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BILLY JOEL

Greatest Hits, Volume I & Volume II
Rating: 7
   Billy Joel gets a bum rap from a lot of critics, and I'm not sure why. Is it his tunes? No, they're always catchy and usually quite graceful. His singing? No, his voice is pleasant and expressive. His piano playing? No, he's quite agile on the keys. His band? No, they're talented and carry off his arrangements well.
   So that leaves…his lyrics? I guess so. I'm not sure why. They're thoughtful, always move the story forward, use interesting rhymes, and rarely does one find any obvious clinkers (exception: "We had no soft soap" in "Goodnight Saigon" - well, neither did anybody else in 1968; it hit the market in the early 80's).
   It must be the attitude, then. One definitely gets the sense that Billy thinks he's better than you. But, then again, he is - at least in terms of talent, success, wealth, and popularity (good looks and moral grace I'll leave to other critics). If we're going to praise gangsta rap for keeping it real and showing us life in the streets, why can't we have a Billy Joel bringing us life in the Hamptons?
   And, I must say, Billy's lyrics are really well-written slabs of superior attitude. "Just the Way You Are" is a chauvinist keep-the-woman-in-her-place diatribe disguised as a serenade by the gently arcing melody and the unctuous saxophone, but it's a convincing chauvinist keep-the-woman-in-her-place diatribe. Unlike most of the misogynist rants coming from your average metal or punk band, which actually just sound like the ravings of desperately lonely guys, you really get the sense that Billy doesn't think his lover can better herself.
   "Only the Good Die Young" may be an insultingly anti-Catholic diatribe, but it's a well-reasoned insultingly anti-Catholic diatribe; unlike your average religion baiter who still brings up the Inquisition or some other irrelevant historical atrocity, Joel takes on current Catholic values and explicitly rejects them. If you've got to put someone down, this is the way to do it.
   And what's more, there are a lot of times when he actually does show some human feeling. "Allentown" is one of the best songs of the twentieth century - nowhere in the lyric or melody does he falter, except in the modulation behind "they threw an American flag in our face" (should have left off "American" and it would have been smooth). Has there ever been a more evocative song about the collapse of the American dream during hard times? On the flip side of that idea, "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" captures, without the condescension one might expect, the hopes and failures of young people still working out their place in society; coupled with the bel canto melody of the intro, it really puts me back in my grandfather's house growing up.
   So let me say it: Billy Joel deserves his big head. He may be a stuck-up prig, but he sure can write those songs.

READER COMMENTS
  • From Cole Bozman: I don't like him because his songs are uniformly vomit-inducing, whether they be crap balladry or his attempt at "rocking the Hamptons". If I have to hear "Angry Young Man", "In the Middle of the Night", or anything else this McCartney hack has written one more time, I'll drop a piano on him! Well, not really, but it would make for a nicely ironic end.
  • STEVE AND ABE RESPOND: Abe says, "Ah hee." Steve says: "I'm sure this is the first in a long line of anti-Billy Joel messages. Since we clearly disagree, I'll just say that it would be better to pummel him with that cheesy synthesizer he used in "Pressure"; a good piano is pretty expensive and it would be a shame to lose one in a senseless act of violence. Thanks for writing!"

  • From Tony Littonis: Thanks for the being the only record reviewer on the web to look at the man's work with an open mind. I can't believe the hostility Joel generates from those few who ever choose to write about him.
  • STEVE AND ABE RESPOND: Abe says, "Bwliee." Steve says: "I figure if so many of his tunes are running through my head he must be doing something right. Thanks for writing!"

  • From Pyke: I knew it. After reading your lukewarm review of Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited, the pan of Sonic Youth's Dirty, the dethroning of Nirvana, then the bit about The Who's Who's Next, I said "these guys must be Billy Joel fans". Well, I must say, your reviews are erudite and thoughtful; but you really miss what is great about rock and roll if you can find so much to criticize in Dylan and the others I mentioned and so much to praise about Billy Joel.
  • STEVE AND ABE RESPOND: Abe says, "Haat." Steve says: "Well, you've got me dead to rights. I do prefer that the musicians I listen to at least attempt to sound good. But I like to think I do appreciate the essentials of rock and roll – energy and passion. To what degree those compensate for lazy arrangements or deliberate non-tunefulness is probably the crux of our disagreement. I'd love to hear more about why you like Sonic Youth, etc., as it baffles me. Thanks for writing!"

  • From Art Forte: I think "Piano Man" both elevated and deflated his image. It is very sappy, as well as overplayed to hell, and it is the first song most identify him with. Personally, I think 52nd Street is the most interesting album of his, both musically and lyrically. "Rosalinda's Eyes". "Zanzibar". "Half A Mile Away". These are wonderful song stories. To me he's at his best as a storyteller set to music. He's not as good at the love song thing, or trying to be a hard rocker. And yes, maybe we've been saturated with the less than stellar stuff by the radio over the years, but I could still pick a good two-dozen songs of his that are thought- and emotion-provoking. I dunno, maybe it’s a New York thing, but I related to much of Billy Joel’s stuff as a kid growing up..

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