Classic Elton John, but not gold

CD REVIEWS

March 23, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Elton John

Elton John's The Road to El Dorado (Dreamworks 50219)

Back in the mid-'70s, it would have been hard to imagine two singer/songwriters who were farther apart artistically than Elton John and Randy Newman. They both sang, played piano and wrote songs, but that was where the similarity ended, for John was one of the most celebrated and successful performers in rock, while Newman's music was so uncommercial that critic Robert Christgau suggested referring to it as "semi-popular music."

No one would ever have imagined, back then, that these two would ever find common ground on which to meet. Yet here they are, singing a duet in "Elton John's The Road to El Dorado," the pop-song score to a new animated feature about two Spanish explorers who find the fabled City of Gold.

Such delicious irony.

These days, of course, the distance between the two is far smaller than it was a quarter-century ago. Both are pretty much in the same boat, career-wise, spending more time writing music for movies than making pop albums. But where Newman cranks out his scores with low-profile dependability, John would rather treat his efforts as pop albums.

That's part of the reason the title -- "Elton John's The Road to Eldorado" -- emphasizes the artist over the movie. And even though the songs themselves remain firmly anchored to the plot of the film, the album's overall feel is far closer to a typical Elton John release than to a soundtrack.

Despite the portentous fanfare that opens "El Dorado," the verse and chorus are pure Elton John, from the tension-building verse to the soaring, repetitious chorus. If you didn't know better, you'd think it was leading us into just another Elton John album.

There are moments when John seems to be sticking a little too close to the tried-and-true, however. The stomping "16th Century Man" is so typical of John's rockers that it might as well have been assembled from spare parts, while the slow, hopeful "Without Question" is an almost generic Elton John ballad, offering little we haven't heard from him before.

On the other hand, there's a unexpected lightness and wit to the Latin-inflected "It's Tough to Be a God" -- the duet with Newman -- and a tart, Sting-like poignancy to "My Heart Dances."

Unfortunately, those few moments aren't quite enough to elevate this album to must-hear status. If you're an Elton John fan or are smitten by the movie, then by all means give the disc a spin. But don't expect to find much gold in "Elton John's The Road to El Dorado."

* * 1/2

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