Imitative Billy Joel Still Seeking Respectability : BILLY JOEL “Storm Front.” Columbia ***: POP STARS ***** Great Balls of Fire **** Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door *** Good Vibrations ** Maybe Baby * Ain’t That a Shame

It’s easy for anyone looking for some depth in pop music to dismiss Billy Joel. “Storm Front” won’t change that, but there is something fascinating about how Joel strives for respectability. As imitative, calculatingly commercial and occasionally foolish as this music is, a brash individuality comes through.

Joel is canny enough to come up with a concept like “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (a rapid-fire “This Is Your Life” montage for the Baby-Boom generation), pretentious enough to try to invest it with significance and shallow enough to have it turn out an exercise in banality. It’s a failure (especially considering what R.E.M. made of a similar idea on “It’s the End of the World as We Know It”), but at least it’s a failure that is uniquely Joelesque.

The strengths of “Storm Front” are also typical of Joel: Everything is marvelously tuneful and much of it rocks nicely. Highlights include a lively Memphis soul excursion (“When in Rome”), a nifty pop-rocker that sounds a lot like Todd Rundgren (“State of Grace”), and a well-crafted echo of Eric Clapton’s “Bell Bottom Blues” (“Shameless”). And then there is “And So It Goes,” a simple piano hymn of such loveliness and naked vulnerability that one wonders why Joel ever bothers with all the bluster and pretense in the first place.