Thursday, October 22, 2009

1974 Album Review: Billy Joel "Streetlife Serenade"

I wrote this

  • Streetlife Serenade
  • Billy Joel
  • Columbia KC 33146
  • Released: October 1974
  • Chart Peak: #35
  • Weeks Charted: 18
  • Certified Gold: 12/22/80

With Streetlife Serenade, his third solo long-player, Billy Joel has taken off his gloves. Gone are the slushy strings that mired his pounding piano in a mush of romantic glop. Excised are the tonsils that held back his soaring tenor.

The title track speaks of a "shopping center hero." Whether this is Billy or one of his subjects is irrelevant. Billy's intensely autobiographical approach reflects the angst of life in the seventies, and in the suburbs.

You couldn't say this conceptually coherent record is about loneliness, although it is inhabited by occasionally lonely people. And it isn't about alienation, because everyone seems to be able, finally, to relate. This is an album about you and me, and him over there, and her, and everybody, just coping.

"Los Angelenos" tells the story of refugees from everywhere, driving their sports cars "nowhere on the streets with Spanish names." Billy lays down a Rhodes riff that burns, and then sneers the opening vocal with a passion that makes Elton John, to whom he is most often compared, sound middle-aged. By the time he gets to the overdubbed organ ride at the end, he has followed the lead of Ray Davies' "Celluloid Heroes" from Hollywood Boulevard into the hills and canyons of L.A., where people "go to garages to get exotic messages."

The organ segues to a bluesy synthesizer as Billy flies back home to Long Island for a Sunday afternoon barbecue with the folks ("The Great Suburban Showdown"). You must go home again, and Billy does with an instinct for self-satire that allows him to criticize with love.

Next is "Root Beer Rag," an instrumental in the classic rag form. It shows off his compositional and performing abilities on the piano in a tasty interlude. Side One closes with "Roberta," a bittersweet love song to a call girl, or "out-call" as they are affectionately known in Smogville.

Side Two is more optimistic, and opens with the follow-up to "Piano Man," boldy titled "The Entertainer." We pick up the narration of Billy's career when he's only as god as his last record, as the expression goes, and he's out to continue the road to success. To touches of Rick Wakeman synthesizer, Billy adds the fast-picking banjo that made "Travellin' Prayer" on the previous disc such a mover. Columbia probably intends this as a single, but the line about getting laid might turn off some Top 40 programmers. (Question: If Mick Jagger laid a divorcee in New York City, can Billy?)

"Last of the Bigtime Spenders" is the lp's only weak tune. In it, Billy indulges his propensity for the quick rhyme and the easy lyric and comes up with the highest cliche quotient in recent memory. Granting some tongue-in-cheek poetic license in the theme ("I'm the last of the bigtime spenders 'cause I'm spendin' my time on you") the inclusion of even more chestnuts ("make the grade," "small-time operator," "make the best of the situation," and "you can call me the great pretender") makes this tune a prime copyright for some sappy country singer. Billy can do better. (While we're nitpicking, does Billy sing the title track through his sinuses ore is something wrong with my $2000 stereo?)

Side Two's optimism continues with a raveup called "Weekend Song," similar in sentiment to Jesse Winchester's "Payday": an ode to T.G.I.F. A short vignette, "Souvenir," follows, and one line shows that Billy can write if he wants to. "Every year's a souvenir that slowly fades away."

The last song is an instrumental that combines the weekend with a souvenir, a soundtrack-sounding "Mexican Connection." Billy's left hand hits a Latinesque ostinato as he weaves a loping trail across the Rio Grande into the land of tequila and la tourista. Slick arrangement, evocative playing and a beautiful melody make this a real charmer.

Streetlife Serenade is the finest release of this major American artist. Billy is what Leon and Elton used to be.


- Dennis Wilen, Phonograph Record Magazine, 11/74.

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