Thursday, June 12, 2008

Random Review: Billy Joel's Storm Front

The random review segment will be a recurring 'I've got nothing important to say right now' post. Since it's rare that I DO have anything important to say, expect to see quite a lot of random reviews. Basically, how I plan on working this is to start a post, much like this one, and at some point in the post, when I'm ready to begin the Random Review, I'll review whatever album is currently playing my my iPod. The 'Pod is set to play songs randomly, and is currently surfing through my 'Rock Snob' playlist which includes 785 tracks.
The current track playing is The Downeaster Alexa off of Billy Joel's Storm Front album. iPod has spoken. Let the random review begin!

Album: Storm Front
Artist: Billy Joel
Original Release: October, 1989
1. That's Not Her Style
2. We Didn't Start The Fire
3. The Downeaster 'Alexa'
4. I Go To Extremes
5. Shameless
6. Storm Front
7. Leningrad
8. State of Grace
9. When In Rome
10. And So It Goes

Overview: Of Billy's 12 studio albums, the first that springs to most people's minds is The Stranger, and rightfully so. Released in 1977, it plays like a culmination of all of Billy's musical influences. He channeled The Beatles on Scenes from an Italian Restaurant, he gave a nod to his often more commercially successful softer side on She's Always a Woman, gave props to 50's greaser rock on Movin' Out (Anthony's Song), and reminded us that there was substance beneath the thin pop veneer on the title track.

I only mention it because Storm Front is a good album, but The Stranger it is not.

Unlike his earlier opus, each track on Storm Front is more stand alone than part of a whole overarching story. While that's not necessarily a bad thing, it's certainly a different feel, and in some ways it's beyond just a standard collection of stand alone songs, it's almost disjointed in some ways. Transitioning from a slightly more grown up, but still heavily popped-out follow up to Uptown Girl with That's Not Her Style straight into a forward thinking angst anthem that would have fit in nicely with the grunge scene soon to hit in the 90's with We Didn't Start The Fire, Billy sets the tone to be, well, I guess the nice way to say it would be 'eclectic' but in some ways it seems more 'schizophrenic'. Kind of like ABC getting beat up by Nirvana while Wham cowers in the corner and hides.
Don't get me wrong, there's charm in that, and what's more, it shows that the forward thinking of the album didn't just extend to the subject matter of WDSTF, but continued in the flow of the entire release. Storm Front was released at the front end of the CD boom, and for the first time, listeners could at the push of a button select whatever track they wanted to listen to. Gone were the days of fast-forwarding and rewinding to catch the first few bars of the tune you were looking for. Gone were the days of surgeon like precision, trying to catch that sweet blank spot between the grooves on your LP. Don't even get me started on 8-tracks. Why the hell would you consider a format that could be fast-forwarded, but not rewound? I spent many an hour fast forwarding over and over again to find the exact right second to start playback on The Associations Greatest Hits. I guess that's what I get for trying to throw Never My Love on a mix tape for an 11 year old girl... In 1989... Needless to say my efforts when unrewarded. In the 80's, classic rock was not the ironic form of expression it is today. Alas, I still don't get the joke... I will always enjoy the music, and I will never, EVER listen to Sweet Home Alabama unless forced. No matter how firmly I plant my tongue in my cheek.

Back to the album at hand. Here's a track by track breakdown of my impressions of Storm Front

1. That's Not Her Style- As I mentioned above, to me, this track would have been better served if Billy would have named it what it was: Uptown Girl: Part TWO Billy takes us through a five minute explanation of why his then wife Christy Brinkley isn't really the raging stereotypical vapid model dimwit she seems to be. Alas, a few years later she would break poor William's heart, and show herself to be EXACTLY the self-absorbed useless pseudo-person good old Bill is trying to downplay on this track. Hindsight is, as they say, twenty-twenty. Schucks Billy, I guess that WAS her style...

2. We Didn't Start The Fire- If a more often mis-quoted 80's staple exists, I am not aware of it. One could make a point that REM's It's The End Of The World As We Know It And I Feel Fine would be right up there as well, but the big difference is nobody pretended to know all the words to that one... We'd all just hum along until we got a chance to scream LEONARD BERNSTEIN at the top of our lungs and then go back to humming quietly. With We Didn't Start The Fire Billy issued a challenge. A challenge to see if we were really paying attention from Harry Truman and Doris Day all the way through the Rock & Roller Cola Wars we were riveted for 4:50 of sheer rebellion. Oh, and while a comma was most definitely included someplace in there, Billy really did coin the phrase 'Space Monkey Mafia'.

3. The Downeaster 'Alexa'- Yar, I know after flipping off the establishment in grand fashion by giving the youth of America a call to arms about decades of atrocities, I'm ready for a good old fashioned sea shanty! 'Downeaster' isn't exactly the next Louie, Louie it's a bit darker in theme than that, but the particulars are all there. Dude's on a boat, dude goes fishing, dude encounters a a storm, dude may never make it home. The Joelenator throws in a few lines about civil unrest amongst the Long Island Sound fishermen, and names the boat, and subsequently the song, after his daughter, but past that, It's basically 'Yo Ho, Yo Ho, a fisherman's life for me.' Like I said, disjointed, but not without merit. Tis a good song indeed ya lilly livered land lubbers... Past me the tar-tar sauce!

