ECSOTW#20: The Genuine Voice of His Unlovely State

wendy james

KEVIN DAVIS: Elvis Costello’s “Gwendolyn Letters” (the name he gave to the collection of songs he penned for former Transvision Vamp singer Wendy James, all of which she subsequently recorded on her 1993 album Now Ain’t the Time For Your Tears) are among the man’s few true remaining rarities, having been omitted from the great Rhino reissue campaign of ’01-’05 and currently available only to those with a fondness for hunting down out-of-print CD singles on eBay (or to those with internet street smarts). While the record that James made out of these tunes was a critical and commercial flop, it has understandably taken on a sort of curio status among Costello fans, the unlikely home for an entire album’s worth of material that our hero supposedly tossed off over a long weekend and then gave up for adoption. But these songs are significant for several reasons: First, they represent Costello’s first real dalliance with small ensemble rock-and-roll since disbanding the Attractions in 1986, and indeed they quite directly point the way to his next proper indulgence in the field, 1994’s Brutal Youth (whose opening track, “Pony St.,” sounds like a more sophisticated version of the melody that comprises “Puppet Girl” from these sessions). Second, though not to be underestimated – they ain’t a bad bunch of songs. After the lush eclecticism of Spike and Mighty Like a Rose and academic exercise of The Juliet Letters, it’s hard not to hear Elvis reveling in the immediacy of these recordings, rediscovering the simpler pleasures of volume and spontaneity amidst the increasing sophistication of his post-Attractions career.

“Do You Know What I’m Saying?” is probably my favorite of these demos, in part because of the completely uncontrived presence of the recording (it’s hard to imagine anyone spent any time at all “mixing” this), but also in part because of the perfectly Dylanesque couplets, which take pains to describe a lowbrow female entertainer (“She danced like an ambulance/Talked like a cartoon mouse/She took off her clothes/And it brought down the house”) and some scuzz-bucket dude that’s affiliated with her in some way (“The male counterpart – stupid, brutal, and rich/Lies under the arm of the world like an itch”). This is hardly uncharted territory for Costello, but his finger-pointing is timeless and forever vindicating, and the rhymes are expertly placed – both within the linear structure of the lyrics and as accessories to the music. I also love Costello’s detached vocal delivery – unlike other proclamations of judgment from atop his high horse, here he sounds not like a lover scorned or the bitter recipient of a rejected advance but like an unflappable cool guy whose use for his subjects begin and end with the function they serve him in song. But to answer his question, I don’t know what he’s saying – the lyrics in the song don’t seem to require a rhetorical question to solicit further investigation into their meaning. And weirdly, this is the second song from this time period to mention a “cartoon mouse” (“You Tripped at Every Step” being the other).

I know Costello’s version of “Do You Know What I’m Saying?” isn’t a “proper” studio recording, but I nevertheless love the uncompromised, almost tangible quality of the recording – Costello’s guitar feels like it’s coming out of a small practice amplifier a few feet across the room. So many of Elvis’s demos capture this in-the-room vibe – the early acoustic demos, the Spike home tapes, the Church Studios recordings. Fingers crossed that Elvis releases “The Gwendolyn Letters” as a Nebraska-style release sometime down the road, his disillusionment with the recording industry dies off and he finally starts treating us to his archives again.

JORGE FARAH: I recently went through the arduous process of reassembling my iTunes library after my old computer suddenly crashed. I painstakingly scoured through old hard drives and dropboxes to cull together my old digital collection, then went through the debris deleting duplicates, filling in missing track information, and ensuring everything was accompanied by the correct album art. It’s the kind of frustratingly snail-paced, almost-completely-unrewarding exercise that only the obsessive-compulsive or the desperately-bored would subject themselves to. All in all it took about 3 weeks. By the end of the process, I found that my Elvis Costello artist folder was made up of 1296 songs across 92 albums. If that number seems astronomically high, it’s because it includes compilations, reissues, collaborations, outtakes, several live albums and bootlegs, all filed under the artist name “Elvis Costello” for convenience. That is easily the highest track count for a single musician in my entire collection. This is all to say: I own a lot of Costello albums, and I’ve heard a lot of Elvis Costello songs. Until Kevin brought this song to my attention this week, I’d never heard “Do You Know What I’m Saying”.

Of course I was aware of the Gwendolyn Letters as a kind of “holy grail” of Costello releases—seems people have been clamoring for some kind of official release for these demo home recordings for years—but it never occurred to me to actually seek them out and listen to them. And I’m glad I didn’t, because holy cow this is a nifty little mini-album—scuzzy, almost haphazardly-thrown-together, playful and raw, without too much time to get overly precious about the compositions or the performances. Brutal Youth would partially follow this approach with songs like “Kinder Murder” and “20% Amnesia”. It’s a real thrill to listen to. And “Do You Know What I’m Saying” is probably the best track on the album, a direct precursor to “All This Useless Beauty” (you can easily sing the verse melody of one over the other’s music). An elegant ballad delivered in a stark and unadorned way, it reminds me of earlier songs like “Satellite” and “Harpies Bizarre” in its style of storytelling. And Kevin is absolutely correct: EC’s understated, almost-merely-functional vocal approach gives this song a certain listlessness that would likely be missing from a proper album recording of it. Wendy James’s album version is predictably fuller and better-produced but still relatively close to EC’s demo. The single version, however (re-recorded in an attempt to potentially score something resembling a hit for an album had turned out to be a huge commercial flop) is probably closer to what Elvis imagined for the arrangement– and it’s actually quite worth listening to— but I’m glad we have this demo recording as a grittier alternative.

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ECSOTW#19: Signed With Love and Vicious Kisses


JORGE FARAH: Get Happy was the first of several albums in Costello’s oeuvre that felt like very sudden, screeching left turns from what seemed like a natural progression in sound, but that actually make a whole lot of sense when considered within the context of his larger catalogue. My Aim is True into Armed Forces showed a gradual transition from workmanlike pub-rock into the more colorful, Bacharach-esque baroque-pop that would come to define him in the eyes of the general public. And then he released Get Happy, this sprawling (yet remarkably concise for its monstrous tracklist) collection of manic, feverishly kinetic songs that sound like highly caffeinated reinterpretations of Motown, Stax, ska and R&B. It’s an album that sits awkwardly just outside of EC’s “classic period”—coming hot off the heels of three iconic albums– but still occupies an important part in his body of work as a highly-regarded little oddity. No other Elvis Costello sounds or feels like like Get Happy.  No other Elvis Costello album has really tried. As many Costello-isms as there are in these songs – the melodic tics, the lyrical wordplay, the unmistakably playing of The Attractions—it really does seem like a momentary glimpse into a different musician’s discography.

