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CAUTION: ELTON'S LATEST MAY CAUSE DROWSINESS

CD Review

Peachtree Road

Elton john ** 1/2 (out of four)

Universal

The advance buzz on "Peachtree Road" was that it would be Elton John's comeback album.

It's the record, the thinking went, that would finally reconcile the Versace-suited, Las Vegas-playing modern-day diva with the man who gave us the early-70s brilliance of albums like "Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player" and, of course, the timeless "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road."

Well, it clearly isn't.

Following the success of the 2002 effort "Songs From the West," which was the first hint of a pulse from John-the-recording-artist in more than a decade, "Peachtree Road" attempts to continue the upward climb. This time, John's writing is infused with hints of the American South throughout, and a laid-back, easygoing groove permeates the affair. Trouble is, it's so laid-back, it's almost horizontal.

Teaming once again with lyricist Bernie Taupin -- the man responsible for the text of all of John's greatest songs -- old Reginald digs deep into the ballad bag, emerges with a few pleasant surprises, but then proceeds to undermine them with lame production and a flaccid pacing that finds nearly every tune repeating its predecessor's tempo.

This is surprising coming from a record-maker as seasoned as John; tunes placed consecutively on an album that share tempo and harmonic similarities can derail the musical train, preventing the ear from latching onto anything, much as the eye seeks texture, contrast and objects posited in relief on a painting.

Too much of "Peachtree Road" just seems to melt into one rather tedious journey through bland, banal ballads. Nothing really stands out.

That said, John is eminently talented, and he's in pretty good voice here, though the real star is not his earnest rhythm 'n' blues-based singing, but the way his refined piano playing slides effortlessly into the mix- whether his seasoned band is mining the shallower depths of country music or wrapping its gold lame-clad arms around hokey faux-gospel. There is an understated beauty in John's ivory tinkling, and it provides the most readily apparent heartbeat on this album.

It all begins innocently enough with "Weight of the World," a mildly John Lennon-esque ballad that wouldn't have been entirely out of place on one of John's first five albums - the oeuvre that forged the reputation he's spent the rest of his career riding on. John sings convincingly here; one feels he's invested himself in Taupin's lyrics, and the chord progression he wraps around that text is fairly inspired.

"Porch Swing in Tupelo" follows, and - surprise, surprise - it's in the exact same tempo. All isn't lost, however, as the Georgia locale where the body of the album was recorded seeps into the tracking, and longtime John compadre Davey Johnstone lends idiomatically dead-on dobro lines and sparse electric guitar lines to what is essentially a pop-gospel-country-ballad, a genre John seems wholly at home within.

"Answer in the Sky" arrives, and we see a pattern beginning to emerge.

Yes, it's another piano ballad, this time one lent familiarity by "Philadelphia Freedom"-like strings and a melodic configuration that recalls "Club at the End of the Street." The production is a bit cloying here, and the implied country music touches provided by Johnstone's baritone and slide guitars seem ill at ease, as if an afterthought. John, as producer, lays it on a bit thick here, so that another fine vocal is cut off at the knees by sappy strings and wholly superfluous, layered pseudo-gospel backing vocals. This one might've worked better as a voice-piano number, uncluttered and underproduced.

"Turn the Lights Out When You leave" is another ballad in the country tradition, the difference being that - despite what has already by this point become a tiresome inter-connectedness between tunes - this time it works quite well. John's melody is instantly compelling, the heartbreak in Taupin's lyric lent credence by the impassioned vocal delivery. This is prime Elton, the sort of tune that goes at least a bit of the way toward justifying his existence in the world of modern rock and pop. You can tell he's feeling this one deeply, and as a result, you feel it, too.

"Too Many Tears" stands as another pinnacle, a winning marriage of melody to lyric unsullied by obnoxious, clinical production tendencies. When Elton leaves the door open a crack, it's easy enough to enter the room, basking in what's left of his lambency, thankful for the opportunity. But too often, he's well-heeled and buttoned-down; one desires a cold Budweiser with the man, but he's busy sipping $500-a-bottle champagne from a Waterford Crystal goblet.

And on it goes, 11 of the 12 songs either fully inhabiting or renting a room within the blue ballad motel. All well-crafted, immaculately performed, intelligently arranged. Tough to criticize. But even tougher to warm up to. For hardcore fans only, then.

e-mail: jmiers@buffnews.com

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