Elton John & Bernie Taupin Tribute CDs “Revamp” & “Restoration” Evoke Different Responses

JohnAlbumCovers

Earlier this year, the legendary pianist, vocalist and performer Elton John announced that, after 50 years on the road as a musician, he would be retiring from the road. There’s plenty of reason to believe John when he says this – he’s never even mentioned the idea of quitting prior to 2018 and seems quite happy performing (his residency in Las Vegas was one of the hottest seats in town). The announcement of his retirement disappointed many of his longtime fans and made interest in his concert tour more special that simply being able to see the virtuoso.

Along with his farewell tour, John has also been feted with not one but two new CDs from artists paying tribute to the songwriting of John and his studio partner, Bernie Taupin. This isn’t the first time that the duo has gotten this treatment; back in 1991, they were the subject of a tribute album called Two Rooms: Celebrating the Songs of Elton John & Bernie Taupin (the title of the CD reflected the fact that John and Taupin often worked separately on songs, with John coming up with the music and Taupin writing the lyrics in…two rooms). The record featured artists as diverse as The Who, Kate Bush, Oleta Adams, The Beach Boys, Wilson Phillips and Bruce Hornsby (his version of “Madman Across the Water” is nearly as good as the original) and their take on some of the classic music from John & Taupin.

JohnTaupin

With John calling an end to his touring days, it seems natural for another trip down memory lane and instead of one CD, fans get two. There’s a reason for this:  one CD, called Revamp, is filled with the top artists from the pop world and their renditions of popular John/Taupin tunes, and the other CD, called Restoration, features the best in current country music taking their shots at saluting John/Taupin. Surprisingly, it is the country side that wins out the “reimaging” (why not just “tribute”) battle between the two CDs.

Revamp kicks off with a snippet of John performing “Bennie and the Jets” before segueing into rapper Logic and P!nk joining forces for a rap/pop version of the tune. The twosome takes the classic song and make it their own, entertaining the listener and offering hopes that the remainder of the CD will be as adventurous. Unfortunately, that doesn’t come to be as pretty much every other song on the disc holds close to the original renditions.

Coldplay’s “We All Fall in Love Sometimes” falls flat, never even coming close to inspiring the listener, but Alessia Cara attempts to redeem that performance with a well-done version of “I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues.” Ed Sheeran turns “Candle in the Wind (2018)” into a folksy tune and Florence + the Machine hold serve with “Tiny Dancer.” Mumford & Sons (“Someone Saved My Life Tonight”) shows up for a so-so rendition before the top two performances take the CD.

Mary J. Blige demonstrates some very powerful vocals in tearing into “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” and really does make the song hers. By far the top song on the album is the collaboration between rapper Q-Tip and Demi Lovato, who take the classic tune John performed with Kiki Dee, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” and stand it on its head. Where the original tune was a piece of pop pablum, Q and Lovato turn it into a reggae/R&B mixed effort that comes off fabulously. Their approach wouldn’t have worked on any other song from the John/Taupin catalog, so it was outstanding that the right performers and song were matched up. Although Miley Cyrus (“Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”) and Lady Gaga (“Your Song”) cover their respective tunes admirably, the Killers (“Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters”), Sam Smith (“Daniel”) and Queens of the Stone Age (“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” possibly the worst effort on the CD), come up short on their work.

Revamp is devoid of the artists taking their chances at recreating John/Taupin classics. For the most part, they stuck to the material and, while enjoyable, I’d rather see them stretch a bit and attempt something new. This doesn’t make Revamp bad, it’s just it pales in comparison to its companion disc.

LittleBigTown

Surprisingly, it is the country artists that take part in the tribute on Restoration that take the most chances in their interpretations of John & Taupin’s songs. From the start of the CD, with Little Big Town delivering a daring rendition of “Rocket Man,” the country artists seem to be more comfortable with deviating from the originals. The country artists also delve deeper into the John/Taupin catalog than the pop artists did.

Although there is a repeated song – Maren Morris’ OK version of “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” – and a repeated artist – Miley Cyrus shows up again to give a so-so performance of “The Bitch is Back” – the other artists take some chances with some deep cuts from the John/Taupin catalog. The Brothers Osborne deliver a stunning rocking version of “Take Me to the Pilot” and country legend Willie Nelson contributes a well-done version of “Border Song,” but other artists stretch their legs.