“Possession” is one of a handful of tracks in this album that wouldn’t sound completely out of place in Armed Forces. It is one of the few songs here that lacks that driving, almost deranged energy that pushes a song like “The Imposter” forward, or that makes “Black and White World” sound like it could collapse at any moment. Much of this album feels like Elvis listening back to his recent output, then looking around at the music that was being made by his contemporaries in late 1979, and promptly tearing off the label of “New Wave” in disgust. “Possession”, however, is a mid-tempo (or about as mid-tempo as it gets on this album) number that bounces along placidly; in fact, I think the “bounciness” in Bruce Thomas’s wonderful bassline is the main element that keeps this sounding at least somewhat distinct from anything on Armed Forces. The bass here is probably my favorite element in the entire song, as the composition is merely serviceable, the performances are solid but not particularly noteworthy, and the lyrics are fairly standard 70s Costello (themes of lust and betrayal, puns that by now begin to veer into eyeroll territory—“you lack lust, you’re so lackluster” appearing to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for the man himself, seeing as how he reined it in considerably on future releases).

In our previous post, we wrote about “It’s Time”, a song that detractors tend to point to as an example of Elvis “oversinging”. And I understand the criticism. It makes absolute sense. He really goes for it, and consequently he may overshoot it at times. But to me, that all-out unrestrained performance fits perfectly with the song’s melody, subject matter and drama. I would point back to a song like “Possession” as an example of what true oversinging sounds like; here’s Elvis at the peak of his vocal affectations, sounding closer to a cartoon character than a human being, emoting all over a song that doesn’t really warrant it.

I have to say with some sadness that this is one of a very few Elvis Costello songs that doesn’t really do much for me; at the very least, it’s a pleasant but solidly average tune sandwiched between a bunch of better, more exciting tunes. And that’s bound to happen when you cram 20 songs into an album. “Possession” is not without its charms, but the man was producing masterpieces by the dozen.  This would’ve been a highlight on just about any other person’s album. On Get Happy, it’s cannon fodder.

KEVIN DAVIS: Ouch – some harsh words from Jorge on what has always been one of my favorite Get Happy tracks, in a rare-ish disagreement that I suppose ought to be somewhat relished. When two dudes not only love the same niche artist but also the same niche albums and most of the same niche tracks within in the canon of said artist, it’s nice to have these little moments to occasionally remind us that we’re two different individuals listening to this music with two different hearts, minds, and sets of ears. For in “Possession” I truly hear almost the complete opposite of what my co-author hears – a perfectly toned little pop song with a pure, rich melodic center, and while I can see where someone would bring charges of oversinging against Costello for his performance here, I think the exaggeratedly emotional, somewhat teary-sounding sense of pleading in this song is both welcome contrast to and respite from the spitfire ironies and wisecracking of the album as a whole. While I love the dizzying songcraft of Get Happy (and I do – only This Year’s Model and North occupy comparable real estate atop my all-time favorites list), I think “Possession” is one of its few tracks that pays tribute to its sources in melody and harmony as much as in rhythm. Its key is simplicity, and there weren’t many Costello songs in the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s whose keys were simplicity; in that sense, this is something of an advanced piece of writing for the man, an early version of the kind of easygoing, major-key pop melody he’d advance on songs like “Man Out of Time” and “Blue Chair.”

It’s not an unfair thing to criticize Get Happy for being a bit too rich in wordplay, nor is it an irrelevant observation that this album represents a sort of tipping point for Costello’s cleverness, but I don’t know that “Possession” is one of the album’s worse offenders. It hinges on a simple chorus that does nothing but repeat the title line, swiftly at the cross-section between measures, almost as an affirmative period on the mournful little organ phrase by Steve Nieve that accounts for as much of a “chorus” as the lyrics do (as he always does, Costello sounds great harmonizing with himself here, multi-part harmony being perhaps the one element of the Motown sound that the Attractions weren’t equipped to pay proper homage to). And despite a few rote one-liners that look crappy on paper, the melody steers the language such that only the “you lack lust…” line mentioned by Jorge really stands out, and only when you really stop to consider what a dumb line that is does it really disrupt the fluidity of the melody. When Costello sings “money talks and it’s persuasive,” it feels like an intentional callback to Bob Dylan’s line “money doesn’t talk, it swears” from “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” and most of the other language in the song feels deliberately one-dimensional – there isn’t a lot to read, for instance, into a couplet like, “Now you’re sending me your best wishes/Signed with love and vicious kisses.” This is a song that’s carried by its somewhat inflated sense of melodrama, as so much soul and rhythm-and-blues music is. And in the end it’s just that vibe that I really love about the song – that feel of a spacious and resolute major-key arrangement just working, saying its piece as concisely as possible and getting out of there in 2:02 or less.

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ECSOTW#18: Who Will I Have Left to Hate?


KEVIN DAVIS: Songs like “It’s Time” are the greatest reward of this type of weekly (so to speak) writing exercise: Here is a song occupying the penultimate slot on the second Elvis Costello record I ever purchased, and it’s not until fourteen years and an impromptu suggestion from my co-author later that I find myself really hearing it. In my mind I’d always sort of relegated this song to the status of “one of those other songs on the second half of All This Useless Beauty,” but further research reveals “It’s Time” to be not only one of Beauty’s strangest, most sonically engaged tracks, but also its leadoff single and the only one of six to chart (number 58 on the UK charts, but still). I try not to miss the ‘90’s too much, but it’s hard for a music geek not to look back fondly on a time when the business was in such a robust state that a major label could afford to sink advertising coin into releasing promotional singles for literally half the tracks on a DOA album from an artist long past his commercial prime. The clothes were stupid, yes – but what a glorious time to be a record buyer.

Endearingly for me, “It’s Time” is inadvertently something of a monument to this era in the not too distant past – when rock artists’ rudimentary experiments with drum loops felt like the sound of forever, when one-hit wonders like White Town and Primitive Radio Gods were the padding that grunge holdouts were outwardly outraged but secretly ecstatic to sit through in between airings of Smashing Pumpkins videos. In fact, my big complaint about this song is that I wish it lingered a little while longer in the brief space carved out at the beginning of the song, when the totality of the soundscape is the 8-bit keyboard, the somewhat distant accent of EC’s sandy, gritty guitar line, and a stock drum loop not unlike the one used in Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia”– once the song arrives in full fidelity (some sixty seconds in), it loses some character, and the song is lengthy enough to support a subtler build. That guitar of Costello’s is the saving grace of the production; the riff is phlanged out just enough, and mixed just far enough out on the periphery of the spectrum, to retain just the right amount of weirdness. Moreover, I’m not sure any other Costello song prior to his partnership with ?uestlove employs a beat similar to this – as one of the few EC compositions to turn a fleeting glance toward hip-hop rhythms, it seems one of the few tracks from the man’s first three decades to presage Wise Up Ghost.

