Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Ending 2013 With The First Billy Joel Album: Cold Spring Harbor!

The Good: Good lyrics, Not bad vocals
The Bad: Musically limited, SHORT!
The Basics: Cold Spring Harbor was an unremarkable start to Billy Joel’s career and proves the artist had real gumption and determination (as well as lyrics-writing skills) before he became an American pop-rock mainstay.

As 2013 comes to an end, I am capping off my exploration of the works of Billy Joel with the album that started his musical career: Cold Spring Harbor. Cold Spring Harbor is a short album that only spawned hits after its reissue in the early 1980s. The fairly indistinct album is very much a piano-driven, early 1970s album that has clear influences coming out of the popularity of folk rock in American culture. Yes, if nothing else, Cold Spring Harbor illustrates to the newer fans of Billy Joel that Joel started his career in a folk-rock tradition.

Cold Spring Harbor is not bad (unless one has one of the original record pressings that has the wrong speed and thus alters the vocals on the album), but it makes it harder to believe that Billy Joel was an artist of any special destiny. The songs on the album wander from messy rock (“You Can Make Me Free”) to political folk songs (“Everybody Loves You Now,” “Falling Of The Rain”) which have more relevance in context to the Vietnam War to the usual Billy Joel romantic ballads (“She’s Got A Way,” “Turn Around”). As an artist at the beginning of his career, it is unsurprising that Cold Spring Harbor lacks a sense of ambition and refinement, but what the hook was for Joel this early in his career is something of a mystery.

With ten songs clocking out at 33:07, Cold Spring Harbor, the biggest strike against the album is that it is incredibly short. Even so, it instantly established Billy Joel as a legitimate musical artist. The album features ten songs all written by Billy Joel and he provides the lead vocals on every track. Billy Joel also plays harmonica or some variation of the piano (piano, organ, keyboard, etc.) on each song. As a new artist when the album was created, Joel received no production credit on the album and that is somewhat unsurprising.

Instrumentally, Cold Spring Harbor starts off the career of Billy Joel with the one man and a piano sound that fans would eventually expect from him. Unfortunately, the limitations of the sound are evident on the first album; “She’s Got A Way” and “Turn Around” have many of the same progressions and similarities in their tunes that make them sound very much alike. Sadly, when Joel departs from that sound, he ends up with songs like “You Can Make Me Free” which have Joel backed by a number of guitars and more active drums . . . and the song degenerates into a cacophonic mess. Most of the songs on Cold Spring Harbor are slower, piano-driven, and allow Joel’s vocals to be highlighted.

On the vocal front, Joel presents a mellow, easy vocals for most of Cold Spring Harbor. Just about the time Joel is taking on a narcoleptic sound that is putting his listeners to sleep, he breaks out a bass vocal on “Tomorrow Is Today” long before the song makes its crescendo and surprises us awake. Outside “Tomorrow Is Today,” Joel tends to stay in the higher registers of the tenor range and sticks in his safe zone. On such a short album with little musical differentiation, the vocals quickly become monotonous. “Tomorrow Is Today” is the obvious exception.

Billy Joel, as is his want, manages to be wonderfully expressive through his lyrics. One of the two bigger surprises on Cold Spring Harbor was that Joel wrote on his first time out as a solo artist a pretty impressive (and depressing) break-up song. The hopelessness of the unexplained break-up is perfectly portrayed in the lines “'Cause it's so hard to make it through the day / A man my age is very young / So I'm told / Why do I feel so old? / Tell me why Judy why” (“Why Judy Why”). It might not be the most compelling song, but it tells the story of a break-up perfectly.

At the other end of the spectrum is “You Look So Good To Me.” On “You Look So Good To Me,” Billy Joel aims for entirely superficial and he hits it as admirably as one might when they aim so low. The song is characterized by very sing-song rhymes like “Ah, you look so good to me / With my eyes open wide I can see / Ah, you feel so good to me . . . I'm feelin' the glory from that smile upon your face / You lifted me high above my ordinary place, uh huh / And I am so happy when I'm in your warm embrace” (“You Look So Good To Me”).

Of course, the main breakout song of Cold Spring Harbor is “She’s Got A Way.” “She’s Got A Way” is a pretty sappy love song that has become a standard since Joel first released it in 1971 (or, more accurately, after it gained traction in the early 1980s with the reissue of Cold Spring Harbor) and it’s good. It’s hard to argue with the raw romanticism of “She's got a smile that heals me / I don't know why it is / But I have to laugh when she reveals me / She's got a way of talkin' / I don't know why it is / But it lifts me up when we are walkin' anywhere” (“She’s Got A Way”).

Cold Spring Harbor is a Billy Joel album that suffers from lacking a spark to set it apart. There is nothing on the album that shines in such a way that makes the listener think “I have to buy this album!” Joel takes the listener on a fairly indistinct musical journey from love to anger to loss to a somewhat juvenile sense of romance (the up-tempo “You Look So Good To Me” is a flirtatious, incongruent song that does not fit the rest of the album) to the melancholy “Tomorrow Is Today.” Ultimately, the album lacks cohesion, a strong single and songs that resonate after the listener has heard them more than twice.

The high point is the moody “Tomorrow Is Today,” which is unique to this album, the worst song is “You Can Make Me Free.”

For other Billy Joel reviews, please check out:
Piano Man
52nd Street
Glass Houses
The Nylon Curtain
An Innocent Man
The Bridge
Greatest Hits Volume I & Volume II
Storm Front
River Of Dreams
12 Gardens Live
Fantasies & Delusions


Check out how this album stacks up against all of the other musical works I have reviewed by visiting my Music Review Index Page where works are organized best to worst!

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