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Billy Joel - 52nd Street Print E-mail
Tuesday, 31 July 2001

Billy Joel
52nd Street
format: SACD - Stereo
label: Columbia
release year: 1999
performance: 6.5
sound 6
reviewed by: Jerry Del Colliano

Image52nd Street was a big success for Billy Joel in the late 1970s. While he was in a New York state of mind, he and producer Phil Ramone were able to muster up three big hit songs for the album including “Big Shot,” “Honesty” and “My Life.” He solidly defined himself as the quintessential piano bar rocker who can successfully tell a story through music and captivate an audience. His star appeal is still strong today, more than 20 years after his ascent to superstardom despite a high-profile breakup with his super-model wife and a well-publicized scandal with his management. Much as with Eric Clapton, you’d be hard-pressed to say Billy Joel’s ups and downs in life haven’t earned him right to really play the blues.

As a stereo-only SACD release, 52nd Street is a remastered version of the original record with no hybrid layer, meaning it will play only a SACD player – it will not play on a CD-only player. Sonically, it is lackluster overall, considering the vast potential of the SACD format, sounding only incrementally better than Joel’s 16-bit stereo CDs. Perhaps that is because 52nd Street was one of the first stereo SACDs on the market, with a 1999 release date posted on the SACD. To be fair, compact discs recorded and mastered in 1983 didn’t exactly have the best sound any of us have heard since on CD.

The album starts off with “Big Shot,” a tune based around what guitar players call an attitude riff. It is a strident story about a time in history when cocaine was considered a vitamin and the worst-case consequences of screwing a less than desirable babe was a shot of penicillin. The song is highly developed in terms of production and features a bridge with horns, accented by rhythmic piano playing, which creates a luxurious layering in the overall mix.

The hit ballad of 52nd Street is “Honesty,” which does best on SACD because the higher resolution of the format serves as a better platform for reproducing the delicate intricacies of Joel’s piano. Joel’s vocals beam best on “Honesty,” featuring him way in front of the main speakers, especially in the first verse before the drums and bass kick in. If you were going to use 52nd Street as a demo for a friend, you’d likely use this track for its audio quality.

“My Life” is best known as the theme for the 1980s TV sitcom “Bosom Buddies.” It is a light-hearted piano jam with an upbeat, piano-driven melody. To, me the lyrics make reference to the opportunities available to a Baby Boomer growing up in the late 1970s. Piano accents coming out of the “My Life” choruses jump with new life on SACD, especially when compared to CD. The phased-out backup vocals seem blurry and mixed way back. They would have been perfect to bring to rear channels if this was a surround mix.

After three big hit songs in a row, 52nd Street goes way downhill. “Zanzibar” is another piano bar-type story that I found terrible. “Stiletto” gets even worse with contrived melodies and a predictable chorus. “Rosalinda’s Eyes” starts off with an electric piano tone that could possibly be confused with Chevy Chase’s work in “Caddyshack” during his wooing of Lacey Underall with the tune “I Was Born To Love You.” At least the Chase bit was funny. I think Joel was trying to be serious.

Perhaps you had to be there to appreciate 52nd Street more than I do. Certainly, I respect the three hit tracks, but the album’s songwriting tanks from there for me. Maybe I would feel differently about the record and its place in musical history if I were old enough to know what it was like to actually get into Studio 54. For me, the album is thin on good content. As a SACD, this is not the best example of what the format can do. It is not a hybrid disc. It is not a surround title. Worst is, it doesn’t sound all that great when compared to other SACDs that have similar instrumentation and are even older recordings. Dave Brubeck’s Time Out comes to mind as an example of a better stereo, non-hybrid SACD title that can reproduce a more detailed and realistic-sounding piano tone. If you love Billy Joel’s 52 Street from long ago, it is unlikely that you will have any less admiration for it now. If the rest of the album is new to you as it was for me – brace yourself. The sonics of the SACD and the depth of performance aren’t worth it.

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