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Leon Russell

Shelter 8911
Released: July 1972
Chart Peak: #2
Weeks Charted: 35
Certified Gold: 9/19/72

Leon RussellWhat Leon has given us is a song cycle that eloquently elaborates the daily vicissitudes of his fulfilled dream of popstardom. While the 8 1/2 motif is hardly new to rock, no one, with the exception of the Dylan of Blonde On Blonde, has captured the ambivalence inherent to the pop hero's situation any more sagaciously or incisively than Russell.

Carney (carnival barker) is certainly Leon's most gentle and personal statement, in which even the hardest rocker ("Roller Derby") seems tame when compared to earlier efforts like "Roll Away the Stone" or "Pisces Apple Lady." Like "8 1/2," the record is as much a view of one small, often ugly corner of contemporary society as it is an interior monologue. Leon touches upon a first love lost to junk ("Me And Baby Jane"), prying grafters from a certain prominent periodical ("If the Shoe Fits"), a pasquinade that sounds like an Asylum Choir number and confusion over whether or not the show must, indeed, go on ("Tightrope").

Leon's marble-mouthed, drawling vocals are a joy throughout, which comes as quite a treat to one who thoroughly detested much of his previous caterwauling (such as his Godawful mistreatment of George Harrison's "Beware Of Darkness"). He renders selections like "Tightrope" and the double-tracked vocal on "Out In The Woods" with just the right amount of tension and "Manhattan Island Serenade" and "This Masquerade" (a lovely melody whose tonic is the same as the Matt Dennis-Earl Brent chestnut, "Angel Eyes") with unabashed, yet understated tenderness. There is none of the cloying quality in Russell's voice and phrasing that somewhat marred his delicate "A Song For You," which was on the first solo album and is the most poignant lyric he has penned to date.

The production is hardly lavish, considering Leon's penchant for doing the large-scale gospel-influenced numbers, and the instrumental backing by this Shelter people troupe (which might be considered to be Russell's repertory company) is superbly subtle, especially John Gallie's organ work.

Like Fellini's Guido, Leon Russell will continue to partake in "the lonely game" he plays because it is his lifeblood, not to mention that he has managed to play it with consummate skill and shrewdness. Perhaps Carney is no more than another cool calculation on the part of its creator, but one comes away from the album secure in the knowledge that Leon is capable of exuding more wit, charm and candor than almost anyone else working in his medium.

- James Isaacs, Rolling Stone, 9-14-72.

Bonus Reviews!

It's an old line, but Leon Russell grows in artistry with each album. With his whorehouse piano style and Oklahoma accent, he's very much his own man and his own musician; it becomes a question of what he wants to do with himself, and he seems always to make the right decision. Carney is like Rubber Soul; there isn't a unifying theme, but you come away from it thinking there is. Perhaps that's because of the role Russell portrays here, casting himself as a wanderer making entries in a musical diary. God knows almost everyone has tried to play that role, but Russell brings it off well.

With the exception of "Acid Annapolis," a sound collage that could be inserted into a cheapo space movie, all the songs are by Russell, and some of them are very good indeed. "Roller Derby" is a lot of fun, "My Cricket" is touching, "Tight Rope" is a bouncy thing with nice rhythm breaks. Only Russell can sing so insinuatingly, which fits perfectly with the Carney role. He could be a folk hero or he could be the Illustrated Man. Tempting, a little scary, a little sad, and damn good -- Leon Russell can take care of himself.

- Joel Vance, Stereo Review, 12/72.

In this latest LP, the undauntable Leon Russell comes off as a slightly off-beat surprise and a revelation into the mind of a "superstar." Drawing inobvious parallels of an old-fashioned carnival to his own lifestyle he has crafted an amazingly insightful work. Singing in what is still the most delightful exaggerated twang is rockdom he will enchant his corps of worshipful followers with such songs as "Me and Baby Jane," "Tight Rope," and "This Masquerade."

- Billboard, 1972.

This is Leon Russell's third album, if you don't count the refurbished out-take collections and the rediscovered masterpieces. Leon's a star now -- even the Carpenters and the Ray Conniff Singers and (for all anyone can tell, Tennessee Ernie) are rushing to record his compositions. Just since release of his Shelter People album he's probably made a few million $, but has he changed any? Nah. Still the same lovable rock and roller.

Carney is the most relaxed album Leon has put out so far. With a few exceptions, the songs are breezy and humorous. The lyrics are chatty and the images self-effacing. Leon is on the tight rope or stranded by the roadside facing a hitch-hiking trip to the service station. Or suddenly stricken with the charms of a roller derby queen. The album cover tips it off -- there's Tulsa's first citizen perched next to a tawdry looking trailer with his face plastered over in clown's white. "Cajun Love Song," complete with an authentic instrumental back-up, finds our hero prepping for a big night on the town in Thibodaux, Louisiana. "Acid Annapolis" is a bucket of beautiful noise and if it sums up tripping in the capital of Maryland, then that's alright too. A poignant note is sounded with "Me And Baby Jane," an extremely moving song about meeting up with a schoolyard lover who has gone a long way down in the interval. "If The Shoe Fits" goes out to all the groupies who masquerade as reporters for the underground press -- it's about time someone gave them the finger.