This isn’t to say they all hit the mark. Don Henley and Vince Gill give up an uninspired version of “Sacrifice” and Lee Ann Womack’s start slow/finish strong version of “Honky Cat” are a bit of a disappointment, but they are more than made up in such choices as Miranda Lambert (“My Father’s Gun”), Chris Stapleton (“I Want Love”) and Kacey Musgraves (“Roy Rogers”). Two duets bear special mention because of their uniqueness, the Rhonda Vincent/Dolly Parton collaboration on “Please” and Roseanne Cash and Emmylou Harris’ stirring rendition of “This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore.”

CashHarris

For its sheer daring and stylistic changes, Restoration comes out as the better CD than Revamp. It could have been for the fact that the pop singers weren’t as well versed in Elton John’s music or that they didn’t feel comfortable taking such songs and making them their “style.” It really seemed that the country artists understood John and Taupin’s works much better, displayed in the chances they took in song choices and the way they were performed. While you can’t go wrong with either one (nor the original Two Rooms…in fact, ownership of all three is well worth having in the catalog), it is clear to see that one is better than the other.

Advertisements

2016 Grammys: Who Will Win? Who Should Win?

Grammys

By now, most of you might have learned something about my background. If not, for 20-odd years of my life I worked in the radio industry as a music director and DJ. I worked in pretty much every format that you could imagine and reached what was, at that time, one of the Top 75 markets in the United States in North Carolina, a pretty nice achievement. I was also reaching that age that, if you weren’t working as the program director, in other areas of station management or on the morning or afternoon drive teams, you weren’t going to be sticking around the industry for much longer. Thus came one day when I woke up and decided to move on rather than have the door hit me in the ass somewhere down the road.

The love affair that I’ve had with the Grammys dates back prior to my days in radio, back to my love for music overall (something else that I’ve written about here) in my youth. As I grew up, the artists that I saw on television or heard on the radio became the things that I looked for in the record stores and tried to learn about through other media. In doing this, I also learned to find out about new music and artists and try to figure out what would be the “next big thing” in music. When it became a career in radio, that love of music made it seem more fun than actually having a job could ever be.

Time has gone on and, even though I don’t have a radio job that requires that I know every intimate detail about an artist as I used to have to know, I still love the music industry. I’d go back on the radio – even satellite radio (a gig on Radio Margaritaville or some of the other channels on SiriusXM Radio would be nirvana) – in a heartbeat if someone offered me a gig. Thus, when Grammys Weekend rolls around, you know where I will be come Monday evening and the awards show.

The artists that are nominated this year aren’t necessarily my favorites – and one, Taylor Swift, I would rather listen to two cats fighting in a box made of chalkboards and filled with aluminum foil than listen to – but even now I am still knowledgeable about their work. Therefore, I’ve scanned the Crystal Ball to see who will win the Grammys for the biggest prizes of the night and I will also offer up who I believe should have won the Grammy. To be honest, sometimes the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) is completely off base, either going too artistic or not really honoring the best work from the year…more often, it’s not honoring the best work of the year!

Lamar

ALBUM OF THE YEAR

Sound & Color, Alabama Shakes
To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar
1989, Taylor Swift
Traveller, Chris Stapleton
Beauty Behind the Madness, The Weeknd

Who Should Win:  While I am partial to Alabama Shakes and Brittany Howard’s bluesy guitar and howling-wolf vocals, Lamar would be the best artistic choice out of this mix. Lamar’s album dominated the R&B charts for the year and “Alright” was an excellent tune. I could also go for Stapleton or The Weeknd…anyone but who will probably get it.

Who Will Win:  Swift was basically shut out of the Grammys last year as “Shake it Off” won her exactly ZERO awards. The problem here is that Alabama Shakes and Singleton are basically going to cut up one side of the vote – the “rocker” vote – and Lamar and The Weeknd are going to divvy up the R&B side of the equation. That leaves the lane wide open for Swift to slip through the cracks (and she can do that easy – I’ve seen more curves on a 2X4) and steal this award. It would also shut up her fan base that says the Grammys don’t “respect” her as an artist (there’s a reason for that…Swift ISN’T one!).

