A recording artist is ultimately judged by the body of work he creates as well as how that canon stands the test of time and bears the passing of trends. Time has been remarkably kind to Billy Joel's work. Ever-shifting public taste has been less so.
Joel has been filed in a bin where, quite frankly, he just doesn't belong. He's considered by many to be a middle-of-the-road pop artist, a purveyor of oldies, an entertainer for people with less than fully developed musical tastes.
Surely, Joel has been tarred with someone else's brush.
Even a cursory glance at his achievements reveals an edgy, insistent creativity; a boatload of punklike attitude; a serious dedication to musicianship; and a pretty remarkable consistency. The worst thing that can be said about Joel's collection of albums is that much of the production employed sounds of its time and has become a bit dated. But the work itself? It screams for a deeper scrutiny than it has been granted.
Certainly, Joel is a pop songwriter and performer, in much the same fashion that Paul McCartney, James Taylor or even Randy Newman are pop artists. "Pop" needn't be thought of as a dirty word, clearly, especially when it is simply denoting a certain melodic and harmonic arrangement of material, the goal being to come up with something both memorable and, one hopes, meaningful. Joel has consistently done this. Let's celebrate his arrival in Buffalo this Tuesday with a look back at some of the finer moments in his recorded career:
*"The Stranger": This entire album is memorable, particularly for the manner in which it balances irreverence and beauty. The musicianship is excellent throughout.
*"Laura": This snarling "Nylon Curtain" track is brimming with John Lennon's influence, evidenced by its circular chord progression. It also proves Joel can be as cuttingly sardonic as Warren Zevon.
*"And So it Goes": Essentially a Romantic-era miniature for piano, with vocal. It's a beautiful piece.
*"Captain Jack": The ugly side of '60s consciousness-expansion. Joel observes a junkie layabout stuck in his hometown, and somehow manages to make the song address the death of '60s idealism and the onset of the narcissistic '70s. (I think. . .)
*"Don't Ask Me Why": Sounds like a "White Album"-era McCartney tune, with Joel's own particular melodic fingerprint.
*"The Downeaster 'Alexa' ": Passionate documentation of a vanishing way of life. Handled deftly by Joel, who manages to make the rapidly-becoming-redundant fisherman's case without overstating it.
This is only the tip of the iceberg, of course. Joel's work continues to resonate, and his back catalog is well worth reinvestigating, or discovering for the first time.
Check in with Jeff at his Miers on Music blog at www.buffalonews.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHO: Billy Joel
WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesday
WHERE: HSBC Arena
TICKETS: $51 to $86.50
INFO: (888) 223-6000 or www.hsbcarena.com