Dollar Bin Darlings is a regular column wherein we profile a record you can likely pick up in your local store's bargain bin, or maybe even at a nearby thrift shop. In our second installment, we focus on what might be Elton John's finest record.
Sir Elton John has become a punchline at this point in his career. He's far more famous for his outlandish stage costumes, bizarre choice in eyeglass frames and that song about Marilyn Monroe than the string of great records he released between 1970 and 1975. In that short timeframe, he unleashed seven records, four of which are great and two of which are very good, which is the sort of roll that few artists can even dream of, let alone actually lay claim to. While it's an incredibly furtive six year period, the finest hour of this impressive burst of creativity and recorded output is the eclectic and exuberant 1972 album Honky Chateau.
In November of 1971, John and his songwriting partner had a huge critical and commercial success on their hands with the Madman Across The Water album. That album went platinum almost immediately on the strength of singles like "Tiny Dancer", "Levon" and album cuts like "Razor Face", but instead of resting on their respective laurels, John and his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin jumped right back to work.
After the more straightforward "rock" approach on Madman, Taupin and John sought to incorporate a variety of disparate influences and styles to create a more heterogeneous record. The album opener "Honky Cat" combines a swinging New Orleans style funk with Taupin's playful lyric and the nimble piano lines of Sir Elton, all of which is backed by a rollicking, propulsive arrangement rife with catchy as hell horn lines. If Allen Toussaint had been raised in Anglican England, he might have written "Honky Cat". From there, side one swings through ballads - "Mellow" - to white boy funk - "Susie (Dramas) - and eventually on to the now famous and still wonderful "Rocket Man".
Guitars and gospel tendencies carry "Salvation" as it opens side two. "Slave" brings mellow country in to the mix to great effect and then in the middle of the side, along comes "Amy", the album's only misstep, which is a bouncy and vigorous effort that cant's to corral it's moving parts. It manages to stay interesting despite it's inherent messiness. The wait is worth it though, as the record finishes out with pair of jewels in "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters" and "Hercules". The former is a gentle and sweet ballad that is vintage Elton John and Bernie Taupin; filled with tenderness, exquisite melodies, soulful lyrics and restrained arrangements. The latter is a rambunctious bookend to the "Honky Cat" opener and is perfectly suited for the record's finale.
Honky Chateau was the first Elton John LP to make it to the #1 spot on the US charts and began a string of six records to make it to the top spot. Because of this huge popularity, nearly all of Sir Elton's output from this era is readily available for a cut rate pricing at almost any shop around. And while there are a number of worthwhile titles for a dollar bin foray, Honky Chateau is about as good as it gets. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to do much better with any artist you can spot in a bargain bin.