Tag Archives: country music

ECSOTW#27: I’m Driven ‘Til I’m Crying or I’m Dreaming ‘Til I Drown

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JORGE FARAH: Last week we wrote about “Lovable”, the second track from King of America, an album that feels like it wants to be a collection of cinematic, narrative-driven, emotionally-charged folk/country/Americana ballads, anchored to rockn’roll by a handful of upbeat palate-cleansers like the aforementioned track. On that post I wrote about how my own tastes and biases have shaped my perception of the album, where I get so caught up in my favorite songs from it that I lose sight of the broader scope that is explored in its tracklist.

This week’s song, “Shoes Without Heels”, is another one from the King of America sessions. This one clearly inhabits the mellower, melancholy side of King of America. Interestingly, however, this song wasn’t featured on the final KOA tracklist, but instead tossed off as a B-side to a single from a later album. Elvis didn’t seem to think much of the song then, and that doesn’t appear to have changed much since—it’s been played live a total of five times, and not once in the last 29 years. That lack of regard appears to have stemmed all the way from the song’s conception, as it was apparently written in about 10 minutes and on the back of a bar napkin, as recounted (likely apocryphally) by Elvis himself on the liner notes to the King of America reissue. Yet, to me, this sounds like a much more thoughtful composition than several of the songs that did make it on the album. If I had to hazard a guess on why it was left off, I’d say it might be considered redundant after a song like “Indoor Fireworks”, which features the same rhythm and inhabits a similar emotional space and melodic cadence.

“Shoes Without Heels” is a plaintive country ballad clearly modeled after the “Nashville sound” Elvis is so fond of, recalling the work of countrypolitan stars such as Jay Price, Charlie Rich, Tammy Wynette, Charley Pride, and of course, Elvis’s favorite singer, George Jones. The term “countrypolitan” is used (sometimes disparagingly, depending on who you ask) to describe a type of country music that veers away from the straightforward, boom-chicka-boom grit of traditional country in favor of “prettier” ear-candy arrangements and a more sophisticated sense of melody, though retaining the traditional lyrical themes of domestic turmoil, alcohol abuse and personal failures.

As a bare-bones composition, it would be easy to dismiss “Shoes Without Heels” as not a whole lot more than just a bunch of cobbled-together Nashville tropes, but the lyrics and performances on the track give this song an alluring sensuality that’s undeniable. I particularly enjoy the way some of the lines trip up on each other, particularly during the bridge: “… drag on women like they’re cigarettes/ ‘cause you…”, the phrasing of which not only makes for some very pleasing vocal syncopation, but also reminds me of how a drunk or desperate person might stumble on their arguments, thoughts coming in too quickly to coherently articulate them. And then certain other lines fall more gently and are allowed to hang dramatically (“he’ll watch you walk away without heels”). Elvis’s vocal performance here is a perfected version of the sultry croon he used on the songs from Almost Blue, his country covers album, but he sounds decidedly more confident and controlled. Gone is the reedy, adenoidal delivery that seeped into some of those songs and made Elvis sound like a second-rate impersonator’s take on what an Elvis Costello country album would sound like (I’m looking at you, “Sweet Dreams”); his approach here is fuller-bodied and expressive. The way he narrows his airway to let certain words just barely eke out, sometimes at the expense of the vocal meter or even pitch, contributes greatly to that flickering-neon-light barstool-commiseration feel. I also feel compelled to give a shout-out the great James Burton on the guitar, providing a truly gorgeous accompaniment and sounding every bit as expressive as Elvis himself.

This is actually one of my favorite Elvis Costello songs, regardless of the author’s own indifference towards it. I even included it as one of 22 tracks on my Elvis Costello Starter Playlist, a list of songs I will inevitably force on anybody I meet within a couple months of our acquaintance. It is a tiny bit frustrating that it’s given no attention by the man who authored it, and I’m probably never going to get a chance to hear it live, but it’s also somewhat satisfying to have this gem of a song as something of a secret. You can’t let these artists tell you which of their own songs are good. They don’t have a clue!