As in the past, Leon's production work with Denny Cordell is flawless. Just an outstanding album all the way. Play it when you've got the time to laugh and boogie.

- Ed Kelleher, Circus, 9-72.

When Carney first appeared, eleven long months had slipped by since Leon Russell had graced the stage of Madison Square Garden for his last American appearance of 1971 at the concert for Bangla Desh...eleven months during which the shroud of mystery that hangs over the Master of Space and Time had suggested that an amazing metamorphosis may have been occurring within the Russell image.

The interstellar master had headed for Europe last fall with an enormous entourage, thundered through a handful of dates, and finally emerged in Amsterdam a physically changed man. His wildly flowing hair had been neatly shorn into layers, and his newly developed paunch suggested that too many drinking and eating fetes may have undermined his glamor. Leon's Amsterdam performance left reporters and concert-goers open-mouthed, as the man maniacally snatched fans into the stage and let loose with a brand of rock 'n roll that left the youth of Amsterdam explosively jubilant.

Further reading on
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But less than a week later, the tour hit England...and suddenly collapsed. Amidst flying rumors of poor health and half-sold concert tickets, Leon split for Oklahoma to rest and work in the privacy of his home and to begin the transformation that would climax with the emergence of a new tour...and a new album.

Thus, Carney was born. Never has Leon produced such a monumentally beautiful, introspective album. Gone are the straight boogie-woogie tunes of his past three LP's. Instead, we find Leon caught in a haunting mood of loss and melancholy. The cover provides a clue to the subtleties contained within. On it, we see Leon first in white face, a carnival clown in masquerade ready to provide the entertainment. Mirrors form a special image for Russell, and on the back cover, in white face, he sits reflected in a stage mirror by a traveling van. Hooded to the van, his blue steel plate Rolls Royce.

Russell makes use of the mirror image in several album cuts, and songs like "This Masquerade" and "Magic Mirror" -- hauntingly beautiful pieces -- reveal those moments of reflection rarely seen in the romping young man who held together the Bacchanalian excesses of the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour. In the beautifully orchestrated "This Masquerade," with its muted guitar and its bossa nova beat, he sings of the lonely games we play with others. In "Tight Rope," a circus tune played to a calliope carnival rhythm, he sets the stage for a picture of himself as a solitary performer up on the tight rope for all to watch, and intimates that the altitude occasionally gets to him.

Russell's feeling of loss and melancholia emerges even further in introspective numbers like "Lost In The Woods," a jungle-Zulu arrangement, and "Baby Jane," a simple piano and guitar tapestry recalling an early love of Leon's who lost herself in a heroin haze. She was too far down to be helped, but Leon traces her progression -- and his own -- throughout the relationship, until she finds her final answer.

"If The Shoe Fits," a parody on rock magazines, and "Roller Derby" finally break into a lighter bit of the honky-tonk upbeat riffs Leon is so noted for. Yet neither could be called real rockers, and neither really shatters the album's basic calm.

That feeling of unbroken calm may very well answer some nagging questions. Why did Leon disappear from the American stage after joining Dylan and Harrison at the Bangla Desh extravaganza? Why did he abandon his European tour,then seclude himself in Oklahoma for a quarter of a year before finally emerging for his present romp through America's concert halls? Perhaps he was tired of being seen as a powerful, slightly sinister figure sitting behind his piano like some war lord from a distant planet.

- Tom Keilty, Circus, 9-72.

On the front cover of Carney is Leon Russell looking like death in his carnival barker's make-up. On the back, he's sitting in front of a small trailer to which is attached his Rolls-Royce. Dig the ambivalence? The music pursues this theme. You can imagine him singing: "Although I'm Mr. Pop Superstar with a supersize spread and recording studio in Oklahoma, etc., live is like a crummy carnival for me... with all its aches and joys and sordid impermanencies." That kind of thing. Recently, Russell has put together a "rock 'n' roll circus" that is touring the country. So Carney may be just another part of the act.

- Playboy, 12-72.

Not the radical falloff some report -- just slippage, the first side listenable and the second side flaky. Not that I expect "Manhattan Island Serenade" or "Cajun Love Song" to get covered like "This Masquerade." And not that I enjoy anything else as much as "If the Shoe Fits," a cheap shot at hangers-on that says more about the performer's lot than "Tight Rope" and "Magic Mirror" put together. B-

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

Carney became Russell's highest charting album with the aid of the oddball #11 hit "Tightrope." Also included is "This Masquerade," a song that later became an international hit for George Benson. "If the Shoe Fits" is a great putdown of pop-star sycophants. Other highlights include "Manhattan Island Serenade" and "Cajun Love Song." * * * *

- Rick Clark, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

Carney is Leon Russell's biggest seller, thanks to the ubiquitous single "Tightrope." * * * 1/2

- Allan Orski, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

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