Album of the Week, March 19: Glass Houses by Billy Joel

joelglasstvBilly Joel had music in his life from birth. His father was a classical pianist who fled Europe to escape the Nazis. His mother, another Jewish refugee, encouraged music in the household and insisted that young Billy take piano lessons. Despite his initial resistance, he showed a natural aptitude. After his parents divorced, he played in piano bars to help his mother make ends meet; that work interfered with his studies, and rather than extend his high school years, he dropped out to play rock and roll. Inspired by the Beatles, the Drifters, and the Four Seasons, he worked in a series of Long Island bands and did some session work.

His first solo album, Cold Spring Harbor, was released to little fanfare. While touring to support it, he was signed by Columbia and moved to Los Angeles. His experience in a local piano bar there formed the basis of the title track for his second album, Piano Man. That disc sold modestly, but established him as a talented singer, pianist, and songwriter with a knack for charming pop, sometimes with a rock edge. After two more solid albums that established his sound, he broke big with The Stranger, followed by the nearly as massive 52nd Street. By 1979, he was a certified superstar, with platinum #1 albums, nine Top 40 hits, and a handful of Grammy awards. Frustrated by his inability to get critical acclaim that matched his success, he headed to the studio with his long-time band to record his finest album.

Title Glass Houses
Act Billy Joel
Label Columbia Release Date March 10, 1980
Producer Phil Ramone
U.S. Chart  #1 U.K. Chart  #9
Tracks
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. You May Be Right [#7]
  2. Sometimes A Fantasy [#36]
  3. Don’t Ask Me Why [#19]
  4. It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me [#1]
  5. All For Leyna
  6. I Don’t Want to Be Alone
  7. Sleeping With the Television On
  8. C’était Toi (You Were the One)
  9. Close to the Borderline
  10. Through the Long Night

Glass Houses was both a departure and a logical progression. Joel intentionally incorporated more electronic keyboards and synths into the mix and pursued music with nods to punk and New Wave. Through it all, however, he still wrote, played, and sang like Billy Joel, creating a unique synthesis that worked almost in spite of itself. The shattering glass sound effect that opens side one is an apt aural metaphor.

The first four tracks were all Top 40 hits — an unusual feat for the time that duplicated the success of The Stranger. They’re a mixed bag, but each charming in their own right. You May Be Right borrowed from My Life and Movin’ Out, but added a post-punk edge to the sound. Joel roughened his vocals a bit, fitting the story of the bad boy looking for love on his own terms. The second track was another story altogether. Sometimes A Fantasy is a clever song about phone sex that sounds like an Elvis impersonator borrowing Billy Idol’s band. And it works. The result is fun, urgent, and one of Joel’s best songs. Don’t Ask Me Why is another look at relationships and personal interactions, just smug enough without being snide. It also sounds the most like his earlier hits, helping long-time fans feel at home.

It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me is famously the singer’s kiss-off to those who don’t appreciate his musical roots and approach. With nods to classic 50s pop sounds in a very New Wave setting, it shouldn’t work, but it does. Joel’s committed delivery and fun lyrics pull the whole thing together — and result in his first #1 single. Side one wraps up with a fantastic should-have-been-a-hit track. All For Leyna is an urgent, lusty tour-de-force. Joel’s protagonist is obsessed with a woman who may be indifferent, may be no good for him, may be just teaching him a lesson. Whatever the case, he can’t stay away. It’s a great song, with a stunning piano line and smart backup from the whole band.

After that set, side two somehow manages to keep up the pace. I Don’t Want to Be Alone is a wonderful love song, less easy listening than some of his earlier romantic tunes. Joel borrows a semi-Reggae riff that owes something to early Elvis Costello, giving the track an extra twist that helps it work. Sleeping With the Television On is his finest hit that never was, a perfect dissection of how independence and loneliness intersect. The mundane metaphor is perfect, adding a familiarity to the proceedings that makes the story universal. C’etait Toi is the lone throwaway, a fluffy bit of low-key wistfulness that’s partly in French for no particular reason.