The All This Useless Beauty bonus disc features a fascinating demo version of this which predates the final studio version by six years, in which EC harmonizes with himself and seems to attempt an approximation of a horn arrangement on a keyboard. And though I can never resist hearing two Elvises singing in unison, it’s an awkward mess of an arrangement that really speaks to the great job Geoff Emerick did giving shape to the hither-and-yon shrapnel that comprises All This Useless Beauty, which to this day I think is one of the best-produced records of Costello’s career. Both versions find him overshooting the dramatic arc of the song a bit — as EC tends to do when he really reaches for the peaks of his range, his voice takes on a pleading, almost desperate quality that feels out of sync with the lightweight snark in the lyrics, which are more of the same water tread by any number of songs in Costello’s rolodex of cynical relationship songs. Nevertheless, like the relationship it describes, “It’s Time” is something of a one-time thing in Elvis’s discography – we never again see another song that employs these elements in quite this way (several songs on When I Was Cruel look this direction, but their overall aesthetic is different), and perhaps never again hear Elvis so in step with a series of subtle production fads that just twenty years ago seemed like the wave of the future and now seem comically like the distant past. Songs like this are the souvenirs of a long career – if a songwriter of Elvis’s caliber doesn’t have a few, he’s not doing his job.

JORGE FARAH: See, unlike Kevin here, I actually loved “It’s Time” on my very first listen. And its placement as the second-to-last track actually heightened my expectations of it. Years of acclimating to the narrative structure of novels, films and television—you know how it is: the great big climax where all the story strands converge and the main conflicts are resolved is typically followed by some sort of quieter epilogue that underlines the overarching themes and wraps the story up with a nice bow– has transferred over to my music appreciation. Of course this doesn’t hold true for every album, or even for most of them, but I will admit to being partial to albums that conform to this structure. It does seem like a thought that is often on the back of the minds of whoever is in charge of sequencing songs; just like you can usually expect the second-to-last episode of every season of The Sopranos to be the big high-stakes shootout that’s followed by a gentler finale, I look to the penultimate album track to be grand and dramatic. “It’s Time”, with its larger-than-life chorus, biting declarations of abject bitterness, and everything-and-the-kitchen-sink studio trickery, is nothing if not grand and dramatic.

I found myself dumbstruck by the fact that, though it was released as the album’s lead single, the song:
1- didn’t have an accompanying music video (it was the 90s! Music videos were how lead singles got heard by the MTV crowd, the only crowd that mattered!),
2- got zero attention from the public (lack of music video notwithstanding, this song is a hit! The catchy melodies! The 90s radio pop sheen! The drum loops! The sardonic and relatable lyrics about the intersection of lust and disdain and the utter futility of love itself! The unrelentingly loud snare sound!), and
3- has since gotten zero attention from Elvis himself (no sign of this song – again, a lead single—on any of his several career-spanning retrospectives, while more obscure tracks from the same album did get featured on Extreme Honey: The Very Best of the Warner Bros. Years. The Elvis Costello Wiki reliably informs me that this song hasn’t even been played live since the year of the album’s release. [sidenote: the Wiki also informs me that Elvis’s son Matt McManus is credited as providing “rhythm research” for this song, which is probably liner-notes legalese for “being 20 years old in 1996 and showing his dad a Massive Attack record once”]).

I share KD’s appreciation for the brittle AM-radio vibes of the opening 45 seconds, and I also wish it inhabited that sonic space a little longer. But I am a huge fan of everything that comes after it, particularly that drum sound. Yes, that unmistakably 90s drum sound: booming bass, tightly-wound snare, one step short of Spin Doctors territory— the rhythm Pete Thomas is playing here actually brings a bunch of 90s stuff to mind, namely “Keep On Movin’” by Soul II Soul, Duran Duran’s “Come Undone”, and that terrible multi-part Enigma song with the Gregorian chants. I love what it’s doing here, and how it pushes the song forward. Also of note in the percussion track is that strange sound that punctuates each line in the chorus—which sounds like it could be castanets, but also sounds like a set of keys falling into a bed of coins lining someone’s side picket. The big booming guitars, the flanged-out bridge, the unrestrained vocal performance, they all contribute to making this song sound so massive and triumphant. And this huge, lumbering, ridiculous thing is six minutes long. My God.

The demo version of “It’s Time” is a good example of EC intentionally obscuring a gorgeous melody by trying to make it clever. He had to tear it down, and with help of The Attractions and Geoff Emerick, rescued a lovely soul song from the debris. Some of my all-time favorite moments in EC’s discography have happened when he’s thrown himself unabashedly into the work, setting aside his artistic self-consciousness to just surrender completely to the song. The charts might offer evidence to the contrary, but to me, “It’s Time” is one of his all-time biggest hits.

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ECSOTW#17: Is There Light Beneath Your Door and Laughter From Within

: I go through ups-and-downs with Painted From Memory. Sometimes it sounds like a bit of a stretch for Elvis; a knee-deep plunge into a genre that he’s not quite suited for, where he trades in emotional sincerity for self-consciously heightened melodrama and throwback chintzy arrangements, deferring a bit too much to his collaborator. But then, other times, when the mood is right, it feels like the single most emotionally poignant thing he ever made, the perfect album to listen to when you’ve experienced the most devastating heartbreak man can bear. Sometimes it sounds hokey. Sometimes it sounds majestic. It tends to depend on how I’m feeling about my own romantic situation at that particular moment—songs like “Such Unlikely Lovers” or “Tears at the Birthday Party” can elicit gargantuan eyerolls or resonate with the strength of a thousand “I Want You”s.

“In the Darkest Place” is one of the songs in the album that completely transcends that; it is always an emotional gut-punch, no matter where I am in my own life, or what feelings I’m able to project onto it. It stands on its own as an incredibly poignant depiction of a special kind of hurt. It’s a gorgeous song. One of Elvis’s all-time greatest ballads. But, like I said, it’s as much of an Elvis Costello song as it is a Burt Bacharach one.

