How nice it is to hear that meandering yet spot-on piano tinkering, alongside an atypically humble and unpretentious lyric from one Bernie Taupin: "If I was a sculptor/But then again no/Or a man who makes potions/For a traveling show." It's enough to forgive the irritating harpsichord of the next number, "I Need You To Turn To."
But only "First Episode At Hienton" after that is less that sparkling, and so much else about Elton's first big album (after the shakedown cruise of "Empty Sky") is brilliant. It's not the hitmaker U.S. audiences would so soon grow accustomed to, singing about alligators and astronauts so winningly, but a thoughtful musical craftsman who was still experimenting with what mass audiences might let him get away with.
"Take Me To The Pilot" is the one rocker, and a good one, better than "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting" if not some of his other big hits of later years. Those who love Elton the hitmaker will probably also treasure (as I do) such less heralded numbers as the Rolling Stones' tribute "No Shoe Strings On Louise" (Mick Jagger vocal mannerisms circa "Let It Bleed" abound), the mesquite-soaked "Border Song," or "The Greatest Discovery," one of the great love songs ever sung, though with a clever twist that only renders the actual subject matter more affecting. How often does one hear a song about the arrival of a younger sibling? (Well, there's "Lonely Boy" by Andrew Gold, but this is much more positive.)
I can't get behind Elton here the way I can with "Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only The Piano Player" or "Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy," though it's probably a better though less representative album than at least the first of those. It's not Elton the way you and I would come to know him in a very short time, but an interesting variation that regarded lyrical depth as important as tuneful variation. The former Mr. Reg Dwight still had three more albums to go, including a live one, before nailing down his trademark winning piano-popster sound, but this was his first hurrah, and a big one, ironically so given it was so removed from the glam image he would so soon cultivate.
If you are listening to Elton's hits and liking them, and want something else to turn to, I'd suggest "Captain Fantastic," "Tumbleweed Connection," and this album, which combined probably will leave you with no more than three or four key songs you've already heard and a number you ought to give a listen to. If you like any of the music Elton made through 1976, that is to say the best he ever did, you owe it to yourself to give his first hit record a spin. It still kicks more than 30 years on.
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