Streetlife Serenade, released in October of 1974, was Billy Joel’s follow-up to his breakthrough album, Piano Man. It would find him moving away from the basic simplicity of that, his first release for the Columbia label, and experimenting with a number of styles. The finished product would have a polish and lyrical sophistication that would look ahead to his future work.
This album is probably one of the least known of his many releases. It only produced one moderately successful single and that was a handicap in the mid-seventies. It also didn't have the highs of Piano Man’s title track or “Captain Jack,” but there were no lows present as it is a very consistent album.
I saw Billy Joel in concert once and that was about a quarter of a century ago. I don’t remember a lot about the concert except for his performance of “Root Beer Rag,” which has remained a favorite of mine ever since. This fast (and I mean real fast) ragtime piece is not only catchy and melodic, but it shows just how well he can play the piano when so inclined. It was a show-off piece in concert as well as on this album; and maybe it is a little self indulgent, but it's just so good.
While the music would cover a vast spectrum of rock to pop, including some typical seventies synthesizer backing, it would be this album's lyrics that would show his growth and point toward his classic work to come.
“The Entertainer,” which reached Number 34 on the singles charts, is a biting commentary about the fickleness of public taste and adulation and how fame can be so fleeting. “The Great Suburban Showdown” is a simple song that would have benefited from a dominant piano instead of its omnipresent synthesizers. “Roberta,” a song about a lady of the night, is another composition where the words outshine the music. “Streetlife Serenader” is a haunting piece that does not get enough attention.
My other favorite song, next to “Root Beer Rag,” is “Los Angelenos.” It's a nice guitar-based rocker with an excellent vocal and stands out from the other tracks. “Souvenir” is a lyrically beautiful song about the passing of life that, at two minutes flat, has an unfinished feel that prevented it from becoming one of his classics.
I have to say that I enjoyed listening to Streetlife Serenade while preparing this review. It was nice to get re-acquainted with some music that I had forgotten about or ignored over the years. There would be better Billy Joel albums to follow, but this one remains a good, if mostly forgotten, part of his catalogue.