The movement in this song is part of what makes it special; in fact, this exercise in weekly Costello analysis has really made it clear to me that he is a master at this, in a way that may be hard to notice at first but becomes clear once you witness a few examples of his use of subtle dynamics to amplify a song’s sense of drama. These aren’t prog-rock approximations of symphonic movements, but subtle touches within the confines of pop arrangements that rein the tension in a song or let it loose, sometimes with something as simple as a shift in the drum pattern or a trumpet that lingers a a bit longer past the verse. That ear for ornamental touches was most likely developed from a lifetime of studying pop music as an avid listener; it makes perfect sense that collaborating with one of his biggest influences would result in one of the most meticulously arranged albums in his entire career. And this song is filled to the brim of classic Bacharach moments: the melodic motif that opens the song, the sprinkles of harpsichord over a bed of stately piano, the female backup singers. He pulls generously from his bag of tricks throughout the entire album, but it’s never more effective than on this track.

“In the Darkest Place” manages to be a breakup song that is raw and honest and emotionally bare without sounding like an unbearably whiny, self-loathing pity party. It also avoids the simmering vitriol of EC’s neurotic, vaguely-menacing late-70s spurned-geek anthems; however, there’s a real anger built into it. It’s a more adult kind of anger. It’s an elegant, tempered, bittersweet, after-hours, spilling-your-guts-to-strangers kind of anger. The kind that can only be triggered by the most devastating betrayals, and processed into something beautiful with the wisdom of age. The pain is exquisite, and so are the songs.

KEVIN DAVIS: Painted From Memory was the last readily available Elvis Costello album I purchased during my inaugural wave of discovery, early in 2004. In fact, one of the first times I really had a chance to listen closely to it was on the car ride from Peoria to Chicago, en route to seeing Elvis live with Steve Nieve at the Oriental Theater on the North tour, which probably accounts for some of the disproportionate fondness I have for this record despite my relative indifference towards roughly half of its songs – not only did I first experience it during what was probably the single most intensely concentrated three-hour period of Elvis Costello-related excitement in my entire life, but the specific focus of this excitement was an impending evening of Elvis and his right-hand man serenading me with romantic piano ballads. Between that and my general predisposition at the time toward any album that afforded me the chance to put on my emo glasses and wallow in my own loneliness, I was totally primed to love this album.

Even now, I can’t help but hear Painted From Memory and North as two sides of the same coin – two records that canonically belong together but are obviously very different aesthetically and less obviously different philosophically. The main difference for me between the two works is narrative distance: Both albums are obviously genre-hops for Elvis, but despite this, North scans as one of the most nakedly sincere records he ever recorded, unflinchingly sentimental and (almost refreshingly) transparently driven by his personal life, where Painted From Memory feels like Elvis deliberately writing from the viewpoint of someone who isn’t him but whom he hopes may be you. I don’t know anything about Costello’s personal life around the time of Painted From Memory (a quick Google search confirms that his divorce from Pogues bassist Cait O’Riordan didn’t come until three years later), but the songwriting on this record feels very much in the spirit of professionalism – exercises in manipulation, in putting feelings and words together such that they channel a universality which transcends the limitations of any one person’s experience. One can choose to see an artificiality in this, equating it with moustache-twirling supervillains writing summer blockbusters for Luke Bryan in an air-conditioned office in Nashville, but I think that’s short-sighted. There are things an artist can draw from this approach that won’t naturally arise elsewhere, and one of EC’s great virtues as a songwriter has always been his ability to straddle the line between the employment of stylistic tropes and retention of his own voice. The lesser tracks on Painted From Memory are mostly kind of boring, but its better songs are a master’s class in this kind of genre puppeteering. “In the Darkest Place” falls definitively in the latter category.

It’s a song that takes a couple listens to sink in because, like many songs on Painted From Memory, the structure of the composition is subtle – the logic behind the melody doesn’t immediately make itself clear, and sometimes it’s not until the fifth, tenth, fifteenth listen that you realize something happening in the second verse is actually an echo of something that already happened in the first. But as it becomes increasingly comfortable, the DNA of the song becomes something of a scenic journey – you begin to anticipate the hills and valleys of the melody, the aesthetic embellishments that come over each peak and around each curve. These colorations really do, as Jorge says, direct the emotional flow of the song – the gentle harpsichord sequence, for instance, that follows the words I know and comes to rest of that suspended minor chord, momentarily leaves the song with a sense of irresolution, before the descending, Christmas-bell-like piano passage immediately following the words I shut out the light give that same passage its sense of closure, leading into the more dramatic “chorus” section, defined by the immaculately placed female backing vocals.

“In the Darkest Place” goes out on a sort of mournful, ambient drone that almost feels too abstract for an album arranged as classically as Painted From Memory, but it works, ultimately leaving the song drifting as aimless as the character it portrays. There are a few more stone-cold homeruns between here and the end of Painted From Memory (“God Give Me Strength,” “This House is Empty Now,” and my personal favorite, “Toledo”), but “In the Darkest Place” is perhaps the purest distillation of the album’s formula – the mixture of Costello’s mature, wistful melodicism and Burt Bacharach’s kitschy but evocative orchestrations.

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ECSOTW#16: I Guess I Missed My Calling, I Should’ve Been a Clown


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.

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ECSOTW #15: The Shore is a Parchment, the Sea Has No Tide


JORGE FARAH: National Ransom is the Elvis Costello album that time forgot. Coming off of the unlikely (and caffeine-boosted) commercial success of its bluegrass-tinged predecessor Secret Prophane and Sugarcane, this was to be his victory lap—the album that cemented his comeback as a former elder statesman of rock, now rebranded with muted greens and earthy browns, placed alongside the Randy Newmans and Paul Simons of the world. He once again teamed up with producer T. Bone Burnett, whose musical direction and ear for acoustic instrumentation made SP&S the best-sounding album Elvis has probably ever released. And he combined the talents of his two most recent backing bands: versatile rockn’roll powerhouses The Imposters and string-band stalwarts The Sugarcanes (who were actually not a band, per se, but sort of became one during the previous album’s promotional tour), as well as frequent collaborator Marc Ribot and the legendary Leon Russell. The songs were largely catchy and accessible, the marketing was aggressive, the promotional tour was arduous. For a while there it felt like you couldn’t turn on the television without seeing Elvis and his merry band of traveling musicians performing some jaunty number off the album—usually “Slow Drag With Josephine”.  It seemed like they had it in the bag.

