My Lives

Billy Joel

Sony, 2005

http://www.billyjoel.com/

REVIEW BY: Jeff Clutterbuck

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 07/03/2006

While carousing around the 'net the other day, a statistic caught my eye. It said Billy Joel, according to the RIAA, is the sixth-best-selling artist of all time. While I knew Joel was popular, the sixth best? That's 78.5 million records, for those keeping track. Stunned by this revelation, I decided it might to be time to dig deeper into Joel's career. Luckily, the man made this an easier task that I anticipated with the release of My Lives.

Joel says in the liner notes to My Lives that he can understand why some people don't like his music based off the countless hits he's had. This box set in theory was created to show off the multiple facets to Joel as an artist. After plowing through this thing three times, I'm still not sold on that being the official reason for this set's existence. One purpose definitely seems to have been a cleaning out of the vaults, so to speak. 23 of the songs here have never been released previously, and there are different versions of old standards. Throw in some B-Sides, live performances, and a live DVD, and I suppose you certainly get a glimpse of the versatility of Joel. One would think though more album cuts would have made the list, instead of demos.

The set itself plays in a rough chronological order, so the listener is presented Joel's career as it played out. Kicking off Disc 1 are five songs assembled from the various groups Joel had been a member of before settling on a solo career. None of these songs blow your socks off, but they are fun listens. Joel with the The Lost Souls is essentially a Beatles sound-a-like group. The two contributions from The Hassles are marginally better; showcasing an R&B style ("You Got Me Hummin'") that's pleasing to the ear. "Amplifier Fire" features the brilliant sound of a drum and organ combo (seriously, what were these guys on to even make them think this was a good idea?). From this point on, it's Billy Joel the rest of the way.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

While the man refined his craft obviously, I was impressed by how mature the early Oyster Bay/Piano Man works were. "She's Got A Way," has got to be up there as one of Joel's best ballads. "Oyster Bay" spots us one of those classic Joel character studies while taking its sound from Elton John-era Elton. "Piano Man" is given here in demo form, so there are altered lyrics and a slightly annoying echo effect. You can hear Joel playing around with the general melody, developing it ever so slightly. "The Siegfried Line" plays as a jaunty, acoustic track, a sound Joel would utilize well throughout the rest of his career. While the rest of the disc is gold, there are two tracks which particular caught my ear; a demo version of "Miami 2017" and "Zanzibar." "Miami 2017" is just a solo piano demo, but there is something about hearing it stripped down that makes the lyrics more affecting and mournful. "Zanzibar" is taken from Joel's album 52nd Street, and damn if Steely Dan couldn't have sounded like this. Sounding like an outtake from Aja, "Zanzibar" is one of Joel's best jazz/rock fusions.

Disc 2 continues the string of good material, with the best coming from the Innocent Man sessions. "Christie Lee" is looser, and in my mind captures the sound Joel was attempting, better than the original. "The Longest Time," becomes "The Prime Of Your Life," a more up-tempo version with actual instrumentations as opposed to its eventual a cappella arrangement. A dance remix of "Keepin' The Faith" manages to give that song the oomph it needed, as opposed to the original. Finally, a cover of Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin,'" taken from Joel's Russian tour, is fitting, given the context.

The first two discs contain the best material, and are the highlight of this set. Unfortunately, things fall apart with the final two. The track list is loaded with covers of Elvis, The Beatles, Jerry Lee Lewis, etc. While the performances themselves are not bad, they fail to fit in with the whole idea of Joel being a vital recording artist. It was around this time he started churning out material far less frequently, and it's represented here. A few interesting items of note are the completely different subject matter of "All About Soul" and the alternate version of "River of Dreams," which seems to have been remixed differently with the vocals and keyboards feature much more prominently.

Disc 4 is an assortment of live material and some of the classical works that became Joel's creative output in the new millennium. Of the live material, I enjoyed the Elton John/Billy Joel duet of "You May Be Right," the driving "Los Angelenos," and Joel's performance of "Don't Worry Baby," from the Brian Wilson tribute concert in 2001, but not much else. The classical material was certainly intriguing; the performance of "Elegy" by the London Symphony Orchestra was breathtaking. I would like to give Fantasies And Delusions a full listen sometime.

One thing is for certain; I heard sides of Billy Joel I had not heard before. There is some outstanding material to be found on My Lives, but not enough of it. That is what hurts this set in the long run; Joel's lack of good work as his career wound down.

Rating: B-

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