchy, driving melody and spacious chorus, in which Joel employs a synthesizer. It seemed the synthesizer was Joel’s best friend in the face of punk.

“All For Leyna” is another song aimed at the punk bullseye, but again, that synthesizer. Joel wasn’t punk. He couldn’t be punk. He was already a well-established mainstream star, a Grammy winner with a bouffant. But Joel could grab elements of punk and employ it on a Broadway level. Remember, Joel is the best Broadway pop songwriter after Andrew Lloyd Webber. Songs like “All For Leyna” and “Sometimes a Fantasy” are punk for the theater set. They’re perfectly tailored to his style.

But those songs are the underrated gems, along with the melodic “Sleeping With the Television On” (with those cool ’50s vocal breaks), and the decent but unmemorable “I Don’t Want to Be Alone.” The real stunners in “Glass Houses” are the aims to the pop chart bullseye. If Joel was thinking punk with “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” he clearly had no idea what he was aiming for, but the song shuffles along better than anything “Grease” could’ve manufactured a few years earlier. It’s the best Buddy Holly song since the horn-rimmed one died. And oh that sax solo! Alright, Rico!

“You May Be Right” is the best track on the album, a synthesis of everything Joel was doing in 1980, aided by a hot sax solo and some growling edginess. Not to mention the little namedrop of Bed-Stuy.

Despite all that punk, or punk elements, or whatever, Joel dropped three softer songs in the mix with “Glass Houses.” One is the curiously European “Through the Long Night,” which is unremarkable and unmemorable, but not at all damaging, like other back-end album clunkers in Joel’s career. The second is “C’etait Toi (You Were the One),” which only proves that Joel should just stick to singing songs in English. The best soft track, “Don’t Ask Me Why,” is one of Joel’s finest hours, a pound-for-pound accomplishment where the kid channels Paul McCartney’s “Ram” album with a tinge of Latin influence. Compare that to “Rosalinda’s Eyes” from “52nd Street,” in which Joel shamelessly namedrops every Latin nation while thoughtlessly approving a recorder solo into the mix. There’s no comparison, obviously.

Yes, “52nd Street” was an odd detour through Joel’s adult explorations. He wanted to be sophisticated while further drawing out his New York stories. But “Glass Houses” proved that Billy Joel just need more guitars and synthesizers to make a damn fine album. Punk or not.

Billy Joel: 52nd Street
October 27, 2012, 12:00 am
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52nd Street
Billy Joel
Released 1978

Big Shot: 8.5
Honesty: 7.1
My Life: 9.0
Zanzibar: 7.7
Stiletto: 7.6
Rosalinda’s Eyes: 3.9
Half a Mile Away: 5.1
Until the Night: 5.2
52nd Street: 4.5
Notes Rating: 6.51
Commercial Success: 4.8
Cultural Impact: 2.9
Influence: 2.3
Album Rating: 9.843

After sweeping fans off their feet with “The Stranger,” winning Grammy accolades for his super-ballad “Just the Way You Are,” Billy Joel followed with a sonic extension of New York City. He followed with “52nd Street,” a speedball tucked deep in a saxophone in the middle of a dreary street created in his own slowly developing mind.

“52nd Street” is a fascinating album. Picture the music scene of 1978: Fleetwood Mac just took over the world with “Rumours” and the Eagles were dominating the charts with “Hotel California.” The Sunshine State soaked up the limelight in ASCAP-land, meaning old New York pros like Mr. Joel were clawing for respect in the face of this new tanning booth industry.  So instead of leaning toward the tasty guitar licks of those bearded Eagles, or leaning toward the peaceful harmonies of those blonde Fleetwood Macs, Joel sharpened his boyishly coy vocals and jazzed up the scene. Or, in short, he stuck to his New York guns.

The New York guns are best observed in the widescreen “Zanzibar” and “Stiletto,” two of Joel’s most underrated tracks. The former is a rumination set over electric Manhattan keys, and Joel skillfully paints himself as the eternal underdog – the Pete Rose to the world’s Yankees. It makes perfect sense: Joel’s always preferred himself a fisticuff bulldog, not a champion of wealth and class, and to wit, Joel’s adult life has seemed to follow the Rose path more than that of a Dimaggio. But “Zanzibar,” with Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, smokes, as does “Stiletto,” which creeps like the Son of Sam under a vocal about a killer gal. That saxophone is sumptuous.

But like the subject in “Zanzibar,” these songs miss the headlines thanks to two of Joel’s mammoth hits, “Big Shot” and “My Life.” The former has a bite while the latter is Joel’s cleanest pop hit yet. Armed with an organ-like keyboard, Joel delivers one of his finest vocals in “My Life,” which became a theme song for “Bosom Buddies” and an eternal theme song for the rebellious yuppie-to-be. (Fun fact: Peter Cetera is on background vocals!)

