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4.6 out of 5 stars76
4.6 out of 5 stars
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 29 October 2010
Well thats what the advertising blurb says. And for once I think its justified. Whether you buy the standard album or the deluxe edition you won't be disappointed. This is clearly an album Elton John made purely from the heart, to give Leon Russell the limelight back he deserves. As Elton says on the DVD there are no egos involved in this. So this isn't a superstar pairing designed to make money (well not for Elton anyway). In many ways Leon is the star on this. Its his Piano fills and licks that feature, where Eltons Piano playing is mostly relegated to rhythm parts - and thats how Elton wanted it.

The songs are written mainly by Elton, Leon and Bernie Taupin and there are some absolute corkers on here. The album starts with the wistful/romantic Piano introduction to Leon's "If it wasn't for bad", which turns into a great little rock tune. Leon (with Bernie Taupin) also contributes another standout track "I should have sent Roses". This is a marvellous song with an aching melody.

However if you think that Elton is outclassed by his hero you'd be completely wrong. "Hey Ahab" is a wonderfully rocking Gospel feel track and the Civil War ballad "Gone to Shiloh" is another standout from Elton and Bernie. A special mention for Neil Youngs contribution on this track, which gives it very much a Band like feel with three different vocalists taking the lead.

If I was being very critical I'd say there are a few tracks which seem like fillers - the sort of thing that would have appeared on a normal Elton John album (so still fine songs). However even these are lifted by the arrangements and T-Bone Burnetts production.

So where to place this in the cannon of these two great artists. Leon hasn't recorded the sheer volume that Elton has and so it must rate amongst his best, though not as good as his eponymous 1970 album. Not much is!

The last ten years have been very good for Elton. The return to form of "Songs from the West Coast" (2001) and "The Captain and the Kid" (2006) mean that you can't just dismiss those albums. But overall this is better than those two, and in a different league to most of his 1980s and 90s material. Even "Two Low for Zero" which I recently bought on CD isn't in the same class. So yes you have to go back to the 70s to find better Elton John albums and even then theres only a few that match or better this.
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on 5 November 2010
As others have said, the CD is fantastic. Wonderful to see Leon Russell still knocking it out so well. But don't waste your money on the so-called "deluxe edition". The DVD content is all interviews, and lasts barely 15 minutes. I feel it is a total rip off, and adds absolutely nothing to the overall package. I feel completely cheated out of several quid. Stick with the standard issue. You're missing nothing - not even if you atre a dyed in the wool Elton or Leon fan. This would have been a 5 star review, but I can't bring myself to do it, as a result.
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on 25 October 2010
This album is giving me more pleasure than any Elton album since the mid 70s. Recorded live, it's a soulful blend of gospel, blues, country and pop. It fits together beautifully, helped by T Bone Burnett's production with horns and female backing vocals adding colour.

The opener If It Wasn't for Bad is a feelgood upbeat catchy number, one of 4 written by Leon Russell without Elton, with romping pianos to the fore. The ballad Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes i find graceful and gently endearing. Hey Ahab is a highlight, Elton's strongest rocking track for ages, that reminded me of Billy Bones on the Rock of the Westies album. I could almost smell the sea and hear the crash of great waves and the whale. Gone to Shiloh is a masterpiece, one of my favourites in Elton's whole catalogue, a civil war song that would have suited early albums like Tumbleweed Connection. It's taken to to a higher level by Neil Young's beautiful middle verse, his voice sounding young and fresh as its April rain. Jimmy Rodgers' Dream has a pleasant country lilt, again reminiscent of Elton's classic early years. There's no Tomorrow may have a dirge-like tempo but also a rich dark mood with deep roots to be savoured and, co-written by The Mighty Hannibal, brought to mind a swaying New Orleans funeral march.

Monkey Suit is a rocker lifted well above recent Elton upbeat numbers when the brass section kicks in. Best Part of the Day is a ballad with moments that send tingles down my spine, while underlining the sense of togetherness. A Dream Come True has a cheerful infectious foot-tapping jingle, followed by When Love is Dying which at first seemed a bit inflated for the strength of its repeated chorus, but has grown on me. Next up, another song i treasure, I Should've Sent Roses, by Leon and Elton's lyricist Bernie Taupin, with a bittersweet yet somehow warm enveloping mood. I like Hearts Have Turned to Stone too for its spirited backing vocals and groovy horns, along with Leon's engaging earthiness. You're Never Too Old is a slow ballad i was doubtful of but coming to appreciate thanks to some fine piano touches. And then a lovely finish In the Hands of Angels, by Leon, a song as gift of thanks to Elton, all the more touching for Leon's being revitalised after ill health and an operation.

