Album of the Week 51-2012: Elton John & Leon Russell – The Union


Alex Mulder, my bandmate in Chaos Asylum, once noted that Elton John’s artistic triumph ended roughly around the same time the taboo on his homosexuality did. No necessary causal relation there, but it’s definitely true that the days of the fantastic ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ were far behind him at that point. The best album with his involvement, however, came about two years ago. This isn’t just his album however: it is as much Leon Russell’s album. Since both are great pianists and I hold Russell in very high regard as both a multi-instrumentalist and a songwriter, my expectations for ‘The Union’ were sky high. Luckily they were met.

Maybe a little background information is in place here. Elton John was an admirer of Russell and regularly sharing the bill with him on tours during the glorious seventies. When John was emotionally overwhelmed upon hearing one of Russell’s songs, he contacted Russell about recording an album. And T-Bone Burnett, as his role as this album’s producer is indispensible. His rootsy approach has graced many amazing albums over the last few years; B.B. King’s ‘One Kind Favor’ and Gregg Allman’s ‘Low Country Blues’ spring to mind immediately. The result: an album that breathes passion and joy. Even during the more bittersweet moments.

The lion’s share of the album is centered around the two voices and pianos of the protagonists weaving brilliant melodies. That may not sound as enough to stay interesting for over 70 minutes, but it does. The two pianos move all over the musical spectrum, from Americana ballads, through Blues and touches of Jazz, via ornate Gospel to the odd Rock song. And it’s equally brilliant, as the albums highlights are cross-genre as well; the stomping Rock rhythms of ‘Hey Ahab’, a song which is mainly led by Elton John, save for the chorus which features both men sharing vocals, ‘Gone To Shiloh’ is a beautifully subdued song with John, Russell and Neil Young alternating verses, Russell’s ‘I Should Have Sent Roses’ is a spine-chilling ballad which balances between Blues and Americana and has a magical chorus, ‘There’s No Tomorrow’ has an atmosphere almost reminiscent of Negro spirituals, ‘My Kinda Hell’ is a soulful Pop song and ‘Mandalay Again’ and ‘When Love Is Dying’ sound like they could have been sung by one of the great crooners. And Russell’s ‘If It Wasn’t For Bad’ is just the perfect opener, marrying Blues idiom with brilliant melodies.

Part of my compliments about this album should go to the fantastic backing band as well. Jim Keltner had worked with Russell on some of his most high-profile past endeavors – ‘The Concert For Bangladesh’, ‘Mad Dogs And Englishmen’ – and is a perfect fit for this album’s style, Booker T. Jones (of The M.G.’s) decorates some of the songs with his impeccable Hammond playing and I’d like to specifically mention Marc Ribot, whose rootsy guitar solos are downright goosebumps inducing highlights of the album. The band never gets in the way of Russell and John and only enhances the music when strictly necessary, which is the essence of a brilliant session band.

Every once in a while, a record comes out that just oozes with the love of the music that is presented. Those records need to be heard and cherished. ‘The Union’ is one of those moments. And like Elton John, I hope it’s enough to reawaken some interest in the genius that is Leon Russell.

Recommended tracks: ‘Hey Ahab’, ‘If It Wasn’t For Bad’, ‘I Should Have Sent Roses’, ‘Gone To Shiloh’

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