(Limited Edition SACD)
One tends to forget the unprecedented run of Billy Joel's hits, his decades-long career and his much-heralded residency at Madison Square Garden. Yet there have been some moments in the Piano Man's career that are not so celebrated. Such is the case of his third album, 1974's Streetlife Serenade. It's a collection of 10 tunes showcasing Joel's fine piano playing, a wide range of lyrical subjects and some sublimely layered arrangements. However, it did not enjoy the love that its predecessor Piano Man did. There are no hits like there are on the mega-successful The Stranger from 1977. Still, this is a brilliant album and it sounds perfectly rendered on the hybrid multichannel SACD from Audio Fidelity.
It opens with the little-too-long music hall-like "Streetlife Serenade," a song that gives us a good idea of how developed Joel's compositional skills were at this point in time. We are then into an electric piano-led "Los Angelenos." Joel brushes a matter-of-fact lyrical look at a city he came to record in and know well, but was far from his home. There is a soft synth and an equally soft Joel vocal on "The Great Suburban Showdown" with an underlying Tom Whitehorse pedal steel. Lyrically, Joel is mining the same concepts as he does on "Captain Jack," but just with a kinder look at where he's coming from.
"The Entertainer" is here with all its wry wordplay. The condemnation Joel spits at the record business, especially as he references having to cut down his hit to "3:05" (Supposedly "Piano Man," as he indeed went through such an ordeal when releasing it as a single) is priceless pop satire. Whitehorse's banjo picks up mid-way through and Joel grows angrier as the tune progresses. This one still sounds so fresh.
Electric guitar and piano open the staccato push of Ron Tutt's drums for "Weekend Song," a railing-against-your-day-job rocker. We get a quick piano and vocal on "Souvenir" followed by the second instrumental of this album, "The Mexican Connection." There are lots of stages this tune: The band gets big and loud at times, Joel layers piano and synth, and there are Latin-flavored passages featuring Joe Clayton's congas. Again we get another good earful of Joel's songwriting skills. Streetlife Serenade sounds great on the SACD, especially if you have a surround system because it's been remixed for multichannel. Hearing it reminds me how great an album it is. It gets slightly overlooked in the Billy Joel canon, but it's truly a solid piece of songwriting and playing all the same.
~ Ralph Greco. Jr.