By Chris Willman
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(Entertainment Weekly) -- Anyone heralding a new Elton John album as a return to form faces credibility issues. (You may recall the "Elton's back!" scare around 2001's "Songs From the West Coast.") But it's not crying wolf to warn you that "The Captain & the Kid" is EJ's best since the Carter years.
It's an autobiographical song cycle largely about the 1970s, which gives Elton a thematic excuse to answer fans' prayers, drop the adult contemporary slop, and deliver a piano-dominated, live-band effort consciously aping his earliest, most idiosyncratic breakthroughs.
It's billed as a follow-up to 1975's "Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy," and while there's a whiff of desperation to classic-rock "sequels," this really does pick up where John and lyricist Bernie Taupin left off.
Barrelhouse rocker "Just Like Noah's Ark" isn't afraid to celebrate Studio 54-era excess, though much of the album is rueful, including "Blues Never Fade Away," a sort of Everyman's "Candle in the Wind."
If Elton's music makes a fine case that time can stand still, Taupin's lyrics, with their late-middle-age perspective, nicely put the lie to that idea. So would it be asking too much to also put in requests for "Tumbleweed Reconnection" and "Goodbye Again, Yellow Brick Road"?
EW Grade: A-
'The Dutchess,' Fergie
Reviewed by Leah Greenblatt
When is a single Pea greater than the sum of her pod? When she steps out with a shrewd, accomplished debut.
On "The Dutchess," Fergie -- a.k.a. Stacy Ferguson, the pert legume whose feminine presence revitalized the Black Eyed Peas -- retains the group's proven gift for indelible melodies, but reaches beyond their cartoonish poses and half-cocked raps for a fuller, more diverse sound. Here, she proves herself equally adept at well-deep reggae riddims, giddy dance-floor jams, and fervent ballads.
The album's opener, the self-love anthem "Fergalicious," doesn't stray too far from her recent past, with its spare snare-clap beat set behind familiar "My Hump"-sy boasts like "They be linin' down the block just to watch what I got." But moments later, she is sweetly smitten on the bashful, bouncing "Clumsy," and by album's end, she's expanding into Broadway-style torch songs on the unapologetically dramatic piano- and string-laden coda, "Finally."
Not that she's forsaken her fellow Peas entirely; the three male members appear (silently) in the video for her current chart-buster, "London Bridge," whose horn-hooting, foot-stomping refrain, "Wanna go down like London, London, LON-don," unsubtly, if memorably, combines winky sexual metaphors and club-banging beats.
And BEP mastermind will.i.am, along with label prez Ron Fair, produces a number of Dutchess' tracks. They're smart enough to help Fergie navigate several musical genres, as well as personae: One moment she's a fierce, sexaholic superstar ("London Bridge") and the next a ragga-punk Caribbean princess ("Mary Jane Shoes," featuring Rita Marley) or a scared, unguarded woman in love ("All That I Got").
Though not every track is a gem, "The Dutchess" reaches further than most albums by contemporary divas, who often seem content to turn out one or two killer singles accompanied by an album's worth of padding. Fergie tries hard to be all things to all (pop-loving) people -- and much of the time, she succeeds.
Even her newfound vulnerability feels right. Famously abbreviated stage outfits aside, Fergie's ardent joy on the John Legend-assisted "Finally" track is probably as publicly naked as she's ever allowed herself to be. Not that she's morphing into some kind of "My Heart Will Go On" ballad queen; Fergie is too adept on the dance floor to forsake it.
And if occasionally the lady doth attest too much to her own physical charms, "The Dutchess" proves that she's earned her Black Eyed independence -- and perhaps even her new royal title.
EW Grade: B+
'John, the Wolfking of L.A.,' John Phillips
Reviewed by Sean Howe
Here was John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas in 1969: partying with Sharon Tate, popping Seconals, and writing a musical about the moon landing. Thankfully, he also enlisted a crackerjack band to document his whirlwind year on the reflective "John, the Wolfking of L.A."
Phillips is a true cad: "Let It Bleed Genevieve" (in which his pregnant girlfriend waits at home while he cruises L.A.) suggests one of Randy Newman's deluded characters. But such boorishness makes his heartbreaking moments of contrition all the more epiphanic.
EW Grade: A-
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Elton John's "The Captain & the Kid" is a follow-up to 1975's "Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy."
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