Great credit to Leon Russell for his part in Elton's best in decades, finally worthy of his 70s heyday, and rightly given 5 stars in Rolling Stone, along with many other critical raves. I'm falling in love with it. Elton sang at the end of the Captain Fantastic album, "there's treasure children always seek to find"; well, after all these years, here's treasure enough for me.

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DELUXE VERSION: BEWARE DVD, MUSICAL REWARD. It is certainly not worth paying extra for the very short- 6 minute!- dvd on the making of the album. I bought the deluxe all the same on the strength of one of the 2 additional tracks (integrated near the end of a slightly changed order); the gorgeous velvety Mandalay Again, an astonishingly good song to be left off the main album. The upbeat My Kind of Hell does the album's standard no harm either, so i've been delighted to have a magnificent 16 rather than 14 track album. Maybe best to check out the extra tracks if you can before buying.
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on 31 October 2010
By going back to his roots Elton moves majestically forward.The songs here are as good as any he has penned with Bernie Taupin since the 70's. His championing of Leon Russell has clearly inspired everyone to up their game.This is an album that is poignant,upbeat,diverse and subtle....it demands multiple listening to reap the rewards.
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on 29 October 2010
2 of the finest songwriters, musicians and vocalists ever. Nothing can really sum up how good this record is. It invokes that time when between 1969 and 1976 elton made 11 classic studio albums.
Leons profile and success may have gone in the opposite direction to his protegee but this is a man who wrote Song for You, Superstar, This Masquerade,Back to the Island. Classic songs from a man who played on all spectors tracks, Beach Boys,Dylan and was band leader for Delaney and Bonnie, Joe Cocker and had Beatles play on his albums.
A legend helping another legend back to the international stage. This album is beautiful and the reason it was made is one of the most uplifting stories in music.
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on 4 November 2010
Let's get one thing straight. The Union is not a "comeback" album, a "swan song," a last gasp, or a crass commercial exercise. It's not a misguided effort at authenticity, or only 50% good (based on who you're a fan of), or too ballad-heavy, or not piano-driven enough. It is what it is, and what it is, is a joyous collaboration between two giants of popular music, one who faded from the limelight but never lost his inspiration, and one who's been in the limelight almost continuously for 40 years and, likewise, has not lost his inspiration.

How can you not love the premise behind The Union? What a great reason to make an album - to return a musical idol to public attention and appreciation, as well as financial solvency. And true to form, Elton didn't try to dictate how the songwriting or the recording should turn out. He didn't try to make Leon into something he isn't. But dictating a creative outcome also would have been against Elton's natural inclination to defer to the talent of others, to afford colleagues free rein to do what they do best. Were Elton so inclined to be a meddler, though, it would have been a curious exercise given the influence Leon has had on Elton's melodic and pianistic styles. (Reflecting on the halcyon days of 1970-72, one realizes how much of Leon's down-home, funky vocal phrasings Elton adapted to his own creative sensibilities. Elton's singing on "Can I Put You On?," "The Cage," and even "Honky Cat" are tips of the hat to Leon's inspiration.)

This project, then, works so well one is tempted to think that Leon might have written Elton's songs and Elton Leon's songs, although the first track, "If it wasn't for Bad," would have been one of the quirkier efforts Elton has ever pulled off. (Yet he's been known to be quirky. Think "Madman" or "Better Off Dead" or, yes, "Bennie and the Jets.") The point is that our two heroes, who have been dubbed the "Master and the Rocket Man," are among the most obvious of duos that have never happened until now. Looking back on some of Elton's other collaborators, one is almost painfully reminded of what could have been, and been a lot sooner, if Elton hadn't gotten sidetracked by certain other people. Eric Clapton? Too much wailing guitar. Billy Joel? Too New-York-schtick. George Michael? Too stuck on marijuana.

The thing is, even if Leon is known for southern rock, only the uninitiated (or perhaps willfully ignorant) assume that this sort of music is alien to Elton. Even if Leon leans toward country, we know that Elton has featured, more often than not, at least one country track on every album he's released since the beginning. Even if Leon incorporates jazz riffs in his playing, anyone with at least one working ear drum knows that jazz forms are second nature to Elton. Even if Leon shows an affinity for secular gospel, Elton does, too, from "Border Song" to "Where's the Shoorah?" to the latest live piano intro to "Take Me to the Pilot," and beyond. Soul? Sure. Sad balladry? Certainly. Love songs? Ditto.

