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Piano pounders

Music | Elton John's The Union may not be a dud, but it's not as special as the latest effort from Jerry Lee Lewis

Issue: "Realities: 2011-2020," Jan. 15, 2011

Elton John may be a lot of things, but a dummy isn't one of them.

Months before the Tea Party rocked America's political landscape, John made headlines by rocking Israel and Arizona, whose citizens had been deemed unfit for entertainment by several other high-profile acts because of their respective governments' aggressively anti-progressive policies.

Then John played Rush Limbaugh's wedding.

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It was almost as if he'd foreseen the November elections and realized not only that conservatives are people too but that they also buy music and might be nice to have as friends.

So it was that The Union (Decca), John's latest album, sparked interest. Would it contain right-wing-friendly political songs? Would T Bone Burnett's production result in an invigoratingly back-to-basics sound and maybe even the presence of an old-timey (or, better yet, new-timey) gospel song? Would Leon Russell, who was to receive co-billing, or Neil Young or Brian Wilson, who were to make cameo appearances, bring out in John something more than the rote professionalism on which he'd been relying for decades?

Alas, the answer to all of the above is no-that is, unless the Russell-composed "The Hands of Angels" and the reference to "the Master's hand" in the Burnett co-composed "Jimmie Rodgers Dream" count as shout-outs to the Religious Right or unless the Americana imagery in the lyrics of "Jimmie Rodgers Dream" and "Gone to Shiloh" count as shout-outs to the red states.

Not that The Union is a dud. Although John's and Russell's voices neither mix nor match particularly well, the gospel and country-soul feel of each of the 14 songs (16 on the "deluxe" CD and vinyl edition) makes it easy to imagine them as perfectly acceptable filler on Side 2 of a vintage Elton John LP. The problem is, a vintage Elton John LP would've also had two or three monster hits.

The closest The Union comes on that score is the jaunty "Monkey Suit" (composed, like half the album, by John and his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin) and the aching ballads "When Love Is Dying" (bitter) and "The Best Part of the Day" (sweet)-songs that get your attention but then do nothing special with it.

As for Burnett, who almost certainly got the production job based on his transcendent results with another unlikely duo (Robert Plant and Alison Krauss), he seems to be trying to affect the proceedings and to stay out of the way simultaneously. In other words, it's nothing special either.

There is, however, quite a bit special about Mean Old Man (Verve Forecast), the new album by Jerry Lee Lewis. Like John and Russell, he's a hit-­making piano-pounder who's seen better days. Unlike them, he forfeited his reputation both as a performer and a human being so long ago he makes singing and playing as if he has nothing to lose seem easy.

Repeating the formula of 2006's Last Man Standing, Mean Old Man finds the producer Steve Bing pairing "the Killer" with compatible vocal partners and then matching the duos with classic rock 'n' roll ("Roll Over Beethoven," "Bad Moon Rising") and country ("You Are My Sunshine," "Whiskey River") and letting what sounds like good-natured, first-take jams transpire.

Interestingly, the only song Lewis feels obliged to introduce is "Railroad to Heaven," his duet with the recently departed Solomon Burke. "I used to do this song back when I was a kid," he drawls, "in a little small Assemblies of God church there in Ferriday, La., all my kin people lookin' right down my throat. It was good then, and it's good now!"

The performance that follows proves he means it.


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