KEVIN DAVIS: I would echo the suspicion that “Shoes Without Heels” may have been omitted from King of America’s final track listing due to similarities to “Indoor Fireworks,” particularly the resolution of the chorus melody. Compare the way Elvis sings “when she walks right back through the door” to the way he sings “when the smoke gets in your eyes” in the more famous song; if these were songs from two different eras, you’d assume one an intentional nod to the other. Instead, they’re just an instance of individual ideas being tested in multiple settings, not an uncommon thing to stumble across when a songwriter is indulging en masse in novel formats, and certainly not an uncommon thing for EC, who has never seen a reason to restrict his good ideas to a single use; some of the lyrics from “I Can’t Turn It Off” (one of his earliest compositions, recently unearthed on the Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink soundtrack), appeared in “Watch Your Step” some five years later, and we all know how much mileage he got out of his back catalog on Wise Up Ghost. So while these similarities may have been a sensible reason for withholding “Shoes Without Heels” from King of America, they don’t necessarily speak to the comparative quality of the song itself, which – while probably lacking the finesse and clever charm of “Indoor Fireworks” – has much to recommend it on its own terms.

My favorite thing about this song has always been the guitar solo at the end – courtesy of James Burton, who adds colors and flourishes to King of America (my favorite of his contributions being the subtle chordal accompaniment to “Our Little Angel,” which is echoed here in the chorus sections), but doesn’t get off a single solo on the record as poignant as the one he contributes here. I’m tempted to describe it as “melodically virtuosic,” by which I don’t mean to imply that Burton is overplaying or showing off; indeed the opposite, the solo is tasteful and restrained, but manages to rifle through a lot of melodic ideas in a short time, expounding on the base melody and exploiting the deeper relationship between the tune and the chords, all while retaining the simple, digestible flavor of the core composition. It’s the perfect emotional coda to the song, and I hate that it fades out; my favorite sequence of notes starts up just as soon as the volume starts dropping.

“Shoes Without Heels” originally appeared on Out of Our Idiot, a 1987 odds-and-ends collection, curiously sandwiched between EC and the Attractions’ cover of Smokey Robinson’s “From Head to Toe” and the throwaway original “Baby’s Got a Brand New Hairdo.” It’s been a while since I’ve listened to the material on this collection in its originally issued sequence (weirdly enough, Out of Our Idiot is one of the few Costello albums I own on vinyl), but there is no question that “Shoes Without Heels” sounds much better when grouped with its King of America brethren than with Idiot’s motley crew of misfits and sidetracks. As discussed last week, King of America is not exclusively the reflective, Dylanesque narrative it’s frequently mistaken for, but “Shoes Without Heels” contributes to a convincing case that it could have been, and that maybe this would have even been for the better if not for the broader.

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ECSOTW#23: All That Bravado and That Fright

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JORGE FARAH: 2004’s The Delivery Man was supposed to be some kind of narrative-driven rock opera revolving around the lives of three women in a small southern town, and their entanglement with a mysterious delivery man who, “in a  certain light, looked like Elvis, and in a certain way, seemed like Jesus”. Then somewhere along its conception Elvis felt the pull away from the narrative—scrapped a few songs, rearranged a few others – and ended up abandoning the storytelling concept almost completely. A few strands of the initial story are still present throughout the final album—a few themes pop up here and there, particularly in the dead-on-arrival yawner of a title track – but not to a large degree. To be completely honest, I’m just about glad. With the arguable exception of Quadrophenia, rock operas are usually a drag; not quite a satisfying collection of songs, and not quite a narratively coherent story. Right in the middle of both, often littered with vignettes that serve no purpose other than bridge narrative gaps, as well as otherwise worthwhile songs awkwardly shoehorned into the story.

What The Delivery Man ended up being is a strong collection of songs that felt both loose & organic as well as tight and focused. The title track notwithstanding, this album is full of fresh and exciting songs, without the added strain of a plot to drag it down. The Imposters, making their first official credited outing under that moniker, deliver superb performances on songs that, for the most part, felt a hell of a lot more fun than anything EC had released in years, the overall sound being a swampy concoction of blues, soul, country, R&B and barnyard Americana. One of my favorite things about the album is the production, which is rich and warm, deep and resonant, but also crisp and clear, with Elvis’s voice pushed way up in the mix to great effect (I remember listening to this album with my Dad sitting next to me, and him turning to me during “Either Side of the Same Town” to remark “wow, he’s really going for it, isn’t he?”).