RECORD OF THE YEAR

“Really Love,” D’Angelo and the Vanguard
“Uptown Funk!” Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars
“Thinking Out Loud,” Ed Sheeran
“Blank Space,” Taylor Swift
“Can’t Feel My Face,” The Weeknd

Who Should Win:  I said it when it came out that “Uptown Funk!” was one of the catchiest pieces of music that I’ve ever heard; for the Grammy voters not to recognize Ronson and Mars for their work here would be unforgiveable.

Who Will Win:  I think the Grammy voters will agree with me here. The only problem is that the song may have been too far back in memory for some to recall how good it was. I could see The Weeknd possibly taking this or, in a real surprise, Sheeran for his ballad (the Grammy voters do like themselves a ballad to vote for).

SONG OF THE YEAR

“See You Again,” Wiz Khalifa featuring Charlie Puth
“Alright,” Kendrick Lamar
“Girl Crush,” Little Big Town
“Blank Space,” Taylor Swift
“Thinking Out Loud,” Ed Sheeran

Who Should Win:  The song that got me this year was the Khalifa/Puth duet from the movie Furious 7. The song’s usage, coupled with the death of actor Paul Walker, made it a tremendously poignant song and one that had an impact on many people. It was such a heart-wrencher that, during the People’s Choice Awards, actor Vin Diesel broke into song – and tears – singing this song to honor Walker as he accepted the award for Best Film.

Who Will Win:  If he is overlooked on the Album of the Year race, this is where Grammy voters will try to make it up to Lamar. It is also possible that this could be said to Sheeran, too, should he not win Record of the Year.

BEST NEW ARTIST

Courtney Barnett
James Bay
Sam Hunt
Tori Kelly
Meghan Trainor

Who Should Win:  Tori Kelly has perhaps the richest voice that I’ve heard in quite some time. She’s probably going to be the artist that has the best career out of this bunch, but that doesn’t mean anything right now. This is a category that once honored A Taste of Honey over Elvis Costello and The Cars, remember that.

Who Will Win:  It’s Trainor’s award to lose. She’s by far had the most commercial success with “All About That Bass” and her debut album and she does bring that “doo wop meets hip hop” sound that Grammy voters think is so unique (sorry, my sarcasm monster escaped). There’s sometimes you shouldn’t combine musical genres and this is one of them.

BEST POP VOCAL ALBUM

Piece by Piece, Kelly Clarkson
How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, Florence + The Machine
Uptown Special, Mark Ronson
1989, Taylor Swift
Before This World, James Taylor

Who Should Win:  Readers will know that I have a tremendous admiration for Florence +The Machine and they should win this award hands down. How Big…, from start to finish, was the most complete work that the band has ever done and should be recognized (also wonder why it isn’t nominated in the Alternative category, but I digress). I’ve also enjoyed Clarkson for years, but this last album wasn’t her best work.

Who Will Win: Once again, if Swift doesn’t get any of the “big” awards, this would fall to her as a consolation prize. I could also see the Grammy voters pulling a fast one here, though.

James Taylor getting nominated in this category would be prime for one of those idiotic moments in Grammy history when someone is honored WAY past their prime (don’t get me wrong, this isn’t to say Taylor’s latest album isn’t any good, it just isn’t his best work) for their career. Other examples of this would be Steely Dan’s 2001 Grammy win for Album of the Year for Two Against One (over more deserving subjects as Eminem, Paul Simon, Radiohead and Beck) and the inaugural Hard Rock/Metal Performance Vocal or Instrumental Grammy in 1989, which went to Jethro Tull over Metallica (still one of the greatest tragedies in Grammy voting).

BEST ROCK ALBUM

Chaos and the Calm, James Bay
Kintsugi, Death Cab for Cutie
Mister Asylum, Highly Suspect
Drones, Muse
.5:  The Gray Chapter, Slipknot

Who Should Win:  One of the breakout bands of 2016, Highly Suspect should be the ones who walk on the stage on Monday night to pick up this award. Other than Best New Artist, however, Grammy voters are wont to giving out accolades to newcomers (unless said newcomer just blows everyone out of the water); they are more apt to vote for those that have paid their dues in the business. Hence…

Who Will Win:  This is an easy one for Muse to take home. Although Drones is quite a distance from their best work (I’ve always been partial to The Resistance myself), Muse has put the required time in and it is their time to be rewarded. With only one Grammy win, Slipknot (2006 for Best Metal Performance for “Before I Forget”) might also be in the mix.

