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Elton John
The Captain & The Kid
Interscope Records

Between 1970 and 1975, Elton John recorded nine - yes, nine - studio albums, writing at least a dozen songs that are still among the most frequently-played on classic rock and adult-contemporary radio. It's hard to avoid hearing standards like "Your Song," "Crocodile Rock," and "Candle In The Wind," but John was much more than a hitmaker. He recorded a number of complex, timeless albums, anchored by his exceptional piano skills and featuring a mix of poignant ballads, mainstream pop, and straight-ahead rock and roll.

Among John's most enduring works is the meticulously-crafted 1975 release Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy, a concept album that eloquently retold his collaboration with longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin. That defining record turned out to be John's final triumph, as his hyperactive touring and recording schedule brought a half-decade of astounding creativity to an abrupt end. From the mid-70s until the turn of the century, John showed flashes of the great songwriting and record-making that made him so untouchable in his prime, but his frustrating tendency to aim for the pop charts resulted in a long list of carelessly-written and poorly-reviewed albums. What his longtime fans hungered for most, and may have feared they'd never hear, was the kind of commitment and dedication John had shown in his formative years. They got it, albeit more than 25 years later, with the lauded 2001 release Songs From The West Coast, John's conscious return to what made his classic records great. He brought his still-exquisite piano to the forefront, wrote his best set of songs in 25 years, and sang and recorded with tremendous passion.

The newfound commitment to his craft has also put an end to the mainstream success he maintained long after the quality of his songs had dropped off. Thankfully, John chose to keep the spirit of Songs From The West Coast and 2004's impressive Peachtree Road alive on last year's ambitious The Captain & The Kid, which he and Taupin wrote as a sequel to Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy. Taupin set out to chronicle the duo's experiences since the mid-70s, although it takes some serious scrutiny to find more than a vague narrative thread running through most of The Captain & The Kid. It remains a focused record that features unusually thoughtful lyrics from Taupin, although musically it isn't the late-career masterpiece it could have been. Amidst the stronger tracks are a number of forgettable, generic Elton John songs, particularly the plodding "Old 67" and the country-influenced "I Must Have Lost It On The Wind."

Some of the record's strongest moments come when Elton ups the tempo. The raucous "Just Like Noah's Ark," which echoes old-time rockers like Jerry Lee Lewis, recalls the blistering rock and roll of his 1974 hit "The Bitch Is Back." The complex "And The House Fell Down" combines a jazzy introduction and piano breakdown with one of John's catchiest pop-rock choruses in recent memory. The records other standout is the affecting "Wouldn't Have You Any Other Way (NYC)", which evokes memories of "Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters," one of his all-time classic ballads. "The Captain And The Kid" borrows the musical introduction to the title track on Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy and features the most directly autobiographical lyric on the record. It's an intriguing moment that gives a sense of closure to the second act of John and Taupin's self-portrait, although the song's melody is not nearly as memorable as its inspired concept.

There are no flat-out classics on The Captain & The Kid, but it could be John's most consistent effort since the original Captain Fantastic in 1975. While the record is more notable for its lyrics and ambition than any new musical ideas, John's nimble piano skills and spirited vocal performances keep even the weakest tracks engaging. Casual listeners may want to pick up a compilation of the iconic songwriter's best-known hits or explore his early-70s landmarks. Those who do take the time to listen to The Captain & The Kid may not find any timeless Elton John songs, but they will find a legendary performer who has finally decided to lower his eyes from the pop charts and return to his roots.

-Dan Warren

Track Listing:
1. Postcards From Richard Nixon
2. Just Like Noah's Ark
3. Wouldn't Have You Any Other Way (NYC)
4. Tinderbox
5. And The House Fell Down
6. Blues Never Fade Away
7. The Bridge
8. I Must Have Lost It On The Wind
9. Old 67
10. The Captain And The Kid

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