The Captain and the Kid
Elton John and Evan Dando of the Lemonheads have a lot more in common than meets they eye. Both men can create ingratiating pop songs with impeccable flair seemingly at will, Dando with a buzzsaw guitar that rocks and John with a baroque piano that rolls. Both peaked a few years into their career, John with a string of classic early to mid-Seventies albums and Dando with a shorter string of classic early to mid-Nineties releases.
And both survived a long skid, fueled in part by substance abuse, with John's decline characterized by one mediocre album after another between by forays into cartoon soundtracks, and Dando doing one better by simply dropping out.
More recently, both men have made a modest return to form, with John releasing the stately Songs from Northern England (2001) and its 2004 follow-up Peachtree Road, and Dando issuing an unassuming but shaggily endearing solo debut, Baby I'm Bored, in 2003.
Both men are back with new albums: a self-titled disc by Dando's reconstituted Lemonheads, and John's The Captain and the Kid, a loosely-themed follow-up to 1975 blockbuster Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. In both cases, critics are calling the new releases the best work by Dando and John since their respective heydays.
Which may be wishful thinking, especially in John's case. The idea behind The Captain and the Kid sounds promising, with the CD billed as a look back at the period when the scrappy, hungry John and his songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin, made their debut trip to the US and were quickly crowned the biggest pop phenomenon since the Beatles.
The album is an ambitious undertaking, one that places John firmly in the "he cares again about his music" category. But despite his best intentions, the 60-year-old John has been working in the middle of the road for too long, and he doesn't come close here to recapturing his past glory. He can't quite muster the unforgettable melodies and arrangements that were used by rock-loving film directors like Cameron Crowe to create a mood that defines an era.
The album's opening and closing bookends - the Seventies-sounding "Postcards From Richard Nixon" and the poignant title song - come the closest, with John's soulful piano and Taupin's wry, topical lyrics leading directly down memory lane toward Tumbleweed Connection and Honky Chateau.
But the material in between the album's robust start and finish is weaker, with pleasant but toothless ballads ("The Bridge," "Blues Never Fade Away") and generic rock ("Wouldn't Have it Any Other Way," "And the House Fell Down") more reminiscent of John's lost Eighties period than his heyday.
This being Elton John, it's still easy to listen to, even enjoyable in places. But if you're looking for John's best album in 30 years, stick to Songs from Northern England.
The Lemonheads' latest album is another matter. Most of the material on The Lemonheads could be from the long-lost sequel to 1991 power pop classic It's A Shame About Ray. When it comes to skillful guitar riffs, catchy melody lines and offbeat, likable lyrics, Dando can still compete with the best of them.
At the same time, the album's punky pop style sounds a little forced coming from someone who's nearly 40, as though Dando's trying to recapture his glory days despite the knowledge that he's already entered another phase of life.
Several years back, Baby I'm Bored seemed to reflect a newfound maturity for Dando, and its melancholy mood and acoustic sound provided a welcome step in the musician's return to the fold.
I'll keep playing gems from The Lemonheads like "Pittsburgh" and "Let's Just Laugh" whenever I want a pure pop fix, but Dando's best album since his heyday unquestionably remains Baby I'm BoredK/i>.