I’m pleased to be able to offer a review of the incredibly creative album Restoration: Reimagining the Songs of Elton John and Bernie Taupin. This is, of course, the Nashville edition of the two-part tribute album, the other half of which is Revamp, a pop-centered collection of Elton covers. As a life-long southerner and long-time Nashvillian, I was excited to see what the guys on Music Row came up with to pay tribute to Elton and Bernie. I’m pleased to say that even as someone who has never been a fan of modern country, this album was music to my ears.
In fact, to those who may be weary of this album due to aversions to pop-country, first of all, I understand, and second of all, rest assured that it is not what you are imagining. If anything, it sounds like seventies southern rock, folk music, and Americana, which pairs wonderfully with the featured Elton songs, many of which had southern sounding roots to begin with. Rest assured, there is no hint of honky tonk badonkadonk here, and I think there is a reason the word “country” is nowhere to be found on the album.
So, without further ado, here is my track by track review!
Rocket Man – Little Big Town. They certainly chose to open this album with a heavy hitter, and I am glad they did. I’m not familiar with Little Big Town, so I’m not sure if acapella is something they are known for, but on this track, I absolutely loved the heavy focus on vocals. In fact, much of the song sounded like it was acapella, which created a beautiful, personalizing effect. I feel like this song is unique enough that you could take it in many different directions and still make it work, and I thought this version was incredibly creative and warm while still holding on to the chilling idea of being lost in space. The vocals and harmonies were on point, and the minimalistic instrumentation provided a perfect backdrop for the story. Grade: A
Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters – Maren Morris. I’m don’t know Maren Morris outside of this album, but I love her soulful voice. It contributes so much to the pensive and reflective tones of this song. I also liked how the lyrics “This Broadway’s got a lot of songs to sing, and if I knew the tune I might join in” played with the album’s Nashville theme. I can certainly imagine how disappointed and alienated outsiders and those trying to make it in Nashville feel in our current music scene, and that feeling of disillusionment is what I always found at the heart of the original. It’s no secret, this has always been one of my favorite Elton songs, and it was refreshing to hear a soulful female voice at the helm. I thought Maren did a fantastic job paying tribute to a great song without over-complicating it. Grade: B+
Sacrifice – Don Henly and Vince Gill. I knew going into this track that it was going to be difficult to impress me. Sacrifice is, in my opinion, one of the finest Elton and Bernie collaborations in existence, and the original is sheer perfection. I was relieved to see the colossal talent of Don Henly and Vince Gill on call for this cover. The song opens with soft acoustic instrumentation which works well, followed by a warmly delivered verse by Henly. His voice has held up well over the years and brings a weathered quality that really fits with this tale of deception and divorce. Vince Gill’s voice has an equal amount of richness to it, and the two sound beautiful harmonizing. I wish the guitar solo had kept it acoustic- the electric solo didn’t really fit the song. Overall, I definitely prefer the cover of this song that James Blunt and Ed Sheeran offered in a live performance a few years ago, but Don Henly and Vince Gill delivered something fun and easy to listen to. When the price of erring was to offend a generation of people who grew up obsessed with this song, I’d say they did pretty well giving us something worthy. Grade: B-
Take Me To The Pilot – Brothers Osbourne. The first recording of this song I ever heard was the 17/11/70 version, which is impossible to top, but I’m happy Brothers Osbourne brought a live-ish feel to the number to recreate a little bit of that magic. The organ and tambourine touches really worked for me, too. I’m not a huge fan of the vocals, they felt like they were dragging on at times. I was thinking maybe a higher tempo could have worked. No one really knows or understands the lyrics to this song, so there’s no need to linger on them like Brothers tends to do. I’m not a fan of the meandering guitar solo on this number eitehr. If you’re going to put the spotlight on an instrument, at least make it interesting! Overall, this covery has an appreciable amount of soul, which I’d say earns it a pretty good mark. Grade: B-
My Father’s Gun – Miranda Lambert. I was really excited for this pairing. Hearing a southern woman sing this song with simple, guitar and drum backing gave me goosebumps. This song is about a dejected survivor of the Civil War who just lost his father and is pondering how to restart his life after total devastation. It’s a human tale, not a political one, and Miranda’s voice had a knowing sense of resilience that impressed me greatly. I think this cover is really one of the highlights of the album. Grade: A
