Now Here This: Broken Bells, Elton John and Leon Russell

A couple of weeks back I compiled my top 5 list of 2010. You can check it out here. But since that list was published, I’ve actually been spending time with a few more albums released throughout the year; two of them virtually non-stop, in fact. So consider this an addendum to that list, and encouragement to check out both of the below for some seriously good listening:

Broken Bells, Broken Bells

This self-titled debut from Broken Bells has been out for nearly a year, but I’ve only really been giving it serious time over the last few weeks. I think it’s mainly because of the band’s appearance on Conan in December, where they played a fairly kick-ass version of The Ghost Inside that reminded me to take a listen. The collaboration between producer Danger Mouse and The Shins frontman James Mercer is beautifully produced and feels to me like a new millennium take on the Beach Boys Pet Sounds (the proof is in Your Head Is On Fire). There’s lots of instrumental passages, unique instrumentation (can’t get enough of that mellotron), stirring strings, baroque-like piano breaks and an eerie and ominous feel that hovers throughout the albums 35 minutes. It reminds me of the Elephant 6 collective I listened to when I was back in university, but with far more memorable songs.

Elton John and Leon Russell, The Union

The story goes that Elton John appeared on the first episode of Elvis Costello’s Spectacle and mentioned how much of a fan and influence American Leon Russell was on him in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Russell was one of those rock n roll warhorses who ran with artists like Joe Cocker and The Rolling Stones, notched up some notoriety and a few hits before ultimately fading into obscurity, beloved by those in the know but ignored by the rest of the world. With a bit of momentum on their side, the duo joined together with roots producer T-Bone Burnett to record The Union, which turned out to be one of the best albums of last year. I wavered on picking this one up after reading music blogger Bob Lefsetz’s negative take on the collaboration, but I’m glad I finally downloaded it off iTunes. You can’t believe everything you read (says this writer) because The Union is a keeper. The production is streamlined and warm, a far cry from Elton’s 80’s and 90’s catalogue. In fact, the songs on here are the best he’s come up with in arguably decades. While previous Elton albums like Songs From The West Coast and Peachtree Road were considered returns to 70’s form, I think working with his hero has pushed Elton to up the stakes. He delivers on songs like Monkey Suit and the gorgeous When Love Is Dying (featuring background vocals from Brian Wilson). This is also a great introductory to the piano playing and voice of Leon Russell, an artist who I haven’t listened to at all in all my years but who holds his own throughout the entire album, including opener If It Wasn’t For Bad. The guys definitely have brought out the best in one another.

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