Elton JohnThe Diving Board/Capitol
Eager to make a relevant record at age 66, Elton John sought a return to his roots on “The Diving Board,” advertised as piano trio music in the vein of his marvelous early albums. But while they had energy, humor and good songs in abundance, “Board” is dull.
The 15 cuts suggest Elton and producer T-Bone Burnett weren’t fully committed to the trio concept. Bass and drums remain subdued throughout, and several songs are dressed up with strings and backup singers. Meanwhile, John plays polite piano in starchy renditions of generic ballads. There’s no “Bad Side of the Moon” here.
Longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin wrote the lyrics, which read as if he mailed them in. “I went to Paris once, I thought I had a plan, I woke up with an accent, I wound up in quicksand,” goes the chorus to “My Quicksand,” which does create a sinking feeling.
The hour-long album is heavily back loaded, and the final three cuts are the best. “Mexican Vacation (Kids in the Candlelight)” swings with a gospel feel, and the inventive instrumental, “Dream #3,” offers more surprises than anything else in the set. On the autobiographical closing title cut, Sir Elton is supported by warm horns and is convincing as a cabaret singer. It’s a better role for him than trying to reclaim his youth.
By Steven Wine, Associated Press
DrakeNothing Was the Same/Cash Money
Drake warns us what’s coming on his new album “Nothing Was the Same,” laying out a mission statement of sorts on sprawling opener “Tuscan Leather.”
“This is nothin’ for the radio/but they’ll still play it though/Cause it’s that new Drizzy Drake/that’s just the way it go.”
The most anticipated rap album of the year is here and “Nothing Was the Same” is probably nothing like you expected. Drake’s third album is introspective, practically guest free and every bit as sonically brave as Kanye West’s “Yeezus” — though not quite so abrasively bold.
Drake’s right. There are no radio cuts here, a predictable inevitability after he debuted “Started from the Bottom” last winter. That song was nothing like the music Drake released on 2011’s top album, the Grammy Award-winning “Take Care.” Yet it got stronger, more mesmerizing and meaningful with each play, and it remains among the most streamed songs in a year overstuffed with sickly sweet pop tunes.
“Take Care” was meant to be played at top volume with the windows rolled down. It was club music. The party is over now. “Nothing” is for dark rooms and headphones. There are few hooks here, almost no choruses, not much to sing along to. The heart-on-his-sleeve rapper with a million friends and the tightest of crews seems all alone here after ridding himself of fake friends, trying to sort out why all the success, the money, the drugs and the women leave him with a hollow feeling.
He tells us over the course of the album how his relationships with his family and friends, like Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj, have been strained.
The only pleasant memories seem to come from his childhood — represented by that chubby-cheeked cherub in the cover painting — and the ’90s are all over the album, serving as touchstone, reminder and measuring stick.
He references the Wu-Tang Clan in the song “Wu-Tang Forever” and in a half-dozen other places. “Nothing” is full of the kind of studied minimalism and sped-up soul vocal samples favored by RZA and his acolytes like West, who we’ll get back to in a minute. But he’s not aping the game-changers as much as using them as a landmark.
So the biggest star in the rap world retreats. “I’ve been plottin’ on the low,” he sings on “Furthest Thing,” “Schemin’ on the low, the furthest thing from perfect like everybody I know.”
It’s moments like this that differentiate “Nothing Was the Same” from the year’s other releases in the three-way battle for king of the hill. Where “Yeezus” shows us West has turned confrontational in the post-fame portion of his career and Jay Z has become condescending with “Magna Carta ... Holy Grail,” Drake becomes more and more confessional with each release. His charismatic self-doubt remains intact even as he wears the crown.
It sits atop his sharp-cut fade, heavy and at a tilt, but still firmly in place.
By Chris Talbott, Associated Press
Jimmy WebbStill Within the Sound of My Voice/E1
Jimmy Webb continues to recast his grand songwriting catalog on “Still Within the Sound of My Voice” through carefully produced duets with special guests, from veterans Kris Kristofferson and the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson to younger singers like Rumer, the Pakistani-born Brit who contributes a lovely turn with Webb on the album’s title song.
Following the formula of 2010’s “Just Across The River,” Webb lets his songs take center stage while sharing verses with other artists. Webb has a songwriter’s voice, which isn’t a criticism. His limited range focuses his intimate tone on the emotions of his lyrics, while providing a nice contrast to the more extravagant voices of duet partners Joe Cocker (on the great “The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress”) and Carly Simon (on the dramatic “Easy For You To Say”).
Producer Fred Molin heightens the understated passion of Webb’s songs with tasteful yet moody arrangements. Highlights include how Wilson and Webb reinvent the war horse “MacArthur Park” and the wistful romanticism Webb and Amy Grant bring to “Adios.” Also, “Elvis And Me” features one of the last recorded appearances by vocal group the Jordanaires, following the death of leader Gordon Stoker in March.
Altogether, the collection is yet another fitting reminder of Webb’s unique place in American song.
By Michael McCall, Associated Press