BEST ALTERNATIVE MUSIC ALBUM

Sound & Color, Alabama Shakes
Vulnicura, Bjork
The Waterfall, My Morning Jacket
Currents, Tame Impala
Star Wars, Wilco

Who Should Win:  I have to admit, I haven’t given this band much of a listen, but many in the industry say that Tame Impala is one of the big up and comers in the Alternative scene. Perhaps when I see them come up on Sirius XM I’ll give them a stronger listen because, at this point, they really have failed to grasp my attention – but, then again, I might not be the audience that they are targeting!

Who Will Win:  Once again, we come back to one of those “if you don’t…/then you will…” situations. If Alabama Shakes doesn’t garner Album of the Year, this is going to be their consolation prize.

KaseyMusgraves

BEST COUNTRY ALBUM

Montevallo, Sam Hunt
Pain Killer, Little Big Town
The Blade, Ashley Monroe
Pageant Material, Kacey Musgraves
Traveller, Chris Stapleton

Who Should Win:  In her sophomore effort, Musgraves has shown she is going to be a force to be reckoned with on the country music scene (and one of the few country artists that I like). She could have stuck close to what won her the Best Country Album Grammy in 2013 (for Same Trailer Different Park) but Musgraves instead chose to challenge herself by moving in a more artistic direction both lyrically and musically. In a genre that likes its artists to stay in their lanes, Musgraves is pretty refreshing.

Who Will Win:  Unfortunately for Musgraves, Stapleton is kind of unseating her in the “individuality” streak. A longtime bluegrass and country musician and writer who backed up such diverse artists as Adele and Brad Paisley and written songs with Peter Frampton, Sheryl Crow and Vince Gill, Stapleton finally decided to step out from the shadows and show himself. The resulting effort was Traveller which, if it doesn’t garner any big awards, should see the country side of the aisle recognize his efforts at the minimum.

ChrisStapleton

So what do you see as the big awards for the Grammys come Monday night? Or will you even be watching? Who knows, we may see Lady Gaga, during her tribute to late, legendary David Bowie, actually come out dressed as the Thin White Duke himself!

It’s Time for the VMAs, But Who Really Cares?

On Sunday evening, something that used to be a “calendar” event in the music industry will take to the Microsoft Theater (formerly the Nokia Theater) stage in Los Angeles, CA. For the 32nd consecutive year, the MTV Video Music Awards will take place, honoring the best video work in the recording industry and the performers who have given us their best (?). In reality, however, the MTV “VMAs” and their “Moonman” award have become a gauche award because nobody really cares about them anymore.

When MTV hit the airwaves in 1981 (in fact, on August 1 the station celebrated its 34th anniversary), it was a brazen broadside against the staid, stoic music industry and the radio industry and stations that would “make or break” careers in a heartbeat. The first video aired on MTV, The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” seemed like a four-minute manifesto of what was the intent of the new channel. Record companies and their artists for years had put together promotional videos that, for the most part, were only seen by a handful of people at the record companies and in the radio industry. When MTV came along, that suddenly changed.

Bringing together these hundreds of videos (literally…pretty much anything on MTV in the early days was seen quite often due to the lack of material), MTV slowly built an audience and, at the same time, became the place where new artists made their breakthroughs. Such artists as Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Men at Work, Bow Wow Wow, Duran Duran and the Human League were getting their attention not through traditional radio play but from the constant airing of their music videos on MTV. The biggest move by MTV in its early years may have been the exposure it gave to black artists. Eddy Grant, Musical Youth and a young man embarking on a solo career by the name of Michael Jackson (among others) benefitted greatly from the exposure that MTV provided.

It also had a way of destroying careers. The 1981 Grammy Awards were dominated by a Texas newcomer named Christopher Cross, who earned the top four awards (Record of the Year for his eponymous LP, Album of the Year, Song of the Year for “Sailing” and Best New Artist) and seemed poised for a long career in the music industry. Due to his pedestrian features and roly-poly physique, however, Cross wasn’t the typical “MTV artist” and he quickly disappeared from the scene following his sweep.

A couple of years into their existence, however, the honchos at MTV were faced with with the dilemma of continuing to grow the channel and coming up blank. In 1984, the powers that be at MTV came up with what they thought would be the cure (no, not the band). Producing their first ever MTV Video Music Awards, the channel looked to give the same gravitas to music videos that the Grammys bestow on music or the Oscars give to cinema. Over the years, the show has provided MTV with some of its most outlandish moments while also being its most watched event.

