Christmas Comes Early
I decided not to wait until Christmas, and picked up the deluxe edition of Elton John's Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy on Friday. As I wrote last week, it's Elton's finest album, and not only that, it's one of the handful of albums I'd have to take to the proverbial desert island. So I guess the fact that I didn't wait for Christmas isn't as much of a surprise as the fact that I waited until Friday.
Opening a CD is rarely an aesthetic experience, but opening this package was. It's a gorgeous double-size paper foldout with clear plastic trays for the discs. (I'm not crazy about paper foldout cases generally, but for two-CD sets they make sense, because the alternative is to attach the discs to one of those black plastic trays that's hinged within the jewelcase, and they inevitably break no matter how carefully they're handled.) The inside design of the package contains a collage of press clippings taken from the "scraps" book that's also part of the package. The discs lie on the middle two panels of the foldout. They're silk-screened in contrasting colors--the original album with bonus tracks is white with blue and silver lettering; the second concert disc is blue with silver and white lettering. The album's original extras are tucked in a pocket--lyrics book, scraps book, and a reproduction of the album-cover poster. (The poster hung on the wall in my bedroom from the day I got the album home until long after I'd moved out of my parents' house, coming down only when my youngest brother took over the room for himself in the early 80s.) The package also includes a new booklet containing notes by Elton and Bernie Taupin and an essay by music critic Paul Gambaccini. You'll need a magnifying glass to read the scraps, especially the four-page comic-book biography of Elton--so it goes when shrinking the contents of a 12-inch LP package to CD size.
The sound on both discs is excellent, which is a good thing, because Captain Fantastic is Elton's most elaborate and richly layered album. I heard some new things in old familiar tunes, and the audio from the concert disc is surprisingly good for 1975.
Elton-o-philes are going to buy the album for the concert disc, which was recorded on June 21, 1975 at Wembley Stadium in London. (Based on the stage announcement opening the album, Elton was the headliner of an all-day festival.) Although Captain Fantastic was recorded with Elton's original band (and the "Philadelphia Freedom" 45 was credited to the Elton John Band), the concert featured Elton's new band, which would appear on record for the first time on Rock of the Westies later in 1975. With Elton's fame at its peak in the summer of 1975, it was a bit of a gamble to devote the majority of a show to playing a new album from start to finish, especially when the audience would have been primed to hear five years' worth of hits instead. Doing it with a brand-new band only increased the risk.
Nevertheless, the show is pretty good. It's great to hear the songs changed up--for example, the live version of the title song has the country-rock feel the studio version only hinted at. Other highlights are "Tell Me When the Whistle Blows," which is a lot different without the sound-of-Philadelphia string section, and "Curtains," which builds at the same hypnotic pace as the studio version before revving up to a rockin' finish. The concert includes two encores, "Pinball Wizard," which was on the charts the day of the show, and "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting." The latter is the only disappointment on the concert disc, but not an unexpected one. Like all the other live versions of "Saturday Night" I've heard, the band works hard, but Elton never seems convincing as a hard rocker. Somehow, it worked in the studio, but it never seems as effective onstage.
If you're intrigued by this album, I suspect it might be a little hard to find in stores. I had to visit my favorite record store here in Madison after being unable to find it at several megastores in the Twin Cities during my business trip last week. As is the case with most deluxe editions and boxed sets, it's aimed at serious fans. Most of the buyers will likely be people who bought the original in the 70s, upgraded to CD in the late 80s or early 90s, and now are upgrading again. And this is a major upgrade--better sound, better package. If Captain Fantastic was/is one of your favorite albums, it's the version you have to own.
Coming in a couple of weeks: Yet another rerelease I'll have to buy, when Boz Scaggs' 1997 album Fade Into Light, available only as an import hitherto, gets the deluxe CD/DVD treatment. So many albums, so little disposable income.