4. I Go To Extremes- OK. I could totally fly off the handle here, but I really DO want to point out that I can listen to this song and enjoy it pretty much any time. It's not the kind of track you want to put too much thought into, and it really was a shame that it was the followup single to the mind-bending WDSTF. All you really need to know is that Billy has friends who play guitar, and the guy can make a piano solo sound menacing. For that, it's a good song, and worth listening to... Now, for the OTHER side of this coin... Who, exactly, has EVER accused Billy Joel of 'Going To Extremes'? Was it his hard edged punk-thrash anthem Just The Way You Are? Maybe his speed metal classic Piano Man was the root cause... Hey Billy, your last name is JOEL, not IDOL... There's very little about you that would be considered 'Extreme', unless you're referring to the tightness of your pants in this video... I concur... That's a bit extreme...,,4164893,00.html

5. Shameless- Before Garth Brooks turned it into a country cliche, Billy scored a real, heartfelt 'I'm Sorry' tune, perfect for getting back in the good graces of any mistreated love... Alas, the patented Brooks twang had to come along and score 'crossover success' with a track that was already firmly ensconced in the history of Rock & Roll. You're not fooling ME Brooks... By rights, I don't think Garth ever tried to pass the tune off as his own, but my irrational anger toward him for bastardizing an otherwise great album track by slapping it with puffy paint and glitter to turn it into solid country gold will never be slaked. I don't want him DEAD per-sey, but if some rare throat altering condition occurred giving him the voice of Yackov Smirnoff for the rest of his living days than and only then will I be willing to feel that justice has properly been meted out. Long and short of it, this is a good Billy tune, and a bad, bad country cover...

In Russia, Country Music cover YOU...

6. Storm Front- I've always imagined that this album track is the story of the crew of the Downeaster Alexa after a long night of hard drinking... Everybody gets hammered, and starts 'going to extremes' as the Storm Front starts coming. I'm not sure WHY I see this as a tale of drunken sailors... Maybe it's the saxophone... Word to the wise, if you're looking for a soulful lyric about different cloud formations and weather patterns, look no further my friend... Billy's got your back...

7. Leningrad- You may have noticed a rather high level of mock in this write up for an album I SUPPOSEDLY enjoy so much. I'm here to tell you, the mocking will now cease. At least, for the few lines about this, the greatest Billy Joel song ever recorded. That's right, you heard me internet, this is it! It doesn't get better than this. You've got a heartbroken Russian clown, an American Baby-Boomer father questioning the long held hatred of the cold war, a young child caught in a world of prejudice she did not create and cannot understand. It's like the best kind of musical theater, because it's not 3 hours long! Sit back, enjoy, and for Uri's sake, LEARN something will ya?

8. State of Grace- State of Grace is about as close to reminiscent and self indulgent as I want my recording artists to get. It's got a good hook, a nice melody, some poignant lyrics, and it's 100% about Billy... I can live with that. I'd be even more impressed if he hadn't already thrown a self aggrandizing schlock heap on the front side of the album with I Go To Extremes once again I warn you... Do not stare directly into the pants... They could explode at any moment... And again, I DO like the song... Unless I THINK about it...

9. When in Rome- I'm guessing this is how this track went down... Keep in mind, the following conversation is purely fiction, but it's BASED ON TRUE EVENTS!!!
"Hey Billy, listen, we've got all these background singers still hanging out from the Storm Front recording, and I really, really wanted to capture the drunken sailor feel of the song, so, well... They're all tanked, and they can't drive home. The union says I've got to pay them for being here, so how's about we throw another saxophone and background singer track on this record huh?"
"Well, I guess we can do that... This isn't going to require that I put my 'Extreme' pants back on is it? I'm pretty sure I busted some seams getting out of them the last time..."
"Nah, normal pants aught to be fine, but we ARE going to need you to come up with a song..."
"Ahh, alright, give me a cocktail napkin will ya... Let's see... When in Rome, do as the Romans do... That aught to work. OK, lets tape this puppy and get the hell out of here..."

10. And So It Goes- Say what you will about ol' Joelsky, but the man knows how to finish an album... In one short track he manages to sum up the better part of his last decade of recording, and even, in a subtle way, seems to apologize for making us sit through When In Rome. As a wave of comfort washes over us while the final chords play, we're once again greeted with the question on the minds of every listener when an album has passed it's crescendo... Will I ever listen to this again? Luckily, dear listener, we have reached the CD age, and you can skip the crappy tracks! I must admit however, that no matter how many times I've listened to this album, I do not skip the crappy tracks... They are the glue that holds the honest art together.

So all in all, maybe I was wrong. There IS something cohesive about this recording... Billy is just reminding us that in every one's life, a few useless sax solos must fall, and the net effect is that they make the moments AROUND them so much better. Thank you Mr. Joel for yet another good turn. It's a shame he will only put out one more rock album after this one...

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