And then: nothing. All the hoopla surrounding the album’s release didn’t translate to actual sales. This wasn’t the album that would rescue Elvis from boat shows and state fairs. National Ransom did typical late-period Costello numbers, quickly sank down the charts, and had next to no cultural penetration. The critics gave it the coldest of cold shoulders, with only a handful even bothering to put it in year-end retrospectives. It was a truly disheartening thing to witness, especially because—this isn’t hyperbole here, but my actual, real opinion—National Ransom is one of Elvis’s all-time greatest accomplishments. It is an absolute triumph of an album, brimming with creativity and wit and gorgeous melodies atop some of the breeziest and most memorable music in his entire career. While there is clearly a great deal of thought put into the compositions in National Ransom—both musically and lyrically—the performances sound easy and effortless. Placid. Like the hazy aftermath of a backyard BBQ on a summer day. Which is quite a thing to say about an album that features betrayal, tuberculosis and murder so prominently in its lyrics.

Which brings is to this weeks’ featured song: “You Hung the Moon”, the mournful torch song that serves as the album’s emotional centerpiece. This is one of Elvis’s most fully-realized studio recordings; everything feels completely on point, from the rich and very slightly reverby timbre of the guitar to the deliberately muted, understated orchestration to Elvis’s assured vocal, full-bodied and resonant, coming deep from within his diaphragm like the best performances in North. Everything about this recording just jells together beautifully, and small touches (such as the barely-there piano in the verses) are given enough space in the mix to contribute to the harmonic palate. And the song is a fantastic piece of writing; I love the angry New Wave thing, but I think right now my ideal Elvis Costello album would be made up entirely of songs where he explores this side of his musical identity. National Ransom was almost that; as fun as tracks like “My Lovely Jezebel” and “The Spell That You Cast” are, the strongest songs in this album are the ones that find Elvis in “historical songwriter” mode, songs like “Jimmie Standing in the Rain” and “A Voice in the Dark” that harken back to the turn of the century.

On a personal and unabashedly braggy note, I was lucky enough to be among 25 fans selected to receive a set of two 78s containing selections from National Ransom. One of the discs has “Jimmie Standing in the Rain” on one side and “You Hung the Moon” on the other. I’ve played it exactly once, and have kept it in proud display on my living room wall. The 78 is the perfect format for a song like this—one that sounds simultaneously vital and plucked straight out of the annals of history.

KEVIN DAVIS: Of course I hope it isn’t, but if National Ransom ends up being EC’s final solo album, it will be hard to feel like he walked offstage having left much unsaid. The album neatly rounds up a host of historical styles paid tribute to by Elvis over the years (though not all of them – the man’s palette is broad) and gathers them together into this ornately composed scrapbook of sepia-toned Americana, a haul of dusty treasures from one layer deeper down the hole that produced Secret, Profane and Sugarcane. And while I agree that National Ransom is pretty clearly the superior record, I’m not surprised it fared poorer with the Starbucks crowd; Secret, while nonetheless sturdy in its joints and rich in heart, has a bright, accessible surface, where Ransom comes across as dusty, sprawling and somewhat esoteric, more given to eccentric rambles (see Mark Ribot’s frantic soloing on the title track) and indebted to a wider range of styles of American music, some less destined for the kind of contemporary appeal that it’s easy to hear in a jaunty bluegrass number like, say, “Sulphur to Sugarcane.”

I don’t think Elvis has written many songs better than “You Hung the Moon,” and coming from a bigger-than-average fan of EC’s standard style of composition, that’s saying something. The guitar rock tirades may not come as effortlessly as they once did, but the care and delicacy in the craft of a ballad like this is something Elvis has only gotten better at with age – from “Almost Blue” to Painted From Memory to North to this song and several others on National Ransom, Elvis has slowly come to master this style of deeply melodic, highly chord-sensitive songwriting. Not that the tempo would give it away, but his chording and melodic accompaniment here is decidedly beboppish – a tireless sequence of changes, with the harmonically complex chords working overtime to accommodate the tune, particularly as it goes to off-kilter places. The callback is to Dixieland – again, not because of the tempo, but because of the way elements both from country-and-western and big band jazz fuse, revealing how so many strands of American music can ultimately all be traced back to the same few origins.

Since Jorge didn’t mention much about the lyrics, I’ll just add that I find them poetic in a manner that eludes all but the finest songwriters, in a way that sacrifices none of Costello’s loquacious wordplay while still fitting seamlessly into the template he’s drawing from. Thematically, it’s a cliché with a twist: Soldier’s significant other watches a homecoming parade only to find that the object of her affections isn’t in it, yet later we learn that he may not have been killed in action, but for being a coward (“we deal with deserters like this”). This doesn’t change the core emotion of the song – which is the inevitable emptiness one feels in the face of a great loss – but it adds a weird complexity to the song’s peripheral emotions, infusing it enough specificity to keep it from being simply a more eloquent version of one of those country songs where an army girlfriend stands there nobly saluting a flag-draped coffin, or any such manufactured version of natural pride. Yet though the circumstances may be different, the grieving is the same: “The shore is a parchment/The sea has no tide/Since he was taken/From my side.” The rest of the story barely matters.

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ECSOTW #14: I Hope That She Sleeps Well at Night


KEVIN DAVIS: I was seventeen years old in the fall of 2000, so over the next eight years I grew pretty accustomed to songs by liberal-minded rock musicians devoted to the defamation of George W. Bush’s character (professional musicians are actually contractually obligated to compose songs like this anytime there’s a Republican president in office), but from memory I can’t think of any songs that specifically wished him dead (quick Google search for journalistic integrity – apparently Eminem made one). But replace Bush with Margaret Thatcher and off the top of my head – despite the fact that I know virtually nil about British politics – I can think of three: Morrissey’s “Margaret on the Guillotine,” Pink Floyd’s “The Fletcher Memorial Home” (which fantasizes about applying “the final solution” to her), and Costello’s own “Tramp the Dirt Down,” from 1989’s Spike (best known to the general public for producing Elvis’s highest-charting single to date, “Veronica”). The song essentially brings a litany of charges against Thatcher prior to appropriating Bob Dylan’s famous parting sentiment from “Masters of War”: “I’ll stand o’er your grave till I’m sure that you’re dead.” Costello repeats this nigh-on verbatim, only minus the broad scope of address (Dylan’s song was aimed at all unjust warmongers; Costello’s thoughts were specifically closer to home). “Tramp the Dirt Down” reached number 79 on iTunes when Thatcher died in 2013; apparently the song’s lyrics were vicariously cathartic for more than a few Thatcher detractors who identified with Costello’s symbolic act of grave-stomping.