Today, in The Union, when Elton and Leon sing on each other's songs (or just supply backing vocals on the other's tunes), their voices complement each other. Leon sounds like a rough-edged, down-on-his-luck Willie Nelson. He can express the essence of a melody convincingly despite his lack of a conventional singing voice. Conversely, the power, richness, and tonal flexibility of Elton's vocals have progressed so dramatically since Reg rendered a boyish, tinny sound to "Come Back Baby" that it's hard to see how he can ever interpret a rocker or a ballad any better than he does now. Thus, Leon takes the vulnerable, weathered, uncertain side of a song, while Elton comforts or provides backbone, as the case may be.

The different voices of the Master and the Rocket Man blend to afford any given song an alternate perspective. But these two must have their significant differences, mustn't they? Well, yes. Elton almost never writes his own words. Leon does. And Leon's thick, lustrous, flowing hair demonstrates more follicular fortune than Elton has ever enjoyed. In fact, each musician's dramatically different capacity for hair production could be said to symbolically illustrate the difference in their personas. Leon, generally media shy, seems hidden behind a mask; Elton is out there for everybody to see, all the time, bright as the noontime sun.

So what about those fabulous new songs? Here we go:

If It Wasn't for Bad: Leon's witty, weird, magnetic draw to the adventure that The Union is. Quizzical piano chords splash their way through the song. Simple yet clever, Leon's lines are an entertaining collection of opposites, as he bitingly reflects on how he's been snookered into entering into what he thought would be a promising relationship: "If it wasn't for you I'd be happy/If it wasn't for lies you'd be true/I know that you could be just like you should/If it wasn't for bad you'd be good."

Eight Hundred Dollar Shoes: One of Elton's typically melodic country waltzes featuring cinematic lyrics from Bernie: "You came like an invasion, all bells and whistles blowin'/Reaping the rewards of the fable you'd been sowing/...Oh you came to town in headlines/And eight hundred dollar shoes."

Hey Ahab: Among the most addictive, visceral, in-your-face rockers of Elton's career, with its basis in explosive boogie-woogie. Leon provides a sort of buzzy vocal undercurrent that gives the song an almost sinister edge. Elton is at his most vocally funky here, strategically inserting grunt-hums wherever the lyric's syllables cut short.

Gone to Shiloh: A U.S. Civil War tale which, through its military march tempo, gentle percussion evoking distant cannon fire, foreboding melody, and perfect use of Neil Young's eerie, high-pitched voice to share in the verses, is one of the most haunting of recordings ever found on an Elton John album.

Jimmie Rodgers' Dream: Breezy homage to the Father of Country Music, a native of Meridian, Mississippi, who alternated between showbiz and railroad work (sometimes as a brakeman) before his untimely, Depression-era death. One may hear hints of past EJ tunes and/or Taupin lyrics: "Wicked Dreams," "Country Comfort," "Look Ma No Hands," and "Postcards from Richard Nixon" all come to mind.

There's No Tomorrow: This funeral dirge may be only a semi-original effort, given that it's built around The Mighty Hannibal's "Hymn No. 5," but it offers the most dramatic combination on the album of all available studio voices. Elton, Leon, and a backing, gospel-style chorus belt out grim lines with such force that you might have hope for the future after a couple of listens, despite what the singers contend.

Monkey Suit: Another boogie woogie-based rocker with a dash of Chuck Berry thrown in, it's a notch less gripping than "Hey Ahab" - but it would be hard to match "Ahab"'s vein-popping aggressiveness. Watch out, though, as this track may cause you to bellow "monkey suit!" incessantly, while driving in traffic, even if people are looking your way.

The Best Part of the Day: Is this really a reflection about best friends, or about lovers who fit each other like a pair of old gloves? I vote for the latter. "Grab the bottle and slide my way," Bernie writes. "Roll back the covers and raise the shades." Elton and Leon's performance captures the dreamy, relaxed satisfaction of the song's two soul mates who watch the morning unfold as they marvel at their blissful circumstances. An ideal sing-along song, it's the most folk-oriented of the album's tracks.

A Dream Come True: The tune that grew out of a jam between Elton and Leon at the start of recording; perhaps the song presenting the greatest "toe-tapping" potential. This fast-paced Fats Domino-inspired string of staccato piano phrases makes you hope the track will go on for a while, and it does, until there's nothing left but a couple of rolled piano chords and a stray tuba breath.

