Monday, December 16, 2013

Storm Front: Billy Joel’s Modern Folk Album Success!

The Good: Good musical storysongs, Decent vocals, Some memorable tunes
The Bad: A couple real duds
The Basics: Storm Front is essentially a rock and roll folk album from Billy Joel and it works exceptionally well as such!

Every now and then, I am pleasantly surprised when reviewing an Artist Of The Month when I encounter an album where I think I know the whole musical story before I put it in and I turn out to be completely wrong. In the case of Billy Joel, there have been a number of his albums that I was easily able to write off as the very best songs were, in fact, the radio hits and they appear on numerous compilations. Those albums where the singles sell the album and are representative of all that the artist truly has going for them ultimately leave me disappointed. When I picked up Billy Joel’s Storm Front, an album that had the song “I Go To Extremes,” which I figured would be impossible to top on the album, I was sure that would be the peak of the disc.

I am happy to say I was wrong.

While I am a big fan of “I Go To Extremes” (I suspect many people bought the album on the strength of “We Didn’t Start The Fire”), the best songs on the album are not the familiar ones. When I began listening to Storm Front, I was pretty sure I would begin with some snarky comments on the title track and how Billy Joel sounded like he had taken a bet that he could make a song about a weather report and make it into a hit. But, the truth is, despite the pure pop-rock sound of “I Go To Extremes” and “State Of Grace,” “We Didn’t Start The Fire” stretches to sound like rock and most of the album is nakedly what it sounds like: modern folk-rock. Songs like “Leningrad” or “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’” could easily have come off a Pete Seeger album by their lyrics! As a result, Storm Front is a departure for Billy Joel. The album has a diversity of sound that many of Joel’s albums lack and Storm Front still holds together as a decent album.

With only ten songs, clocking out at just over forty-five minutes, perhaps the biggest strike against Storm Front is that it is short. Billy Joel makes decent use of the time he does spend on the album, though. He wrote the music and lyrics for all ten songs (which surprised my wife because she knew “Shameless” from Garth Brooks’ cover of it!). He also provides all of the lead vocals on Storm Front and he plays at least one instrument on each track. Given that most of his instrumentation – which tend to be the dominant instruments on the tracks – are either pianos, keyboards, organs or synthesizers, it is impressive how different the various tracks on Storm Front sound! Billy Joel is also a co-producer on the album, so it is virtually undeniable that this was the album he wanted to release (at least at the time!).

Vocally, Billy Joel remains distinctive as himself, save on “When In Rome,” where he sounds like he is trying desperately to be Steve Winwood. On “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” Joel gets through a pretty extensive list of historical events and pop culture references that I have discovered while trying to sing along to is not all that easy. On both “Leningrad” and “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’” he sings his musical storysongs clearly and holds notes longer. So, he has a decent range on Storm Front outside the one song!

Instrumentally, Billy Joel is driven by keyboards on Storm Front, but he makes the songs sound completely different and yet the album holds together well. So, after the slower, lilting “The Downeaster ‘Alexa,’” Joel has “I Go To Extremes” which sounds like it is dominated by electric guitars (it’s actually pianos, organs and synths harmonizing that makes that sound, though there are guitars on that single as well). “I Go To Extremes” is followed by the slow rock ballad “Shameless,” which was covered by Garth Brooks with minimal musical variation. Despite the various musical styles and sounds, Storm Front still comes together as a cohesive album and sounds great.

Lyrically, Storm Front ranges from the obviously autobiographical (“That’s Not Her Style”) to the social and sympathetic (“The Downeaster ‘Alexa’”). While the Billy Joel fan might be happy by how Billy Joel seems eager to stick up for his wife (at the time) Christy Brinkley by setting the record straight on who she actually is, it does not make for his most compelling song ever. In fact, despite the decent lines “Some people think that she's one of those mink-coated ladies / They say she wakes up at one / And she makes the paparazzi run till dawn,” Joel gets some truly clunky rhymes like “Not that she's never done something crazy or done something wild / It's just that she's better at doing whatever suits her style / And that's not her style” on “That’s Not Her Style.” In other words, Joel opens a song that will never be mistaken for “Uptown Girl” in terms of lyrical or audio quality!

That said, Joel is exceptionally smart on most of the songs on Storm Front. In addition to the clever list song “We Didn’t Start The Fire” (which is pretty impressive for the rhymes and history), Joel has a wonderful sense of perspective on the (probably) autobiographical song “Leningrad.” The musical storysong about Cold War life in the Soviet Union and Joel’s trip there after the fall of the U.S.S.R. is surprisingly compelling. It’s easy to tear up when Joel’s song climaxes when he sings, “And so my child and I came to this place / To meet him eye to eye and face to face / He made my daughter laugh, then we embraced / We never knew what friends we had / Until we came to Leningrad” (“Leningrad”).

The only real lyrical dud on Storm Front is the title track. I get that Joel was trying to tie an interpersonal mess into a sailing song, but “Storm Front” just does not work. Indeed, it does sound like he is trying to sing a weather report when he belts out, “We've got a low pressure system and a northeast breeze / We've got a falling barometer and rising seas / We've got the cumulonimbus and a possible gale / We've got a force nine blowing on the Beaufont scale”(“Storm Front”). Sadly, it is too specific with the phrasing to be actually clever and that is why it fails.

On the whole, though, Storm Front is a real treat. The album contains plenty of songs that are not included on his “best of” compilations that are actually glaring oversights. While I still love “I Go To Extremes,” it is hard for me not to admit that “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’” is the album’s best track. The low point is “Storm Front,” but even that is not enough to discourage me from an enthusiastic recommendation of the album.

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
River Of Dreams
12 Gardens Live
Fantasies & Delusions


Check out how this album stacks up against all of the others I have reviewed by visiting my Music Review Index Page: where albums are ranked best to worst!

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