These four tunes tower high over the rest of “52nd Street,” which suffers from exactly what Joel was trying to accomplish in 1978: delivering a huge album that still sounds like New York City. Here’s the fact, though: By 1978, New York City was  a cesspool. People didn’t want New York City. They ran from the blackout. “The Stranger” and “Turnstiles” won with innocent charm. Joel seemed completely in love with those New York City visions. “52nd Street” is the loser’s New York, and by the back end of the album, Joel doesn’t seem to like it all that much. He’s merely forcing it down our throats.

Of course, “Honesty” isn’t bad. It’s pretty much a standard ballad dripping with just a bit too much sentimentality. Maybe Joel was gunning to repeat “Just the Way You Are.” But again, while the Grammy winner seemed natural and coy, “Honesty” sounds like a guy forcing the issue.

Honestly (ha) the more we say about the back end, the better. “Until the Night” is the best sonic track of the three, and the melody is nice, but Joel goes with his lowest register, pandering like some lonely street crooner. “Rosalinda Eyes” has Joel dropping Herald Square over some shiny 1970s Latin production, or, a production of a Latin jazz song done by a bunch of mustached white men. Oh, yeah, there’s a horrible recorder solo in there. In a Latin jazz song. Recorder.

“52nd Street” won the Grammy for Album of the Year, probably based completely on the success of his “Stranger” singles and both “Big Shot” and “My Life.” This proves Grammy voters in 1980 (when he won) weren’t much different from Grammy voters of 2012. These folks were fooled into thinking a jazzy and adult Billy Joel was the best Billy Joel. That’s just false. It would take some time for Mr. Joel to grow into his songs, and as of 1978, he was unquestionably more comfortable writing about the underdog as the underdog, and not about the underdog as the guy who just won the hearts and minds of an entire superpower nation.

Billy Joel: The Stranger
May 28, 2008, 11:30 pm
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The Stranger

Billy Joel
Released 1977

Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song): 8.7
The Stranger: 7.5
Just the Way You Are: 9.4
Scenes From an Italian Restaurant: 8.6
Vienna: 7.2
Only the Good Die Young: 8.4
She’s Always a Woman: 8.1
Get it Right the First Time: 6.5
Everybody Has a Dream: 5.7
Notes Rating: 7.78
Commercial Success: 4.4
Cultural Impact: 3.6
Influence: 2.8
Album Rating: 11.380

Now comfortable in New York, Billy Joel cut an album seeping with the city’s tasty, critical cream. The not-so-subtle hints are all over — from Anthony’s mulling about moving to Hackensack-ack-ack-ack-ack-ack to that old familiar place with those wine bottles. But the subtle hints are there too — the Little Italy flourish of “Vienna,” the outer-skirts innocence of the melody of “Only the Good Die Young.” It’s delicious, all of it.

The Stranger is Billy Joel’s masterpiece, ‘nough said. It beats everything in his catalogue. It’s the album he was destined to create. Start with “Scenes,” the song he was destined to create. The multi-part piece is “Happiness is a Warm Gun” for romantics. Yes, you feel as if you’re there with Joel as the saxophones coo you. Lines like “a couple of paintings from Sears” are those magic lines that have you envisioning Brenda and Eddie scratching their heads over paintings in Sears, circa 1975.

Joel’s somewhat misogynistic masterwork, “She’s Always a Woman,” merely celebrates why men can’t figure women out. Really, it’s the theme song for all men. They should just play this to their new ladies upon consummating the relationship. Joel’s voice sounds maturely guarded, absolutely the route he should’ve taken. But then, before it, in “Only the Good Die Young,” Joel sounds rippingly excited and aroused. Absolutely the route he should’ve taken.

Other highlights include “Movin’ Out” with it’s gracefully zig-zaggy storytelling (and we all dig the ack-ack-ack-ack-ack stuff). “The Stranger” is the best title piece Joel would handle, a very good summation of what the whole album was going for — tough around the edges, very scared, maturing, kind of rocking. Let’s not forget “Vienna,” that cute little Italian-style track that creeps in and out of your head quickly, but has a wonderful lasting message of “life is short, take your time.”

Oh yeah, then there’s “Just the Way You Are,” the big record-of-the-year classic. Beautiful love song. Doesn’t do a lot for me after 30 years, but so many people embrace it, so we know it’s a great song.

I’ve always enjoyed “Get it Right the First Time” because it breezes in and out like “Vienna,” but with more of a pop bend. And it’s a cute song about making a first impression. A song about making a first impression shouldn’t be heavy, and this isn’t. It’s just as nice, if not better, than “All You Wanna Do is Dance.” “Everybody Has a Dream” is the only really forced thing Joel puts to wax — a real gospel-charged track where Joel tries to be big and above his own knowledge. Doesn’t quite work, but it’s nice to listen to. The repetition of “The Stranger”s main melody afterward makes little sense, if only to be one of those McCartney-esque “this is a concept album, sort of” moves.