On Close to the Borderline, Joel offers his own take on punk attitude. It’s somewhere between hard rock, pure punk, and new wave pop, and again, the determination and skill of the band make it work. It’s a fun romp that shows off how Joel can rock well when he puts his mind to it. Things wrap up with the most classic Joel moment. Through the Long Night sounds more like the decade it’s ushering in than the one it’s leaving, but the sweet sentiment and elegant delivery harken back to the Piano Man’s arc over the 15 previous years. It’s a smart track to end the disc, both as a career touchstone and as a sort of lullaby coda.

Over the course of ten tracks and barely 35 minutes, Billy Joel and company accomplish what they set out to do. Glass Houses is less a reinvention than a smart burst of artistic growth. The variety of lyrical and musical approaches helps it rise above his previous work. It also set the stage for the best — as well as the most indulgent — moments of the decades to come.

FURTHER LISTENING: Billy Joel has said he’s done recording pop and rock music, so his full career is available for the listening. With nearly three dozen Top 40 hits, he’s well anthologized. The three Greatest Hits volumes capture his radio-friendly career relatively well, tossing in a couple fan favorite album tracks for good measure. For a single disc sampling, either The Essential Billy Joel or The Hits does an adequate job that should satisfy the casual fan.

His just over a dozen albums are a mixed bag, usually including a couple of solid hits, a couple of great album tracks, some interesting songs, and some filler. The Stranger and 52nd Street are the most successful and most praised, but not my favorites. After Glass Houses, I recommend The Nylon Curtain. It’s trickier, and has some famously awkward lyrical moments, but the production is amazing and the adventurous spirit is compelling. An Innocent Man is a wonderful tribute to the music of Joel’s youth, and arguably his most consistent disc.

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Song of the Day, March 10: Sometimes A Fantasy by Billy Joel

joelfantasyToday’s song finds a well-known balladeer make a different approach pay off. By the time he released his finest album, 1980’s Glass Houses, Billy Joel was a bona fide star. A string of Top 20 hits from Top 5 albums established him as an accomplished singer of story songs and romantic ballads. His pop smarts and subtle rock edge were a perfect blend, but didn’t always result in critical acclaim.

Glass Houses responded to that situation brilliantly, with Joel exploring a range of styles from poppy punk to edgy new wave to urgent new takes on his pop traditions. One of the finest surprises was a Top 40 hit about phone sex. Sometimes A Fantasy is a charming wink-and-nod look at romantic frustration. Joel turns in a great vocal, keeping what could be a smarmy rant into something simmering. The result, expertly supported by his long-time band, is an unexpected moment in a strong catalog.

Enjoy this fun song today.

Song of the Day, December 5: Sleeping With the Television On by Billy Joel

joelglasstvBy the time he released his seventh album in March 1980, Billy Joel was a famously frustrated musician. His past two albums had cemented his relationship with his well-honed band and producer Phil Ramone. They had also generated platinum-level sales, a string of seven Top 40 singles, and a pair of Grammy awards. Critics, however, remained skeptical. Joel became known for his antipathy toward the rock press, and set out to record his response to the critics apparent preference for punk and new wave over his carefully crafted pop.

Glass Houses was another smash, spending six weeks at #1 and generating another four Top 40 hits, including Joel’s first #1, It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me. The other six tracks were also strong, resulting in his most consistent, rewarding package. Overall, the songs rocked a little harder, but they retained the pop smarts that are the hallmarks of the best of Billy Joel.

One standout track is Sleeping With the Television On, perhaps the finest non-single pop track in the Piano Man’s catalog. Directed at the fictional love interest Diane, it’s a song of romantic frustration. He wishes he was “a fool who’s not afraid of rejection,” lamenting the paralysis he suffers from over-thinking his best move. Smart, fun, funny, wistful, and perfect pop length at just over three minutes, it’s a catchy tour-de-force.

Enjoy this wonderful gem today.

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