Elton John tribute albums ‘Revamp’ and ‘Restoration’ burst with ingenuity and affection

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Elton John Performs during the Elton John: I'm Still Standing - A Grammy Salute at The Theater at Madison Square Garden on January 30, 2018 in New York City. That show airs at 9 p.m. April 10 on CBS. (Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images)

BY MELISSA RUGGIERI/AJC Music Scene

In 1991, a collection of artists ranging from Kate Bush to Bruce Hornsby to Jon Bon Jovi paid tribute to some of the supreme songs in modern pop music with the uneven “Two Rooms: Celebrating the Songs of Elton John & Bernie Taupin.”

John and his songwriter consigliere Taupin recently commemorated their golden anniversary, which, coupled with John’s impending retirement from touring, marks the ideal time for more tributes.

Even they probably couldn’t have envisioned the overall ingenuity and affection that was clearly poured into “Revamp,” a pop-leaning assembly of hits from many of John’s noted favorites – Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Ed Sheeran, Florence + The Machine – and “Restoration,” the stunning countrified take on the John/Taupin anthology by a heady lineup including Willie Nelson, Little Big Town and Miranda Lambert (full track lists here).

It’s pointless to compare them because they both, as they should, offer completely varied takes on songs that possess some of the strongest backbones in music history (Cyrus even pulls double duty with a somewhat muted “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down on Me” on “Revamp” and a rip-roaring “The Bitch is Back” on “Restoration”). But “Restoration” will likely resonate much deeper.

John – an occasional Atlanta resident these days – notes in an interview (below) on SiriusXM’s “The Highway” channel that while every artist was free to pick their song choice, the only request he made was for Chris Stapleton to handle “I Want Love,” a gem from 2001’s “Songs from the West Coast.”

The gorgeous ballad, with its soaring pangs of yearning, was always a bit underappreciated, and Stapleton’s whiskey-gravel voice, coupled with a velvety orchestral background, nails the emotional undercurrent.

While most of the artists stick to the well-worn classic radio hits (Sheeran is an ideal match with “Candle in the Wind,” Little Big Town inventively sprinkles “Rocket Man” with actual space sounds from the recent Mission Juno and Don Henley and Vince Gill Eagles-ize “Sacrifice”), a few acts dug deep for their own favorites.

Sprightly banjo decorates “Please,” an album track from 1995’s “Made In England,” while Dolly Parton and Rhonda Vincent add heavenly harmonies; Lambert opts for “My Father’s Gun,” the last song on side one of 1970’s “Tumbleweed Connection”; and Coldplay returns to 1975’s “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” for “We All Fall in Love Sometimes.”

As captivating as these albums are, not every recast works as well as it might seem on paper. Lady Gaga, one of the mightiest vocalists here, sounds unusually flat on “Your Song” (apparently her live performance of the song on the April 10 John special on CBS is dazzling) and the electro-hip-hop-infused take on “Bennie and the Jets” with Pink and Logic toggles between fun and ugh.

But, along with Stapleton’s contribution, there are two other treasures that deserve to be played on repeat: Maren Morris’ version of “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” on “Restoration” – as opposed to The Killers’ breathy take on “Revamp” – is a master class of soulfulness and authenticity; and Florence + The Machine’s magnificent “Revamp” rendition of “Tiny Dancer” will send you scurrying for that singalong clip in “Almost Famous.”

It’s true that a good song will never get old if it’s written well enough. These diverse remakes define the timelessness of the John/Taupin songbook.

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