Friday, February 22, 2008

Review #28: Turnstiles

In 1976, Billy Joel was obviously at a fork in the road. Streetlife Serenade, as wonderful as it is, with its’ intricate ‘working-man’ sensibilities, was obviously not a worthy sequel to the grandiose visions on Piano Man. It seemed really obvious that if Billy wanted to build on the success of Piano Man and not continue down the path of the California soft-rock of Serenade that he had to go home.
So, he went back to New York and in 1976, he put out his most over-produced, wide-screen sounding album:
Turnstiles, today’s album of discussion. It laid the blueprint for the future and showed exactly why Billy needed Phil Ramone to come in and fix his songs up.

Say Goodbye To Hollywood kicks off the album with its full, welcoming, “Wall Of Sound” production. The song’s theme is a clear goodbye to all the trails he blazed in California. Although he tells a story about himself indirectly, he gets the message across with a repetitive, booming chorus. It is sort of a typical girl-group song. Billy draws out his vocals (“troubadours”; “Sunset Boulevard”) and the background singers (probably just Billy overdubbed) accent correctly, like chained prisoners. You can imagine him as this commanding lead singer and he’s trying to give us that guise. It is almost as if he’s telling us that by leaving, he’s stronger.
Next is Billy’s wonderful reflecting ballad, Summer, Highland Falls. I love his piano playing, especially on the intro. The lyrics are pensive, as the singer wonders what’s going on. He tries to find reasons for his problems. My only issue with it is the horn solo in the break. It dates the song considerably and feels kind of useless. It keeps it from attaining perfect status.
The next track is All You Wanna Do Is Dance, an obvious reggae song. It’s probably the worst track on the album, as it doesn’t have any real emotional quality. The song revolves around this girl who is stuck in the past. It’s like the opposite version of The Bridge’s “Modern Woman,” where the singer is the one who is out of touch, not the woman. There’s a nice groove, but it honestly feels like a throwaway, especially with the rather tongue-and-cheek ending.
New York State Of Mind follows. Even though I’m a proud Bostonian and have no real connection to anything Billy talks about here, you still feel the emotional power of the track. He is so happy to get back to his home, where he is most comfortable. He rejects every beautiful vista or people that he’s seen in the west and the hot vacation spots in the south. He just wants to get back home. It’s such an immaculately crafted ballad that it’s hard to not feel something in it. I mean, even the instrumentation behind him gives you a sense of some desire to get away. The sax solo is something to talk about. It might feel a bit meandering towards the end (it is the longest track on the album at 6:00) and even gets a bit schmaltzy. Still, it’s hard to deny the track’s importance and the beauty of it.
The second half begins with the most low-key track, James. I’m not really sure if it is about anyone in particular, but it is still a lovely story. Billy talks about a friend who is under tremendous pressure to be such a good person. It continues a theme that flows through the first four albums and even crops up a few times later in his career. These character sketches, Judy in “Why Judy Why” and the kid in “Captain Jack” and the family in “The Great Suburban Showdown,” are all people who have failed someone and have to live up to high expectations. Judy’s lover is desperate, but she leaves him for unknown reasons, the rich kid leads a life of disappointment to drugs and the suburban working family is tired and worn. Now, James, who is a kid who should be doing well, but we don’t know. Billy leaves it open, but he describes a kid who probably would cave in.
Next is Prelude/Angry Young Man, which is probably the quickest five minutes ever. I’ve always wondered why you would put a “Prelude” in the middle of anything, but here Billy does it for some reason. It’s sort of like a sudden rush of adrenaline and then when “Angry Young Man” starts, Billy goes rambling off on a tear about this guy that just sits around proudly, but doesn’t do anything for anyone. I guess that maybe this guy had this happy life when he was young (which would be the “Prelude”) and then he got tired. Now this guy’s angry but he doesn’t do anything with his emotions. It also feels like there’s some humor behind the synthesizer solo. It just feels so out of place!
Following that is the greatest conclusion that isn’t a conclusion: I’ve Loved These Days. It resembles “Summer, Highland Falls” but where that song was a search for what we are, “I’ve Loved These Days” is a reflection of what we know and what we have to become. I wish this was the ending, but where would you put the next track?
Beginning with a soft siren that fades into Billy’s piano playing and then strings, Miami 2017 (Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway) ends the album in spectacular fashion. “Miami 2017” is easily the best futuristic doomsday scenario recorded. It feels like an opera summed up in five minutes. That grandiose, wide-screen feeling I was talking about in the introduction is prevalent here. It’s sort of funny how the album starts with what feels like a “Wall of Sound” Spector girl-group song, but it ends with this blasting hard rock epic.
I’ve always found the cover to be somewhat strange. It’s sort of like a Sgt. Pepper’s rip-off in a New York subway terminal. Except, these people are everyday Joes. The people do feel like obvious references to the characters in the songs. Also, the title is rather obvious. All the characters are moving through the turnstile to get to another part of their lives. Some of them obviously don’t want to go (the angry looking man with the books, a combination of the “Angry Young Man” and “James” doesn’t look too excited and the girl from “All You Wanna Do Is Dance” looks like she could care less). Billy obviously looks happy to get going. He wants to get over California and be back home.
In conclusion, this is my favorite Billy Joel album, but I’m so glad he got Phil Ramone. Ramone adds a certain punch to Billy’s songs that not even he could on this album which he produced himself! Also, I think Ramone would probably tell him that eight five minute songs aren’t really enough. (Although there are quite a few great albums with just seven songs on it, but usually at least a couple of those reach the ten minute mark.)
The verdict: Buy it now, as in yesterday. It’s a wonderful album and each song is enjoyable.

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