Billy Joel is the Samuel Johnson of rock 'n' roll, driven by his command of language to the verge of poetry but stolidified by common sense.
He is capable of both sentimentality and crudeness, but he has a clear vision of human frailty and the wit to imply it. Even his more frail compositions have style and energy, and his live performances have been consistently satisfying. Word of a forthcoming live album aroused a lot of interest, but this may not quite answer it.
"Songs in the Attic" (Columbia TC 37461) is not a typical live album, although all the tracks were recorded in concert. Instead, it's a second airing of songs from his first four albums (pre-"The Stranger") which, while mainstays of his concerts for years, received little or no airplay.
There are two songs here from "Cold Spring Harbor," three from "Piano Man," two from "Streetlife Serenade" and four from "Turnstiles," still his best album. Three of the tracks were recorded here in Washington, at what Joel remembers as "The Bijou" down under the Whitehurst Freeway.
Pounding life into these old sleepers must have been a consummation devoutly wished by the artist, but any Joel fan who doesn't know the early albums would do better to acquire "Turnstiles" and be done with it. Joel has grown far beyond most of the rest of these early drafts, and has rewritten some to better effect.
Joel's album notes are not always enlightening. For example, he says that "Summer, Highland Falls" embodies "the futility of introspection and the symmetry of surrender." That's like picking lint out of your bellybutton and calling it omphaloskepsis, but the song itself is nicely balanced between romance and pragmatism.
Among the album's better moments are "Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)," a vision of the dismantling of the boroughs that predates "Escape From New York" by about five years and is a great deal more convincing; and "Say Goodbye to Hollywood," a memory of the making of memories. The album closes with a heartfelt rendition of "I've Loved These Days," in which silky indulgence triumphs over mere virtue.
There are curiosities here for the fan. "Everybody Loves You Now," from "Cold Spring Harbor," is a Stephen Daedalus which has descendants in several Joel songs, from "The Entertainer" (not included here, surprisingly) to "Big Shot" and "Don't Ask Me Why." And, in his notes to "The Ballad of Billy the Kid" (which has an endearing "nyah, nyah" chorus), Joel reveals that the alter ego of the song is not himself, but a Long Island bartender.
There are misses, too. "Captain Jack," a sneer at semi-hip suburban druggie adolescence, was somewhat dated in 1971 and seems more so now; but the vocal is much more powerful this time around. "Streetlife Serenade," "Los Angelenos" and "She's Got a Way" have not noticeably improved with age.
Still, if you're a late-comer, "Songs in the Attic" is a quick way to catch up; ditto "Nine Tonight" (Capitol STBK 12182), Bob Seger's second live double album. But you'd do better to buy "Night Moves" and the original "Live Bullet," one of the most powerful live performances ever produced.
Where Joel is Sam Johnson, the sophist, Seger is John the Baptist, crying the rock 'n' roll creed alone in the wilderness. If you like Seger, and you haven't been buying his albums since '77 or so, you might contemplate this roll call of greatest hits. However, there are two problems when "the hits just keep on rollin'." First, since Seger's distinctive voice is always hoarse, his live versions sound very much like the studio recordings. Second, stacking "Night Moves" and "Mainstreet" and "Hollywood Nights" et al. together makes their similarities almost overpowering.