Saturday, June 29, 2013

An Album Of Songs That Could Open Or Close Any Number Of Movies: Glass Houses!

The Good: Lyrics, Sound
The Bad: Short, Somewhat limited vocal range
The Basics: Billy Joel has a solid outing with Glass Houses, an album whose endurance is not limited to its radio-played singles!

The danger, I have found, in reviewing the works of an exceptionally popular musical artist years after the bulk of their work was originally released is that the temptation exists to review their classic albums with an ear toward the radio-played hits. The advantage of studying a musical artist in this way by only listening to their music is to hear their albums without the hype or history. Pure listens of just the material allow listeners now to hear what is there, not all the “stuff” surrounding the album’s creation or the celebrity of the performer. As I embark upon my study of the works of Billy Joel, I follow up my review of 52nd Street (reviewed here!) with having Glass Houses in high rotation.

Glass Houses is notable in that many of the best or most memorable songs on the album were not the radio-played hits, making it a great investment for those who are looking for a much more well-rounded version of Billy Joel’s career. While Glass Houses spawned the radio hits “You May Be Right,” “Don’t Ask Me Why” and “It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me,” the songs “I Don’t Want To Be Alone” and “Sleeping With The Television On” are at least as good. As an album, though, Glass Houses reminded me most of the Oasis album Dig Out Your Soul (reviewed here!). That album was notable in that the songs all sounded like they could carry the climax of a movie and play through the closing credits. Glass Houses sounds like the ultimate pick and choose soundtrack album for opening a bevy of 1980s movies (romantic comedies, lighter dramas). Almost every song on this album feels like it was designed to provide a musical entrance for a movie (playing over the opening credits while the camera establishes setting and characters).

Clocking out at only 35:06, one of the most serious detractions to Glass Housesis its lack of duration. This is a short album, though Billy Joel makes decent use of the time he has by presenting an array of fun-sounding songs, some of which actually go a bit deeper than their upbeat pop sound. Glass Houses is very much the work of Joel who wrote the words and music to all ten songs. Joel provides the lead vocals on all of the tracks and he plays pianos, synths, harmonica, and accordion on the various songs. In fact, the only creative credit he does not receive is for producing the album (that work is credited to Phil Ramone).

Glass Houses is a very standard pop album, with drum-driven tracks that get the toes tapping and embed their melodies in the listener’s heads. While Joel branches out with a slightly more flavorful pop sound on “Don’t Ask Me Why” and he opens some of the songs with sound effects – breaking glass for “You May Be Right” and phones ringing for “It’s Just A Fantasy” – in most ways, Glass Houses is a very safe, focused pop album. “All For Leyna” actually stands out for how it breaks up the up-tempo pop songs with a slower and somewhat painfully repetitive ballad.

Vocally, Billy Joel does not illustrate much range on Glass Houses. He stays in the mid to lower registers that he is comfortable in. However, on Glass Houses, Billy Joel manages to sing faster and more articulately than many other singers (just try singing along with “It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me” and sound as clear!) and that makes the album sound and feel upbeat even when the lyrics do not support that mood.

On the lyrics front, Billy Joel references a couple of different women as the musical protagonist of Glass Houses, but the album is far from a concept album with a consistent narrative thread. He uses “All For Leyna” as an exploration of devotion (or obsession) that does not so much focus on Leyna’s attributes as it does on the musical protagonist’s commitment to her. With lines like “We laid on the beach / Watching the tide / She didn’t tell me there were rocks / Under the waves / Right off the shore / Washed up on the sand / Barely alive / Wishing the undertow would stop / How can a man take anymore” (“All For Leyna”), he blurs the line between healthy and obsessive devotion to a partner. He makes a very sad concept sound anything but mopey, though.

That idea that the sound contradicts the message carries through Glass Houses. The sound that accompanies the lines “All night long, all night long / We’re only standing here ‘cause somebody might do somebody wrong / All night long, all night long / And we’ll be sleeping with the television on” (“Sleeping With The Television On”) is not sad, like the lonely, heartwrenching lyrics to the song might indicate. Instead, there is an almost defiant quality to the music which makes the song very interesting as opposed to depressing.

Perhaps the ultimate expression of excitement, though, comes on “I Don’t Want To Be Alone.” The song has one of the stronger musical storytelling examples on Glass Houses. On that song, Joel’s musical protagonist is a guy who is “. . . standing, waiting in the lobby / Sweating bullets in this stupid old suit / And when she sees me she busts out laughing / ‘You’re a sad sight honey, but you look so cute’ and / I don’t want to be alone anymore / I was checking you out / I was just making sure” (“I Don’t Want To Be Alone”). The song works and is enjoyable, like the bulk of the album.

In fact, Glass Houses is a strong album that only loses its punch in its final tracks, but even those songs are not bad. That makes Glass Houses worth recommending even now.

The best track is “I Don’t Want To Be Alone” (though “Sleeping With The Television On” is a close second, even above the hits from the album!) and the low point is the unmemorable penultimate song “Close To The Borderline.”

For other Artist Of The Month albums, please visit my reviews of:
Actually - Pet Shop Boys
The King Of Rock: The Complete ‘50s Masters - Elvis Presley
Accelerate - R.E.M.


For other music reviews, please check out my organized listing of all the music reviews I have written on my Music Review Index Page!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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