By Bob Mackay

Billy Joel's latest release - or, to phrase it more accurately, his record company's latest release (more on that later) - is an interesting and diverse mix, offering numerous peaks and valleys. It is, by turns, thrilling and disappointing.

First, the thrilling. Scattered throughout the four CDs that comprise My Lives is a tasty sampling of rare material - B-Sides like "Elvis Presley Boulevard" and early versions of well-known songs like "Piano Man" and "All About Soul" (known here as "The Motorcycle Song"). Any major Joel fan would be tempted to extract these little gems and use to them to make a custom CD or tape mix, thereby creating for oneself a homemade Billy Joel album of all-"new" material. Part of the thrill, naturally, is the ability to hear how a favorite artist creates by getting an audio glimpse into the working process via demos and alternate takes of various songs, in much the same way as the Beatles Anthology did a few years back. Then again, what some find exciting and interesting, others may find cringe-worthy. While I personally enjoy hearing the reggae version of "Only The Good Die Young," and have yet to tire of hearing it, there are some who may find it difficult to wrap their minds around something other than the definitive version they've come to know and love. Some may find the very early stuff, recorded with former bands like The Lost Souls, interesting solely as part of the overall timeline of Billy's output, but otherwise dated and of poor sound quality.

Even more thrilling is the inclusion of songs that bear no resemblance to anything Billy eventually released - "Siegfried Line" being one example. This song would have fit nicely on an earlier album like Piano Man or Streetlife Serenade, and it’s a pleasantly catchy surprise that had me thinking, "Wow, better late than never on this one."

Now, the disappointing:

The biggest for me was the superfluous addition of studio tracks that have been available for years elsewhere, in many different commercial releases. "An Innocent Man" and "Baby Grand," for example, can be found on their original albums, as well as on Greatest Hits compilations. If they must be included here, why not offer up an alternate take or a live version, in keeping with the spirit of the rest of this set? As currently presented in their original album versions, they seem like unnecessary padding, or an attempt to please every possible category of consumer, including "casual" fans, for whom this boxed set hardly seems intended in the first place. This is where the record company clearly took over, despite assurances by Anthony DeCurtis in his liner notes that these tracks were all "hand-picked" by Billy. (In fact, in a recent interview conducted by DeCurtis, Joel himself set the record straight by stating that his involvement in choosing songs was limited to the record company showing him some rare songs and Joel nodding in approval. He claims to have had no knowledge of the studio tracks being included.)

One of the CDs concentrates mostly on cover songs - meaning songs written by other artists that Billy performed somewhere at some point. While most of these were previously released, it's nice to have them all in one place, as they are for the most part worthy renditions. I've always been partial to Billy's take on "When You Wish Upon a Star," with its Ray Charles-like machismo. "Hey Girl" has always seemed bland to me, but it did get decent airplay on easy listening stations for a while.

Along with the four CDs is a DVD featuring a concert filmed in 1994 in Frankfurt, Germany. This is an absolute letdown. Having seen this concert before, I'm aware that it's much longer than the 77 minute running time of the DVD. Two glaring omissions are "Prelude/Angry Young Man" and "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant," which are staples of any Billy Joel concert. His flare for showmanship and witty banter is not well-represented, as most of his between-song chatting is edited out. A concert from earlier in his career - say 1977, when he was just hitting his stride in larger arenas - would have been a better choice. Bruce Springsteen's people seem to know better what his fans want in a concert DVD, based on his recent anniversary re-release of Born To Run, which boasts a full-length 1975 concert on a bonus DVD. It's not as though such concerts by Billy are unavailable in recorded form.

Despite these complaints, I'm happy to own this set, as there are many tracks I've never heard before, and some I've only heard in poorly recorded versions on scratchy vinyl records purchased at used record sales. For example, it's great to finally have "Nobody Knows But Me" on CD for a change, after years of settling for the only copy I could find - a charity vinyl LP for children called "In Harmony 2." (My copy always skipped.)

And for anyone who wishes to see the videotape of the Frankfurt concert in FULL, I'd be happy to show it to you!

Bob MacKay

A few more times that I can say I've loved these days.