Who doesn’t remember Madonna’s rendition of “Like a Virgin” at the very first VMAs? Or Madonna’s girl-girl smooch with the randy Britney Spears in 2003? How about Kanye West barging in on Taylor Swift’s “Moonman” acceptance speech in 2009 (one of the few times I actually felt sorry for Swift)? The clothes, the music and sometimes even the videos made the MTV Video Music Awards a spectacle for the youth of the era. Over the past few years, though, the futility of the VMAs has been mentioned and whether it is the iconic “happening” that it was in its earlier incarnation.

Part of the reason for that is in the maturation of MTV itself. About 15 years ago, MTV decided that it wanted to be more of a lifestyle channel for the young and hip rather than concentrate on music alone. To achieve this goal, MTV began to put on its airwaves things that weren’t the “traditional” fare for the channel. A host of reality and game shows were the start, followed by fashion and “home” shows (anyone remember “Cribs”?).

The reality trend that took over in the 21st century allowed MTV to pretty much switch over to just the reality shows, including the vapid Jersey Shore and other scripted programming (none worth mentioning). Lost in the mix? Music videos, the thing that borne the channel (part of that was in the fact that the record companies, looking to tap another potential revenue stream, wanted to start charging MTV for showing the previously “promotional” videos). Hence, here you have a channel which was formerly the “groundbreaking” arena for exposing new artists through their music videos – in fact, naming their station AFTER MUSIC TELEVISION – not even showing them anymore.

Videos themselves also seem to have disappeared for the most part. Back in 1982, Duran Duran released Rio, their second album. Using the new MTV format, the group was sent by their record company, EMI, to Sri Lanka and Antigua to film an unheard of 11 videos for the record. Those videos not only served to be a major part of the programming for MTV in its early years, it also established Duran Duran as megastars in the music industry and provided the group with a career that still exists today.

Today, videos are seldom done and, if they are, it isn’t for promotional purposes. More often than not, they are done by popular artists that have no need to garner additional airplay for their efforts (think of why Swift, who has somehow crafted a career in music, continues to put out videos that no one has ever seen) or as a “vanity project.” There isn’t a purpose anymore for the music video because there isn’t an outlet for it to air on (sorry, YouTube doesn’t count).

Which brings us back to this year’s VMAs. Of the nominees that are on the list, I’ve seen exactly two of the videos – Mark Ronson’s collaboration with Bruno Mars on “Uptown Funk” (outstanding song, great video and it probably won’t win shit on Sunday) and Florence and the Machine’s “Ship to Wreck” (a band I can’t get enough of that also won’t sniff a “Moonman”). The rest could be cartoons for all I know because there isn’t an outlet to show them anymore. The untalented Swift is nominated for nine awards while Ed Sheeran has six, with a smattering between Nicki Minaj, Kendrick Lamar and Beyonce and the “Video Vanguard Award” (think Lifetime Achievement Award) being handed to West.  Without an outlet, however, why hand out awards for something that will basically become a popularity contest?

Imagine, if you will, Hollywood continuing to crank out movies and television shows but every theater on Earth not showing them and no television networks to put the shows on? (This one could become reality with the advent of Netflix, Amazon Instant Video and Hulu starting to film their own projects.) Would there still be a slew of awards shows for basically something that doesn’t exist anymore?

As a former DJ and music aficionado, I used to sit with bated breath each year for the VMAs (and the Grammys, for that matter), not only to know who won what but for the outstanding musical performances that it brought to its stage (never enough rock, always too much pop). Nowadays the videos are all things that I haven’t seen and the “musicians” (and that term is a stretch in many cases) and their music are so over-produced they cannot perform their music live. Thus, you have to wonder if anyone even cares about the MTV VMAs anymore.

Sure, there will be some prepubescent teenagers who will watch as Miley Cyrus, this year’s host, tries to show how “adult” she is through some pseudo-sexual act she’ll perform onstage; Swift will still constantly look like a deer in headlights as she facetiously mouths “Me? Me?” after winning her umpteenth award and there will probably be some spat – usually between warring rap parties – that blows up backstage into a story. It’s time for MTV’s Video Music Awards for 2015, but does anybody really care anymore?