As something of a nonpartisan rube who most of the time doesn’t even really understand his own country’s politics, I don’t feel remotely qualified to assess Costello’s lyrics as social commentary, but I still think the words to this song pack a wallop, because in conjunction with the music I feel they illustrate a larger, more universal truth about the emotions which drive political dissent, one which eludes so much other topical music. Musically, “Tramp the Dirt Down” is a lovely, pastoral-sounding ballad comprised of eclectic Celtic instrumentation running the gamut from an arpeggiated bouzouki to a wistful Uilleann pipe to an assortment of other oddities (producer Mitchell Froom plays something called an Indian harmonium, while Marc Ribot – who I didn’t even realize played on Spike – is credited simply with having contributed “distant sound”). It’s not an angry song, despite the venomous lyrics; it’s downright sad, though not gloomy-sad, or sad in the country-and-western tradition. Instead, it’s a song about a sadness of the deepest kind, the sum-total sorrow of a corrupt world where millions suffer their own individual horrors at the hands of a greedy few – and indeed, the song’s final build (beginning at about 2:44) is the musical equivalent of the welling up of tears, of a lump forming in the throat, as Costello grows more and more indignant in sympathy with those to whom the song attempts to give voice: “And now the cynical ones say that it all ends the same in the long run/Try telling that to the father who just squeezed the life from his only son.” It’s the kind of bottomless, wide-open sadness that only Uilleann pipes can convey.

So much protest music comes off as smug and self-righteous – despite its ultimate truth, it’s often difficult to shake the feeling that the driving force isn’t the singer’s sympathy with the offended but rather his or her superiority over the offender. That in mind, I’ve always felt that EC managed something deeply artful with “Tramp the Dirt Down” – to dually convey both seething bitterness and deep compassion, while still managing to give the illusion (despite the song ultimately hinging upon a first person promise to desecrate the subject’s burial site) that the grievances in the song aren’t his own. In the middle of the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink junkshop that is Spike, it’s a moment of deeply focused sincerity, and a foreshadowing of the political themes that would dominate Spike’s follow-up, Mighty Like a Rose.

JORGE FARAH: When Margaret Thatcher passed away in 2013, people all over Argentina were downright jubilant. There were impromptu celebrations in the streets of Buenos Aires, and my Facebook feed changed abruptly from adorable pet photos and Buzzfeed animated gif compilations to unusually-long status updates expressing the deepest glee over the death of this woman; footage was shown on the evening news of groups of families congregating around city circles, joyful tears streaming down their faces, talking about how much they’ve longed for this day. As an expat who has had a relatively easy adjustment experience, it’s times like these when I am reminded most vividly of my own foreigness, as I tried to make sense of the national reaction to a person’s death. The scars of the 1982 Falklands War run deep among the Argentine population, to the point where children are still taught in school that the islands are property of Argentina, and the British are widely derided as piratas. “¡Las Malvinas son Argentinas!” is a chant that can be heard at just about any political rally, even ones that have nothing to do with maritime borders. The conflict is perceived as a great national failure, but not one to learn and grow from; rather, the public sentiment is that this is a wrong to be righted. Tensions around the sovereignty dispute were still bubbling up until the end of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s second presidential term.

When Thatcher passed away, I had already been living in Argentina for the better part of a decade, and had all the relevant information to understand the deeper significance of the conflict. But I was still taken aback by the public reaction to her death, and had to wrestle with my own conflicting feelings about it. On one hand, seeing the outpouring of emotion from people I’d grown to know and love as family was genuinely moving and almost contagious; I wanted to join them in celebrating some kind of overdue victory (in fact, looking at my own Internet history, I actually came to utter the words “I’m glad she’s dead” on a public message board, and post this very song all over social media) . On the other hand, I had to grapple with the underlying ugliness of celebrating the death of a human being—a human being who, by that point, had long been stripped of any power that made her any kind of threat to Argentina, Britain, or the world in general. This wasn’t a sitting dictator who’d been dethroned. This was someone who’d lived past the point of relevancy and head-first into the indignities of old age. Why were people out on the streets celebrating the death of a senile old lady over a terrible war that happened over 20 years ago? All these mixed emotions were dredged up recently when I was confronted with the public reaction to Antonin Scalia’s death. We’ve come to understand now that the world isn’t black and white, and that the “good guy” and “bad guy” designations are the stuff of comic book movies and fantastical thinking. Celebrating the death of a human being—somebody’s mother, somebody’s daughter, somebody’s partner and confidante—is still profoundly disquieting to me, however egregious their offenses may have been.

This is why I found some comfort in the fact that Elvis introduced this song in Glastonbury 2013 with a story about how he lost his father to dementia, and how it’s a horrible way to go; one he wouldn’t wish to his worth enemy. And he reframed the song as celebrating not the death of a person, but rather wishing for the death of a political idea that is still alive and prevalent and destroying lives every day. This shift in perspective gave new light to a song that I always had a hard time enjoying—musically it’s a bit too solemn, too bitter, too dour a funeral dirge for me to really appreciate. Thatcher’s death gave this song a poignancy that was absent for me, and shone a light on its virtues: the exquisite and well-orchestrated arrangement, the twisting melody, Elvis’s impassioned performance. As far as mandolin-led Celtic laments from Spike, I still prefer the other one– “Any King’s Shilling”, which I hope Kevin and I get the chance to write about here— but “Tramp the Dirt Down” is still a uniquely powerful song in Elvis’s catalogue.

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ECSOTW #13: We Met in a Head-On Collision


JORGE FARAH: “Wednesday week” is a British expression meaning “a week from Wednesday”. I thought I’d get that out of the way first, since the title of this song puzzled me for the longest time. What is a Wednesday week, anyway? A week of only Wednesdays? Like an interminable week, where every day is “Hump Day” and the promise of a weekend’s respite seems forever out of reach? What is it?

I’ll tell you what’s not interminable. This manic blast of energy titled “Wednesday Week”, an outtake from 1979’s Armed Forces, Elvis’s early commercial peak and probably his most decidedly “New Wave” sounding album. This was his first real exploration of synth pop, with emphasis on the POP; marrying ABBA arrangements and Bacharach melodies with something new and exciting, all the grit and menace of This Year’s Model all scrubbed out, slicked over, dressed up. It’s no wonder that songs like “Wednesday Week” and its lesser sister “Clean Money” were left out of the final tracklist; by this point, they represented a sound that Elvis was itching to leave behind.

And it makes sense. Elvis Costello of the late 70s was very much about the “here and now”, or, at least, that’s the image that the Stiff marketing department was pushing for. Now music for now people. Moods for moderns and all that. Elvis himself, though, remained a classicist, and even his most cutting-edge-sounding songs were heavily indebted to the music that came before. Still, “Wednesday Week” was effectively Last Year’s Model, and it was on to the new thing.