Let’s be real here — this is a hell of an album. So many listenable tracks — in fact, they all are. And that’s the big accomplishment here for Joel. No other album of his is totally listenable. Turnstiles is close, but it has “James.” The Nylon Curtain falls off a bit in the back. An Innocent Man has that wrecthed Christie Lee and close-to-wretched “Careless Talk.” You get the picture. But for this album Joel was on his A-game almost all the time. The few setbacks aren’t bad songs at all. Everything works, flows nicely and remains strong 30 years later. Probably because he was comfortable, writing about stuff he could write about at the time. It’s one of the best albums of the 1970s and, no matter what some critics may say, is a definite testament to Joel’s gifts as a songwriter and performer.

Billy Joel: Turnstiles
October 29, 2007, 10:45 pm
Filed under: Billy Joel

Billy Joel
Released 1976

Say Goodbye to Hollywood: 8.0
Summer, Highland Falls: 7.6
All You Wanna Do is Dance: 6.3
New York State of Mind: 9.2
James: 4.1
Prelude/Angry Young Man: 7.8
I’ve Loved These Days: 7.2
Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway): 8.0
Overall Rating: 7.27

So, Billy Joel moved from New York to Los Angeles, seeking success as a singer/songwriter/pianist. Piano Man gave him one good hit (and another modest brush on the Billboard canvas), then Streetlight Serenade gave him another small hit, but not much else. Most of all, the man just sounded uninspired doing mock-Elton John Western yarns and “smart” LA pop. So, back to New York he came, hoping to find that inspiration.

Boy, did he find it.

Face it, Billy Joel is a New York songster, no doubt. He prefers big, sweeping, dramatic pushes and movements. He wants it all, craves the spotlight, has an ego larger than anyone this side of Kanye West. The guy is a maniac, even; most of all, he’s a gifted music writer. (I’ll err on the side of caution with “songwriter,” however, this album is his best songwriter’s album) In New York, back where he belongs, back where he knows the streets, he flourishes. And Turnstiles is the New York album, a record with all the trimmings, and it deserved to launch Joel’s career of superstardom.

Joel opens the record with the Spector-esque “Say Goodbye to Hollywood,” a song Bruce Springsteen would cover later on. Which makes a load of sense. This song seemed to have been written by Spector (a Bronx kid who moved to L.A.) for Springsteen (a blue collar East Coast kid). Joel even slightly apes the Ronettes. And why not? A perfect mirror image and loving tribute to Spector, to New York, to L.A., to music.

From there, Joel ventures everywhere. “Summer Highland Falls” is Joel’s most well-written song, a soothing piano-driven song reflecting on the past. Lines don’t get better than: “Now I have seen that sad surrender in my lover’s eyes/but I can only stand apart and sympathize.” Alliteration is key! And he adds that flute for good measure (Billy Joel never met a good brass instrument he didn’t like).

“All You Wanna Do is Dance” is Latin-tinged, for lack of a better term. It’s very 1976 McCartney-ish too (as is “Summer,” which even echoes “For No One”). Billy really digs on ’70s culture worse in “I’ve Loved These Days,” which has this almost gloomy, tortured feel to it. And there’s that french horn! Brass yet again!

Sadly, though, Billy gives us “James,” which just brings down the record a good step or two. It’s way too adult contemporary, way too boring (even though the writing isn’t bad). He’d revisit this electric piano thing in “Rosalita’s Eyes” to almost similar success. Doesn’t this guy learn?

Luckily, he rescues us with “Angry Young Man” (“Prelude” you can ignore, as it’s basically just one song here). Rumbling pianos, electric guitars and stumbling drums give way to one of Joel’s more inspired lyrics. It’s “Captain Jack” for the more mature set.

The two major “New York” parts of the album are explicit. “New York State of Mind” ends side one tremendously, a standard beyond standards that, as a youngster, thought was written back in the 1940s. Joel’s vocal is — yes, inspired. He’s coy but incredibly fond of his town. He missed it dearly. Throw in little nods to the town rags (“Times” and “Daily News”) and some neighborhoods (Chinatown, Riverside), and you got an anthem for 8 million strong.

“Miami 2017,” though, is my standout, a song Joel wrote as a science fiction tale of New York getting completely demolished (another McCartney parallel: it’s positioned just like his “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five,” isn’t it?). It builds tremendously, cites New York’s landmarks and boroughs even more than “State of Mind” and just absolutely rocks. Of course, it’s one of music’s most premonitive songs — “I saw the ruins at my feet”/“I watched the mighty skyline fall”/“I saw the empire state lay low” — although Sept. 11 didn’t quite shut down New York, the themes strike a chord. The key line, however: “But we went right on with the show.”

Which sums up Billy Joel quite nicely. The man could be under a firestorm of crap, but he’ll go right on with the show. Turnstiles finally showed that to the world, and he rewarded the world’s notice kindly with The Stranger.