I Want Love – Chris Stapleton. I heard that this was one of the only pairings that Elton specifically requested, and I have to say, it works. Chris’s voice is perfect for this tune about longing for love after a lifetime of weariness. I’ve always loved this song, and Chris’s version reminded me the original video, in which Robert Downey Jr. lip synced the entire tune straight to camera. I feel like both men get this song and the feeling behind it. Chris’s vocals were enjoyable and very powerful- he reminds me a lot of Ronnie Van Zant in that respect! This was a very southern rock version of a great song, and I could not have imagined a more perfect pairing. Grade: A+
Honky Cat – Lee Ann Womack. Can we all agree that whoever got to cover Honky Cat on this album had it pretty easy? This song is an absolute treasure and certainly lends itself to a country feel. The original is essentially a country song in itself. The lyrics describe Bernie’s tale of growing up a redneck in the country and suddenly finding himself rubbing elbows with highfalutin’ city folk, which was exciting as he tells it, but also very alien…”like trying to drink whiskey from a bottle of wine.” Lee Ann’s version of this song is funky and extremely fun with it’s pared down zydeco feeling with a dash of cajun steel guitar. The vocals were impressive and well-delivered, and it made me feel like I was listening to street music in New Orleans. What’s not to like about this delightful cover? Grade: A
Roy Rogers – Kacey Musgraves. Thing song it one that means a lot to me, and unfortunately I felt like Kacey really missed the mark. This is a very sad, nostalgic song, and the older I get, the more it hits home. To me, it’s about losing touch with your childhood dreams when you finally grow up and realize how banal every day life can be, especially for those of us who have to work for a living. It’s about seeking something outside of yourself to recapture that sense of excitement and wonder that life had when you were young. Kacey’s cover featured an up-tempo western style with distorted vocals that didn’t really fit or capture any of the emotions of the song. Don’t get me wrong, Kacey’s voice is gorgeous, and I genuinely like the style of this song, but unfortunately it doesn’t work for Roy Rogers. This song isn’t meant to be a Texas two-step, it’s supposed to be a little slow and a little sad. Unfortunately this song is all style and no substance, and I’m sad to say it features some changed gender pronouns, which was the nail in the coffin for me. Grade: D
Please – Rhonda Vincent and Dolly Parton. This song is a bit of a deep cut, and it is also the most country & bluegrass sounding number on Restoration. Overall, I loved it, and I think it was smart for Rhonda and Dolly to pick a lesser known song so they had the artistic liberty to take it completely in their own direction. I thought this song had a fantastic old country sound to it and featured delightful bluegrass elements of instrumentation that played perfectly with the vocals. This is a gorgeous song with an even more beautiful reimagining, but what else would you expect on a track graced my Ms. Dolly herself? Grade: A
The Bitch is Back – Miley Cyrus. Definitely not my first thought for a country cover, but Miley makes this one work with her gritty vocals. Maybe it mostly works because it’s fun to hear her sing “bitch” 50 times in a row? I don’t know, but this number is for sure likable, and I think it actually fits in the country catalog of tributes due to the simplicity of the vocals and the bluegrass banjo picking. Overall, it’s Miley’s fun and seemingly effortless vocal performance that make this number work. It’s nothing mind blowing, but it’s solid. Grade: B
Sad Songs Say So Much – Dierks Bentley. This song is a fun, soulful reincarnation of the original. Dierks does a good job not overdoing the vocals, and the accompaniment is up tempo and has a fair amount of swing to it. I really like the theme of this song, but I’ll be honest, neither the original nor the cover are my favorite. I would have much rather heard Dierks (or anyone) cover songs like Country Comfort, Turn the Lights Out When You Leave, Amoreena, Burn Down the Mission…gosh the more I think about it, the more I’m longing for some restorations of old classics like that. I guess Bernie must have a soft spot for Sad Songs, and who could blame him, it’s simple fun. Grade: C
The Train Don’t Stop There Anymore – Roseanne Cash. This is definitely a song I expected to see on Restoration, and Roseanne Cash does a nice enough job with it. However, it’s almost too mainstream country-sounding for my taste. This is a song that could have easily been a country hit on its own, and that’s why I was hoping for something more inventive from the cover. I found myself really longing for the original, but I will say that some of the instrumentation in this version was interesting and nice to hear. It was just overall pretty drab. I wish Justin Timberlake had done a cover of this song for Revamp. Justin played a young Elton in the original video for this song, and I’d love to see what his pop prowess could have brought to the tune. Grade: C
Border Song – Willie Nelson. Of the whole album, this was the track that got me most excited. An amazing song with a timeless hero like Willie Nelson set the stage for a great cover. Willie’s voice is like a piece of fine leather that just keeps getting better with age, and what he brings to this song in his vocals is perfect for the civil rights era inspired piece of music. This cover reminds me of a 1970 BBC recording of Elton doing this song solo on piano, and I think Willie’s cover perfectly captures the simple, soulful power of this song. Willie, also well known as a peace maker and old time hippie, is perfect for this tune, in my opinion. Grade: A
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