Still, there’s a lot to love in this crazy little rave-up. It’s like two half songs haphazardly stitched together, but in a way that makes complete sense. The first half is a rollicking thrill ride, Steve Nieve’s organ sounding at once like the sped-up refrain of a 60s spy theme and an accordion being thrown down a flight of stairs. Elvis is at his most unhinged here, spouting fractured lines about a sexual rendezvous that seems to be charged with as much desire as contempt. Between the shakers and the rolling bassline and the use of cymbals in the verses, this is about as close to rockabilly as Elvis ever got. Well, this Elvis, anyway.

Then it very starkly shifts to a semi-acoustic, mid-tempo section that probably would have fit nicely into Armed Forces, and tells the story of the morning after. “Oh, what a letdown when the battle was finally won”, the kind of post-coital ennui that Elvis would later explore in songs like “New Lace Sleeves”.  Steve Nieve’s chiming keys, as always, sweeten this very bitter pill.

KEVIN DAVIS: I find it interesting that Jorge hears this song as a sort of lingering taste of This Year’s Model, though after reading his comments I follow his logic: The first half of this song especially sounds like an even more frantic version of “You Belong to Me,” a raucous rave-up pitched to Steve Nieve’s playful organ blasts that is certainly more in the spirit of This Year’s Model’s punk-ish snarl than it is of the crystalline pop of Armed Forces. But I’ve actually always heard this song as a glance forward towards Get Happy and its cavalcade of Stax-inspired rhythms; in fact, the YouTube video I’m using for reference here goes directly from “Wednesday Week” to an audio-only clip of the entire Get Happy album, and the transition from “Wednesday Week” to “Love For Tender” feels not only seamless but inspired. It just serves to illustrate what a unified language the Attractions were speaking in the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s – most of the songs from their first three records together could be arranged in any fashion and still make sonic thematic sense, an achievement no doubt attributable at least in part to their breathless productivity during this period. EC and his band barely came up for air between 1978 and 1984, producing at least an album a year and leaving (very, very conservatively) an entire album’s worth of leftovers and retakes on the cutting room floor along the way (the name of this album is Taking Liberties, which was released in 1980 and is “Wednesday Week”’s original home). This band had such a kinetic creative energy that it’s no wonder the train couldn’t start up again once it stopped rolling – I mean, how do you get that kind of momentum back?

A lot of EC’s early B-sides were solid if comparatively unspectacular songs that were right to have been left off their respective potential records – and indeed, I wouldn’t change a single note of either This Years Model or Get Happy, two of my top three favorite EC records overall (the third item on that list is North). But I’ve always felt that some of Armed Forces’s outtakes could have served the album well – “Wednesday Week” in particular could have offered the record’s B side the shot in the arm that “Moods For Moderns” tries less successfully to provide, and I’d take “Talking in the Dark” over “Chemistry Class” and probably “Busy Bodies” (though I can understand why perhaps that song’s status as a standalone single might have left Elvis and his people wary to include it). In any case, “Wednesday Week” has a lot to offer in its explosive, jubilant two minutes – in fact, I can think of no other Costello track that morphs so distinctly, prog-like, from one “movement” to the next like this (“I Want You,” perhaps), an impressive feat for a song which is not only so short but which bears so little evidence of the compositional deliberateness that would come to define Costello’s writing just a few albums down the road. Like many of Elvis’s early songs, the finer nuances of the songwriting here take a distinct backseat to the overall energy and presence of both the Attractions’ spot-on ensemble performance and Costello’s own sneering delivery, yet here the abrupt shift in rhythm and tone immediately demands that the listener realize that there is more happening than meets the ear. One might say its excellence is almost scientific.

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ECSOTW #12: Heaven Knows What Fills the Heart


KEVIN DAVIS: In any catalog the size of EC’s, there are bound to be songs that register briefly with the listener and then drop off the radar, and my objective this week was to use this forum as an excuse to reacquaint myself with one of those songs. The song I chose was “Georgie and Her Rival,” from 1991’s Mighty Like a Rose.

Mighty Like a Rose was the first real “off the radar” Costello album I heard. It was one of many records which was out of print when I first began collecting EC’s records, so when through sheer dumb luck I stumbled upon a copy of it in a $2 used bin, it carried a vague air of mystery with it that the more easily available albums at the time didn’t. I’d done enough reading on Elvis’s discography to know that it wasn’t widely regarded as a classic, so when it ended up actually being a halfway-decent collection of tunes, I was pretty impressed – it led to me overrating the album pretty significantly for a good few years. It’s arguably Costello’s lushest recording, both in the weight of the arrangements and in the sheer volume of musical and lyrical content, a condition that simultaneously elevates the best EC songs and sinks the lousy ones. “Georgie and Her Rival,” after a solid half-decade-plus out of touch, falls somewhere between these two extremes.

The song is a melodic powerhouse – I absolutely adore how accomplished the tune is, and how tastefully the harmony supports it. But it’s also one of those songs I can’t help but wish I could hear arranged as a solo piano instrumental – something about the shapes of these particular words trying to be stuffed into this particular melody feels overly busy, like the relentless consonants don’t allow the melody to naturally flow, and the listener ends up going on information overload. It does too much too quickly. The lyrics seem to detail the misadventures of a principled female protagonist who finds she has become some creep’s telephone plaything, a scenario which EC has some fun with but the gory details of which he thankfully leaves to the imagination. I won’t say this is something I can closely identify with, but the melody and vocal performance encourage empathy – like many of the other songs on Mighty Like a Rose, “Georgie” has a certain emotional sophistication built into its melody, and into the way the notes of melody correspond to the base chords. Call it an “elegant sadness” of sorts.

“Georgie” won’t likely re-enter my regular listening rotation as a favorite, but I’m glad to have gone back and listened to it. It will always retain that vague sense of mystery to it, as well as the sense of excitement that came along with scouring used record bins for out-of-print EC albums in 2002. But it sure ain’t no “Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No. 4.”

