Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Elton John: The Complete Thom Bell Sessions

If Sacred Songs was Daryl Hall's attempt to delve into his more experimental side, then Elton John's 1977 recording sessions with Thom Bell were the complete opposite. While it may seem counter intuitive for an artist so synonymous with commercial success, at the end of the 70's John's music had become absent from the mainstream.

John enlisted Bell as producer in response to the growing trend in disco and dance music. Bell served both to give the tracks and authentic R&B feel, and provide a writing team for 5 out of the 6 songs of new material (the sixth, "Shine On Through", was written by John and would resurface a year later on A Single Man).

Similar to Hall's plight, John's record company delayed release of the record, not seeing fit to release any tracks until 1979. When they finally did allow release, it was a three track EP, which spawned one top ten hit, "Mama Can't Buy You Love". By 1989, with the new compact disc market in full swing, MCA decided that it would be a prudent time to release the material, and thus issued The Complete Thom Bell Sessions, featuring all 6 tracks.

The album, which clocks in at just over half an hour, plays more like an EP than an album. It is also quickly apparent that John is not leading the creative effort. The singer/songwriter vibe which populates so many of his own works is conspicuously absent, as is the typical verse/chorus structure. Instead, the listener gets an earful of Elton taking on a true R&B vibe to his voice, and sharing the stage with backup vocals from the Spinners, and extended dance mix song structures.

While the record (as was intended) is firmly planted in the dance music of the late seventies, it holds some fantastic songwriting and thoroughly enjoyable performances. John seems relaxed, and naturally falls into the disco groove. Moreover, for all the cheesiness, there's also some truly great instrumental arranging and string sections that will grab you if you have even the slightest in nostalgia for the late 70's.

After the journey from 1977, to 1979, to 1989, one might think that such a niche market album might have had its fifteen minutes of fame. However, in 2003 a mild remix of the album track "Are You Ready For Love" was released on 12" vinyl, and became a smash hit in the UK. Retro to the max, kids. Check the videos (old and new) below.