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Streetlife Serenade
Billy Joel

Columbia KC 33146
Released: October 1974
Chart Peak: #35
Weeks Charted: 18
Certified Gold: 12/22/80

Billy JoelWith Streetlife Serenade, his third solo long-player, Billy Joel has taken off his gloves. Gone are the slushy strings that mired his pounding piano in a much of romantic glop. Excised are the tonsils that held back his soaring tenor.

The title track speaks of a "shopping center hero." Whether this is Billy or one of his subjects is irrelevant. Billy's intensely autobiographical approach reflects the angst of life in the seventies, and in the suburbs.

You couldn't say this conceptually coherent record is about loneliness, although it is inhabited by occasionally lonely people. And it isn't about alienation, because everyone seems to be able, finally, to relate. This is an album about you and me, and him over there, and her, and everybody, just coping.

Billy Joel - Streetlife Serenade
Original album advertising art.
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"Los Angelenos" tells the story of refugees from everywhere, driving their sports cars "nowhere on the streets with Spanish names." Billy lays down a Rhodes riff that burns, and then sneers the opening vocal with a passion that makes Elton John, to whom he is most often compared, sound middle-aged. By the time he gets to the overdubbed organ ride at the end, he has followed the lead of Ray Davies' "Celluloid Heroes" from Hollywood Boulevard into the hills and canyons of L.A., where people "go to garages to get exotic messages."

The organ segues to a bluesy synthesizer as Billy flies back home to Long Island for a Sunday afternoon barbecue with the folks ("The Great Suburban Showdown"). You must go home again, and Billy does with an instinct for self-satire that allows him to criticize with love.

Next is "Root Beer Rag," an instrumental in the classic rag form. It shows off his compositional and performing abilities on the piano in a tasty interlude. Side One closes with "Roberta," a bittersweet love song to a call girl, or "out-call" as they are affectionately known in Smogville.

Side Two is more optimistic, and opens with the follow-up to "Piano Man," boldy titled "The Entertainer." We pick up the narration of Billy's career when he's only as god as his last record, as the expression goes, and he's out to continue the road to success. To touches of Rick Wakeman synthesizer, Billy adds the fast-picking banjo that made "Travellin' Prayer" on the previous disc such a mover. Columbia probably intends this as a single, but the line about getting laid might turn off some Top 40 programmers. (Question: If Mick Jagger laid a divorcee in New York City, can Billy?)

"Last of the Bigtime Spenders" is the lp's only weak tune. In it, Billy indulges his propensity for the quick rhyme and the easy lyric and comes up with the highest cliche quotient in recent memory. Granting some tongue-in-cheek poetic license in the theme ("I'm the last of the bigtime spenders 'cause I'm spendin' my time on you") the inclusion of even more chestnuts ("make the grade," "small-time operator," "make the best of the situation," and "you can call me the great pretender") makes this tune a prime copyright for some sappy country singer. Billy can do better. (While we're nitpicking, does Billy sing the title track through his sinuses ore is something wrong with my $2000 stereo?)

Side Two's optimism continues with a raveup called "Weekend Song," similar in sentiment to Jesse Winchester's "Payday": an ode to T.G.I.F. A short vignette, "Souvenir," follows, and one line shows that Billy can write if he wants to. "Every year's a souvenir that slowly fades away."

The last song is an instrumental that combines the weekend with a souvenir, a soundtrack-sounding "Mexican Connection." Billy's left hand hits a Latinesque ostinato as he weaves a loping trail across the Rio Grande into the land of tequila and la tourista. Slick arrangement, evocative playing and a beautiful melody make this a real charmer.

Streetlife Serenade is the finest release of this major American artist. Billy is what Leon and Elton used to be.

Excellent.

- Dennis Wilen, Phonograph Record, 11/74.

Bonus Reviews!

It was obvious from last year's Piano Man that Billy Joel was very good, but his second album, Streetlife Serenade, runs well beyond the high expectations set up by the first, achieving what I shall have to call a dark brilliance. In it he casts an eye as cold as that of novelist Nathanael West (try Miss Lonelyhearts) on the contemporary scene in a series of wry, occasionally savage, and often funny songs that nevertheless betray a certain compassion and even fondness for their targets.

It has been apparent for some time that what we need right now is a gifted eccentric to set us straight, someone who can cancel out with a fine, ripe raspberry to the dull thud of yet another commercial sausage dropping off the end of the pop assembly line and the shrieks of robotic exhibitionists who are as uniform in their outrageousness as anything Karel Čapek ever dreamed up.

Joel has all the sound, basic credentials that an eccentric (perhaps more than anyone else) needs if he expects to get a hearing. He is a complete musician who works with his keyboards expertly, with an almost absent-minded deftness that might remind you of,say, an Oriental rug weaver plying his loom and discoursing learnedly at the same time about nuclear physics. His voice is pliable, capable of comic parody one moment and of arresting sincerity the next, and the arrangements have a dry clack that delicately underscores key words and phrases. But first of all, most of all, there are the songs, each of them ringing with real, if slightly lopsided, truth.

Further description would be as pointless as trying to describe W.C. Fields' walk, Barbra Streisand's giggle, or Paul Lynde's simper. You'll simply have to listen to Billy Joel's new album to hear what I mean. Once you do, your head ought to be changed around quite a bit.

- Peter Reilly, Stereo Review, 2/75.

Billy Joel's pop schmaltz occupies a stylistic no man's land where musical and lyric truisms borrowed from disparate sources are forced together. A talented keyboardist, Joel's piano style creditably imitates early Elton John, while Joel's melodic and vocal attacks owe something to Harry Chapin. Joels' lyrics are also Chapin-influenced in their appeal to Middle American sentimentality. "Piano Man" and "Captain Jack," the centerpieces of Joel's last album, compelled attention for their despairing portraits of urban fringe life, despite their underlying shallowness. By contrast, Streetlife Serenade is desiccated of ideas. The opening cut, "Streetlife Serenader," fails to develop a melody or lyrical theme. "Los Angelenos" presents a hackneyed picture postcard of L.A. as sexual wasteland. "The Great Suburban Showdown" seems even more dated than its apparent inspiration, The Graduate. In "The Entertainer," a spinoff from Chapin's "WOLD," Joel screams homilies about the callousness of the music business. Joel's keyboard abilities notwithstanding, he has nothing to say as a writer at present. Two instrumental trifles, "Root Beer Rag" and "The Mexican Connection," provide nothing more than filler.

- Stephen Holden, Rolling Stone, 12/5/74.

Joel's singing and musical abilities once again shine through here, on this his second Columbia LP. Although the material is a bit Chapinesque, each song has a brisk creative flavor, in terms of lyrics as well as arrangements. Notably, Joel's voice itself seems to have a new maturity, and it should lead to wider consumer acceptance. Cuts on the disk should garner both AM and FM airplay. Best cuts: "The Entertainer," "The Great Suburban Showdown," "Los Angelos," and "Streetlife Serenader."

- Billboard, 1974.

Boy, these piano boys -- on "Root Beer Rag" and "The Mexican Connection" Joel abandons Irving Berlin for George Gershwin, or do I mean Roger Williams? Granted, "The Entertainer" is so nasty it's witty -- so nasty it may be about Joel himself. But why does it include a Rick Wakeman imitation? C

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

Extending a mean streak he'd already revealed more than once, Joel looks upon the starmaking machinery that broke him the year before and scorns it. But he has such a gift for the putdown, notably in "Los Angelenos" and "The Entertainer," and the melodies are so good that you can't help singing along and agreeing with him. If you didn't already, that is. * * *

- William Ruhlmann , The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

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