Songs From The West Coast
Truly a lost gem, Elton John's 27th studio album from 2001, Songs From The West Coast, might actually be one of the artist's best ever. Grammy-nominated and garnishing some radio-friendly tracks, the album sees the return of Sir Elton working with drummer Nigel Olsson and longtime collaborator lyricist Bernie Taupin, marking the first time this successful songwriting team sat and worked in the same room at the same time.
"The Emperor's New Clothes" opens the album with just John's clear voice and piano, a combination that produces a sound with an orchestra-like quality. Paul Bushnell's bass is spot-on here as well, as it is everywhere else on these tunes - if somebody were not to tell you the year you would swear you were listening to an Elton John track of 30 years ago.
The second tune, "Dark Diamond," is interesting for its fun funk and Stevie Wonder's harmonica (Wonder worked with John on "I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues" and "That's What Friends Are For"). But beyond this stellar guest turn, it's not the strongest song here. The third song, "Look Ma No Hands," certainly is strong, again featuring mainly John and his piano, Olsson's distinctive snapping snare and great backing vocals; this is one of many on Songs From The West Coast that features an outstanding chorus as well.
"American Triangle" is a tearjerker, written about the infamous story of Matthew Shepard, the gay college student who was murdered in 1998. As is usually the case with Taupin, he skirts that fine line between poignant and maudlin; this song is a case of him exercising restraint in a lyric that at times might be a little simplistic, but still effective and capable of influencing a pretty melody from his partner.
"Original Sin" has got a great chorus and the first real use of John's longtime guitarist Davey Johnstone. The single from this album, "Birds," features a shuffle from Olsson and John sounding as young as he ever has. This is maybe Taupin's most accessible lyric, and as "Birds" plays, it's hard to not want to get up and dance. From "Birds" on, this disc just rises.
"I Want Love" has a lyric that could be one of Taupin's best, plus some open playing from John and the musicians behind him. If you had a doubt that Elton John could rock, listen to "The Wasteland" and the bounce of his bluesy left hand. "Ballad of the Boy in the Red Shoes," with Johnstone's mandolin, the soft but driving beat and the backing vocals over another poignant Taupin lyric, make this song probably the best tune on Songs From The West Coast.
Similar to more recent John songs, "Love Her Like Me" is a well-crafted tune with Olsson up there again front and tight. "Mansfield" has a lot of color with some power chord touches from Johnstone (as well as his signature volume pedal work at the beginning), a pat-a-pat from Olsson and fantastic vocal harmonies - but there isn't much of a distinctive melody to hang one's hat on. This is not to say this isn't a great song, it is just a bit chewier than most of what came before it.
The final song, "This Train Don't Stop There Anymore," ends the album on a high note, beginning with primarily voice and piano, with some soft bass and time-keeping high-hat from Olsson. The strings are pitch-perfect, as is an especially strong voice from John in the chorus - I dare you to find a better last song on any album. Having skipped a couple years of Elton John's career during the Disney and MTV eras, Songs From The West Coast was the album I was hoping Elton John still had in him. And low and behold, he did.
~ Ralph Greco, Jr.