JORGE FARAH: It really isn’t, but what song is? “Couldn’t Call it Unexpected No. 4” isn’t just one of Elvis’s strongest compositions, but also a wonderfully unique moment in EC’s catalogue, where his gifts for melody and lyricism come together with the junkyard-orchestra, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink arrangements of Mighty Like a Rose to make up what I can only describe as a pop masterpiece (and yes, I am aware that most EC fans would probably hold up the piano-and-vocals arrangement that Elvis sometimes uses to close his shows as superior to the cluttered studio track, but I absolutely adore the studio track). That song isn’t just the high-water mark of the album it’s housed in, but one of several in Elvis’s career. Mighty Like a Rose is an album that, like Kevin, I tend to view more favorably than most people; it’s filled with these lush (yes, the perfect word) melodies and compositions, and is one of Elvis’s earliest approaches to classical composing in a pop format (you can hear it in the unfurling countermelodies of a song like “Harpies Bizarre”). It’s also an album with a higher-than-average rate of total duds (hello “Broken”). Though I wouldn’t call “Georgie and Her Rival” one of those, it’s still a song that failed to register with me in any kind of meaningful way. I don’t know what it says about the track that, when Kevin first brought up the idea to write about it, the only thing I could recall about it was the obnoxious title-drop refrain, though I was almost certain it was surrounded by a different kind of song.

Listening back to it now, it’s really not so bad. Like “How to Be Dumb” from the same album, it’s one of those solo Elvis songs that seems designed to sound just like The Attractions, with chiming keyboard arpeggios (sounds like Steve Nieve, but actually Larry Knetchel and Mitchell Froom), an acrobatic bassline (sounds like Bruce Thomas, but actually Jerry Scheff) and an assertive drum performance (sounds like Pete Thomas, but actually…  actually that is Pete Thomas). The verse melody even seems to be a straight-up rewrite of “Oliver’s Army”, with a similar melodic arc but a different resolution. Listening back to this song now, I actually really enjoy it; it’s a strong base composition, it has a cool arrangement that avoids the bloat present in much of Mighty Like a Rose, and it’s anchored by a really strong vocal performance; Mighty Like a Rose is often derided as an album where Elvis was trying for a consciously ugly, strained vocal performance, often undercutting the beauty of his compositions. This is a critique that certainly holds true for a good many of the tracks. But he does a fantastic job on this one. He is playing it straight without being straightforward. I love his delivery of the line “heaven knows what fills the heart”—this is a singer who knows how to sell the drama in his lyrics.

I don’t know why the song I had in my head before listening back to this again was a lot closer to “Crawling to the USA”.  Maybe because both their song titles are dropped in a similar fashion at the end of their respective choruses? I don’t know. But one of the upsides of this little weekly exercise is that I get to revisit songs that slipped through the cracks for me, and I always find myself in awe of the breadth and quality of this man’s body of work. “Georgie and Her Rival” has been illuminated for me this week, and is rescued from out of the “dud” pile in my internal sorting system, lifted up from under the heavy, bloated carcass of “Broken”.

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ECSOTW #11: Rome Burns Down and Everybody Fiddles



JORGE FARAH: My entire first year in Buenos Aires was spent in three different hostels. This was a sometimes harrowing, often thrilling experience that I’ve written about before, so I’m not going to go into a lot of detail. The one thing I can definitely say about that time is that I was never bored. Even when I was overwhelmed and annoyed—and trust me, living in a hostel environment surrounded by all kinds of tourists and miscreants, with a revolving-door cast of colorful characters, there was plenty to be annoyed and overwhelmed about– there was at least something going on, there were new people to talk to, there were drinks to share and laughs to be had. And when you’re a teenager living in a brand new city, savoring your first taste of independence, you tend to take advantage of every one of those opportunities. It was a fun time. But every once in a while, something would happen. Sometimes in the quiet of my dorm room once everybody had fallen asleep, and sometimes right in the midst of the revelry, I’d be hit with these paralyzingly intense pangs of melancholy. It wasn’t just homesickness, though that definitely was a part of it—it was more like this enormous, insurmountable sense of aimlessness and despondency. I missed my family and my friends, yes, but I also felt profoundly lost amid the endless cavalcade of new faces and foreign languages and hasty introductions, and all those streets with names I just couldn’t learn.

Sometimes a song sounds a certain way, like it captures a kind of truth or explores a certain emotional space, but it won’t exactly align with what the writer had in mind when they wrote the lyrics. In these cases I tend to favor my own interpretation of the emotional core of the song rather than whatever point the lyrics are trying to convey. I’m not exactly sure what the lyrics to “Deportee” are about. The song seems to paints a vivid picture– or rather, several vivid pictures—of a sullen, lovelorn, inebriated protagonist, stumbling in and out of fancy bars and lofty conversations, losing his wits as well as his money, confessing his troubles to anyone who’ll listen, struggling for some sort of connection and ultimately lamenting either a love lost or a missed opportunity. There’s probably a different narrative than the one I’m projecting onto the song. But to me this song—with its gently descending melody line, its dreamy folk vibes and its references to backless dresses and exotic kinds of liquor– captures that terrible emptiness beautifully, that in-between feeling of being stranded in a foreign land, way in over your head, drinking yourself into gregariousness, unsure of what’s to come in the morning.

There are two songs in EC’s catalogue that feature this set of lyrics. One is actually titled “The Deportees Club” and it is a garish rocker with suitably ugly production, fittingly housed in The Attractions’ worst album Goodbye Cruel World. The other is this stark, guitar-and-vocals home demo, recorded around the same time that Elvis was writing King of America and had all these fantastic ideas for devastatingly sad songs running around his head. This reworked version is one of his quietest, loveliest guitar ballads, and was covered beautifully by Christy Moore (though still bearing the old version’s title). Moore crafted a very well-orchestrated arrangement, effectively transforming the song into a mournful Irish folk ballad, but Elvis’s home recording remains my favorite version.

KEVIN DAVIS: King of America is perhaps the definitive moment for one of EC’s trademark voices: the judgmental onlooker. In these songs, our hero plays the role of a snide introvert who sits in the corner with a pen and pad while rooms full of sleazy buffoons and loose women trip aimlessly around in service of their vices, lampooning them with wordplay and sarcastic nicknames and just about any other rhetorical device he can get his hands on. I love Elvis in this mode — these songs all have such strong senses of time and place to them, and are so easy to put yourself into (even if only as another snarky spectator, heaping derision upon the fools of the world with your thesaurus and your superiority).

“Deportee” is very much in the spirit of these King of America tracks, though EC’s a little harder on himself here than in, say, “Our Little Angel,” counting himself among the stumbling, drunken riffraff rather than a man apart from it. Again, the song has a tremendous sense of setting, established immediately in the opening couplet: “In the Arrividerci Roma Nightclub bar and grill/Standing in the fiberglass ruins, watching time stand still.” Everything that follows in the song exists within the confines of this contained environment, even though the remainder of the song is essentially a journal of the narrator’s drunken musings. Through the stark simplicity of the arrangement we see the tears of a clown, revealed in lucid detail as the singer pours out his sorrow over the life of carousing and debauchery he never had — “the secret life of Frank Sinatra.” Regrets — he’s had a few.

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