When Love is Dying: Some might accuse Elton here of re-working "The One," which has been unfairly denigrated as an exercise in overblown pop balladry, but one need not insult "The One" nor "When Love is Dying" to praise one or the other. Instead, their significance can be recognized with an open mind and welcoming heart. "The One" is a celebration of new love - so why shouldn't it sound like a celebration? - with a soaring melody harkening back to "Someone Saved My Life Tonight," which Elton has said was influenced by The Beach Boys. Coincidentally or not, Brian Wilson guests on "When Love is Dying," providing back-up singing and vocal arrangements. By his very involvement, he anoints the track with his approbation, as well he should. Thematically, it's the flip side of "The One," once the new lovers have spent their passion and, before they know it, can't get it back. What is more, Elton's soaring melody oozes a desperation that makes the song an heir to some of the love laments of late 50s, early 60s doo-wop ensembles. Wow.

I Should Have Sent Roses: Speaking of dying love, here is Leon's take on the phenomenon, as he assigns a moody, almost gut-wrenching, jazz-inflected melody to some of Taupin's saddest lyrics. As with "When Love is Dying," Elton and Leon trade tragic reflections, and their harmonizing on the chorus ("I never sent roses/I never did enough/I didn't know how to love you/Though I loved you so much") is spine-tingling. You feel rotten after listening, but in a good way.

Hearts Have Turned to Stone: Written and sung by Leon with Elton only providing a few choice backing vocal phrases, this is an infectious, snappy, blues number that is made more so by Leon's arrangement for the back-up singers, who echo or punctuate bits of the lyric lines as he sings: "I'm out here in the darkness (yes!)/I hear the howling wind (wind!)/Sometimes I sit and wonder (yes!)/Will I ever see love again (`gain!)."

Never Too Old (To Hold Somebody): Though written by John and Taupin, the sentiments apply equally to not only the songwriting pair of 43 years, but Leon, too. All have "been there and done that" and seen things they wish they hadn't, bearing scars to show for all of it. But they are still entitled to pursue new goals and enjoy happy companionship in their later years. It is not just a young person's world anymore. The Master and the Rocket Man vocalize most intimately here, Leon's singing sounding appropriately weary, Elton's reaching a new level of loveliness, as the backing chorus eventually chimes in for an anthemic build-up.

In the Hands of Angels: Just knowing the reason for Leon composing this song (music and lyrics) is enough to coax tears from the eyes. "Angels" tells the story of Leon's resignation to Twilight Years of obscurity and ill fortune when, lo and behold, Elton reenters his life, and proposes getting together for an album. Referring to Elton's U.S. manager, Johnny Barbis, and the Rocket Man himself, Leon sings: "Johnny and the Governor/Came and brought me to my senses/They made me feel just like a king/Made me lose all my bad defenses/And they knew all the places I needed to go/All of the people I needed to know/ They knew who I needed/And who needed me." It's a secular gospel number, despite the reference to "angels," and is the only track on the album on which Elton neither sings nor plays. But his absence is only fitting, as "Angels" is Leon's gift to him. What a way to close the album.

Fans of Elton and Leon can thank T-Bone Burnett for bringing out the best in both men and surrounding them with such capable, spirited musicians and singers.

Elizabeth J. Rosenthal, author of Birdwatcher: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson
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on 18 November 2010
All of Elton's albums of the 2000s were brilliant and rank among his best. This one joins that hallowed company.

Who expected him to go back and duet with Leon? Who expected it to be of such a high grade? The older, experienced dudes are simply so much better than the younger, diluted pretenders going around today.

Serious fans of the 'Madman' and 'Tumbleweed' LPs should not miss this.
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on 3 December 2010
I am a life-long Elton fan and appreciate his respect for Leon. However, not one of the better Elton albums I feel but maybe I need to keep playing it until it clicks.
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on 16 November 2010
I've been a big fan of Leon Russell for a long time and was thrilled that Elton John tracked him down and created this work of art with him. Absolutely fantastic. Every track is stunning. My two favourite albums are Captain Fantastic and Leon Russell and the Shelter People. To combine the two talents is a dream come true. Thank you.
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on 26 October 2010
Musically the album is first rate. The strengths of both artists is to the fore, enhanced by the superior production of T Bone Burnett.

My review is to warn people against any expectations of the DVD. It's no more than the promotion clip already aired on the internet. If like me you expected a little more for the additional expenditure, you will be disappointed. I hear a full lenght DVD will be issued at a later date. Shame on the record company for milking fans. Save your extra cash and buy the standard cd/download. The deluxe version is a con.
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