KEVIN DAVIS: Like several of the other rhythm-and-blues covers on Kojak Variety (“Leave My Kitten Alone,” “Running Out of Fools”), Elvis Costello recorded “Pouring Water on a Drowning Man” multiple times between 1986 and its eventual release on 1995’s Kojak Variety. His initial attempt came in the form of an off-the-cuff solo electric demo, cut in 1986 and eventually released on the Blood and Chocolate Rhino reissue (this same session produced a similarly intimate recording of Allen Toussaint’s “All These Things,” which Jorge and I wrote about last year); the second version, a sunny up-tempo stomp built around James Burton’s crisp, trebly guitar phrases, was cut in 1990 (and ultimately released on the Kojak Variety album) during a series of no-pressure sessions on Barbados, following an ill-fated attempt to reassemble the Attractions for a follow-up to Spike which never materialized; and a third, country-tinged version was recorded in 1992 with a trio including Paul Riley on bass and Pete Thomas on drums, during another somewhat casual session that produced – among other things – covers of Tom Waits’s “Innocent When You Dream” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Brilliant Disguise” (this was a tape of somewhat bizarre tape of songs that Elvis cut for George Jones, as a sort of “ideas of songs you might want to cover” sort of thing, but with Elvis taking it upon himself to “countrify” the songs beforehand, as if he thought it would make No-Show more amiable to the idea of tackling them).
“Pouring Water on a Drowning Man” is one of my very favorite EC covers for several reasons, some of which are unique to its individual renderings but the primary of which is true of all three takes – namely, it’s a song with a buoyant, irresistible melody that Elvis puts a lot of heart into, and a sturdy, uncomplicated chord structure which lends itself well to flexibility in arrangement and atmosphere. As such, Costello always seems capable of finding something new in it: an aching intimacy in the 1986 solo recording, kind of like seeing through “Blue Chair” and “I Hope You’re Happy Now” with x-ray vision, catching a glimpse of the raw pain behind those songs’ grit and bitter language; a sense of celebratory catharsis in the 1990 version, truest to the Motown/Stax lineage that birthed the original, where joy and jubilee are their own pain relief; and the quaint sense of longing in the 1992 version, keyed to the rote wordplay in the title phrase, as country songs often are. It is, above all, an unpretentious piece of songwriting product, its few pieces fitting together exactly as they should (I’m particularly fond of the transition back into the main verse progression, during the lyric “it’s sad but it’s true” – the band pause at this point during the 1990 version is one of those little moments that defines the song, a predictable trope in this category of arrangement that nonetheless works exactly as intended every time). Kojak Variety, for all its minor virtues, could have used a few more songs like “Pouring Water on a Drowning Man” – songs that seem less like the exercise that some of them do, but rather, as EC put it in his liner notes, as though they really are the document of the singer “going to a Caribbean island to record some of my favourite songs with some of my favourite musicians.”
JORGE FARAH: Last week we spoke about National Ransom, and the breezy, laid-back atmosphere that permeated that album’s recording sessions, sometimes sounding more like a bunch of friends showing off for each other than the kind of arduous, meticulous exercise-in-joykilling you often hear about when discussing the recording of sprawling masterpieces. It’s weird, then, that Kojak Variety—an album that is quite literally a bunch of old friends showing off for each other during what was essentially a label-funded Caribbean vacation—feels like such a chore to listen to. Whatever alchemy they tapped into on National Ransom is almost completely absent on Kojak, a ramshackle collection of covers that hang loosely together like their own standalone outtakes reel, or the Bonus Disc of another, better album; satisfying the length and format requirements but never quite coming together as a cohesive album experience. There are a few bright spots scattered throughout the collection, however: the cover of Burt Bacharach’s “Please Stay” is a lovely recording, as well as the radical drone-gospel reimagining of the Kinks classic “Days”, which closes the album on a solemn note.
“Pouring Water on a Drowning Man” is one of the aforementioned bright spots, injecting the album with some much-needed vibrancy—it’s one of the few performances in the entire collection where the joy in discovery and performance actually shines through. This comes down to two key factors: 1) the song itself, as a base composition, is utterly irresistible; and 2) Elvis seems to really really love it. We can already hear it in his solo recording from the Blood and Chocolate bonus disc; he surrenders to the melody completely, giving an impassioned performance to an audience of—well, whoever was hanging around the studio at the time. In fact, that offhandedness is one of the things I love about two of these three recordings; yes, the 1990 version that was released along with Kojak Variety is the most fully-realized, thoroughly-produced version, clearly intended for as wide an audience as possible, perhaps even with thoughts of making it a radio single. And it’s great! Meanwhile, the Blood and Chocolate and George Jones demo versions are a lot more off-the-cuff and intimate, never really meant for public consumption, and have a much more subdued, relaxed feel to them. Yes, this difference may be simply due to the fact that a snappy full-band arrangement calls for a more forceful vocal performance, but I also feel that by peering behind the curtain we are privy to less self-conscious performances that are truer to the song’s emotional core, a kind of bittersweet anguish. I love Elvis’s singing on the George Jones demos; quiet and confident, taking just the right turns to wring out all the country heartbreak he can out of this melody, trying to illuminate the song for someone else. It’s a bummer that George Jones ultimately dismissed Elvis’s little demo album, as I believe he would’ve done a great job with these songs. But I’m glad that we got to hear Elvis’s attempt at George Jones fanfiction.