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Music Review: Billy Joel – Cold Spring Harbor

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Bill Joel did not exactly burst onto the music scene with his first solo studio album. He had been a part of two unsuccessful groups, The Hassles and Attila, which had produced three albums that were commercial failures. In 1971, he released Cold Spring Harbor for the small Family label.

The oddest thing about the original vinyl release was the production. It was mixed at the wrong speed, which pushed Joel’s vocals into a higher register. The album has since been re-issued by the Columbia label, both on vinyl and CD, with the proper speed restored. Columbia also brought in some studio musicians to enhance the sound, which was a poor decision as it changed the original, simple approach and tone of the music.

Cold Spring Harbor is, at heart, a piano and vocal album. While the songs may lack the appeal of his more commercial material, they are nevertheless well crafted with an innate beauty.

The album's most famous song comes in the first appearance of “She’s Got A Way,” but this gentle song of love and tribute wouldn't become a hit single until its live version appeared on Songs In The Attic. Likewise, “Everybody Loves You Now” also appeared on the latter album but is less successful here as it has an unfinished feel.

There are a number of tasty treats to be found here. “Why Judy Why” is a haunting and poignant ballad with some sophisticated lyrics. “Turn Around” is a mid-tempo number that is about as close to country as he would get. “You Can Make Me Free” contains one of the first great Billy Joel vocal performances. And “Got To Begin Again” is a simple ballad that would point toward Joel's musical future.

Not everything is enjoyable, however. “Tomorrow Is Today” may be the most depressing track of his career, its themes of lacking hope and giving up on life making for a difficult listen at best.

Cold Spring Harbor is often a forgotten album in the Billy Joel catalogue. While he would go on to produce some of the best pop of the seventies and eighties, this is the album provided that foundation. It may not be an outstanding affair or have the polish of his later material, but it is interesting regardless and contains a number of very good songs.

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About David Bowling

  • dennisk

    No wonder “Tomorrow Is Today” is depressing. Legend has it that the song is based on a suicide note Joel wrote in 1970 during one of the lowest points in his life. While difficult listening, it–along with the rest of CSH–does show the range of Joel’s songcraft.

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