Elton John vs. Pnau, Good Morning to the Night (Casablanca) * * *
Elton John has always realized that what he does best is craft accessible pop melodies. Even with detours into Broadway and Disney, releases under his own name have seldom departed from his successful style. At the same time, he’s also constantly championing younger cutting-edge dance and hip-hop acts.
Good Morning to the Night allows the British musician to test the trendy remix genre without actually doing any heavy lifting. John became smitten by the music of Australian electro duo Pnau a few years ago and became a mentor. He also gave them full access to the original master recordings of his albums from 1969’s debut Empty Sky through his 1977 recording, The Thom Bell Sessions, and gave the pair his blessing to make of them what they will.
Last week this unlikely collaboration gave John his first No. 1 British album since a 1990 compilation of hits.
What Pnau — Peter Mayes and Nick Littlemore — has come up with is a brilliant reimagining of John’s best music by slicing and splicing as many as eight old pieces per track to fashion original ambient pop and dance songs.
Instead of grabbing familiar-sounding hit singles, Pnau drew mostly from deep within John’s catalog, culling bits from LP cuts and B-sides like Harmony, Cold Highway, Solar Prestige a Gammon and We All Fall in Love Sometimes. Bernie Taupin’s lyrics aren’t intact, but phrases are plucked from various songs and used for rhythmic effect. The result is an ingenious overhaul of great old music made modern.
If all you know of John revolves around overplayed smashes like Rocket Man and Your Song, this project will prove a revelation, as it shows how his lesser-known tracks are every bit as well-written and infectious as the hits. The resulting Sad, a happy mélange of Curtains, Crazy Water, Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word, Nice and Slow and Friends, sounds like the best Pet Shop Boys single in years.
Good Morning to the Night, which takes its title from a line in John’s 1972 ballad Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters, also isn’t a typical dance album. Some of the tempos would need further remixing to best work in American clubs, although the title track has been given the hi-NRG club treatment and was released separately as an official London Summer Olympics single. The melodic house wash of Foreign Fields, which makes great use of the melody hook from High Flying Bird and the Mellotron from Pinky, and Telegraph to the Afterlife, the closest John will get to trippy Pink Floyd, could enliven chill-out rooms from Ibiza to Washington Avenue in the wee hours.
Download: Sad, Foreign Fields, Black Icy Stare.
Zac Brown Band, Uncaged (Atlantic) * *
For two albums, Georgia’s Zac Brown Band delivered the most convincing and musically accomplished country jam band fare this side of Charlie Daniels Band’s Million Mile Reflections. The devil went down to Georgia and brought these guys back to give the stagnant country music genre a much-needed jolt of electricity.
Certainly the band can still deliver these goods on the concert stage, but on album No. 3, the misnamed Uncaged, the band lapses into predictable, contrived and decidedly caged material. No matter, Uncaged debuted at No. 1 domestically.
Island Song is probably the laziest offender, as it again mines the clichéd Jimmy Buffett-Kenny Chesney formula of paying homage to brews and beaches with a catchy little ditty melody as the antidote to life’s problems. Even Chesney can’t get away with this stuff anymore, as his latest pedestrian album attests.
The speedy shuffle, Natural Disaster, and the laid-back mid-70s AM radio pop of Sweet Annie both come closer to capturing Brown’s previous appeal in terms of musicianship and harmony, but the reheated reggae pop and sentimental banalities that surround these tracks curbs creative momentum.
Download: Sweet Annie.
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