I would consider myself a Joel fan, having memorized many of his tunes and seen him in concert a couple of times. But if I'm being honest, I started my fandom with The Stranger when I was in middle school and never really explored his back catalog. I eventually picked up a copy of Turnstiles when I was in college, but didn't go any further. So, surprisingly, I've never heard the entire Streetlife Serenade album. However, I'm familiar with four of the ten tracks via live versions on Songs In The Attic and my (very) used copy of a 1977 promo-only sampler Souvenir.
To rectify the situation decades after the fact, I placed an order and here we are. Let's take the cellophane off this thing and give it a long overdue spin. But first, here's what Joel had to say about the album back in 2011:
Press of the time:
- Rolling Stone: "Joel's keyboard abilities notwithstanding, he has nothing to say as a writer at present"
- Stereo Review: "achieving what I shall call a dark brilliance"
- Billboard: "each song has a brisk creative flavor, in terms of lyrics as well as arrangements"
- CashBox: "a high peak of creativity and masterful musical energy"
- Record World: "fulfilling all the promises shown in his prior set"
- Robert Christgau (C): "Here he poses as the Irving Berlin of narcissistic alienation, puffing up and condescending to the fantasies of fans who spend their lives by the stereo feeling sensitive."
- US Billboard Top 200 chart: #35
Tracks (many of these are first impressions, admittedly not the best way to write about an album):
- Streetlife Serenader: I always liked the version on Songs In The Attic and this studio version isn't quite as bombastic and I could do with out the steel guitar, but it's a good album opener and the piano interlude about 3:50 in is classic Joel writing.
- Los Angelenos: On the other hand, I never much cared for the version of this song on SITA and the cut here isn't any better. The stereotype-driven lyrics wouldn't fly today and probably offended some back in the '70s. Rightly so.
- The Great Suburban Showdown: Completely new to me. Starts with Joel experimenting with a Moog synth. Country rock in the vein of the Eagles and Ronstadt of '74. I don't think the writing's bad; it's just a bad arrangement.
- Root Beer Rag: A ragtime instrumental which shows off Joel's formidable keyboard technique. It's fantastic, it just doesn't really fit on a country-flavored pop-rock album.
- Roberta: Worst song so far. There's a hook sequence in the chorus ("It's tough for me, it's tough for you") that almost saves the track, but it can't quite overcome the mediocrity that surrounds it.
- The Entertainer: The single released from the album, it peaked at #34 on the Hot 100 and #30 on the AC chart. Classic mid-70's rock with a little prog-rock taste thanks to the synth licks. The banjo needs to go, though. I'm starting to think Joel got some bad advice and guidance from producer Michael Stewart.
- Last Of The Big Time Spenders: This is more like it. A bluesy piano-heavy ballad that sounds more like the Joel I'm familiar with. Until the steel guitar comes in, that is. Sheesh.
- Weekend Song: This Three Dog Night-ish rocker chugs along and while it isn't doing much for me initially, I could see this one growing on me over time.
- Souvenir: Easily the best cut on the album. Joel reaches back into his classical piano training/influences (Chopin and Schumann, in particular) and produces a brief, beautiful, nostalgic ballad. Just Joel on piano and vocals. Should have ended the album, another decision I'll conveniently blame on the producer.
- The Mexican Connection: A pop/Latin/orchestral instrumental consisting of several musical ideas that really don't have much to do with each other and then it just sort of ends. A piecemeal job that isn't terrible, but tracks 9 & 10 should have been swapped.
Personal Memory Associated with this CD: None
Previously revisited for the blog:
My Lives (2005)
2000 Years: The Millennium Concert (2000)
To Make You Feel My Love (1997)
River Of Dreams (1993)
Storm Front (1989)
The Bridge (1986)
An Innocent Man (1983)
The Nylon Curtain (1982)
Songs in the Attic (1981)
Glass Houses (1980)
52nd Street (1978)
The Stranger (1977)
Piano Man (1973)