“There’s a Story in Your Voice” is one of the liveliest tracks on the album; a ragged, sharp-edged country duet with Lucinda Williams. A kind of sister-song to “Jailhouse Tears” from Lucinda’s excellent 2008 Lost Highway release Little Honey, also a duet with EC. One of the biggest points of contention is this song’s guest vocalist; Lucinda’s disheveled caterwauling is often brought up as a flaw, but I’ve always felt it worked wonderfully here as a scolding, snarling rebuke to Elvis’s soulful pleas (this also applies to “Jailhouse Tears”; both songs follow the classic country June-and-Johnny duet format). Even if you absolutely abhorred her singing, I honestly don’t think it does much to either add to or detract from what is, at its core, one of Elvis’s minor triumphs. It’s a jaunty number, with a whimsical bounce that is somewhat uncharacteristic for an Elvis Costello tune; very simple from a compositional and melodic point of view, but comfortably accomplishing what it aims for as a major-chord stomper.

Speaking of stomping: the rhythm section absolutely shines here, especially Pete Thomas during the stopstutter breakdown near the end. Resident lead player Steve Nieve is barely audible, buried way deep down in the mix, only really poking through to provide a little harmonic color during the second verse and the choruses. He also plays an almost steel-drummy tremolo part during the excellent bridge, but he otherwise stays out of the way—you have to listen very carefully to even hear the closing chords of his signature Vox Continental during the song’s close. It can feel like a bit of a bummer to hear such an exciting and creative player relayed to background tapestry, both in mixing and in performance, but the song doesn’t really require the ostentatious, swirly keyboard lines he’s known for; it’s that more mature, focused approach to servicing the song that, in my mind, separates the wizened Imposters from the manic, kinetic, showy playing of the younger Attractions. (Steve plays a much more showy part on live performances, especially the one inexplicably hidden away as a bonus track on the superb Club Night live DVD)

I love this song because it sounds like country music set on fire; it has a punky, jaggedy swagger to it, while retaining a sense of pathos and genuine heartbreak at its core. The melody has a sort of nursery rhyme quality to it, and the fact that it’s being sung by two people with remarkably odd (one might even call them cartoonish) voices really highlights the fact that this is a fucked-up love song, sung by two extremely fucked-up people who’ve had the misfortune of falling into (and then out of) each other’s arms. It’s a misshapen mess of a love song, and that suits me just right.

KEVIN DAVIS: It’s to Costello’s credit that The Delivery Man works as well as it does despite the varied origins of its pieces – several songs written anew for him and the Imposters, a couple tunes originally composed for other artists, and a handful of leftover tracks from a long-forgotten concept album, some dating back as far as 1986. Sonically, the album flows as well as any he’s made – the Imposters turn in raw, impassioned performances on the rockers, and bring a soulful edge to the ballads that looks forward to EC’s recordings with Allen Toussaint on The River in Reverse. And yet, The Delivery Man feels disjointed to me for other reasons, many circumstantial but nevertheless impossible for me to ignore. My first time hearing a handful of these songs (“Country Darkness,” “Either Side of the Same Town,” “The Delivery Man,” “Monkey to Man,” and “Nothing Clings Like Ivy”) came when I saw Elvis and Steve Nieve perform them as guitar/piano duets on the North tour, the spring before the album’s release; my first time hearing “The Scarlet Tide” was watching Alison Krauss perform it at the Oscars (my second time hearing it was Elvis’s solo rendition of it at the show described above, where he prefaced the song by mentioning its Academy Award nomination and then shutting down the pursuant applause by saying, “It didn’t fucking win,” and making some snarky comments about Lord of the Rings*). The Delivery Man is hardly the first rock album or even the first Elvis Costello album to be assembled in this manner – in fact, All This Useless Beauty is a far better example of a record culled from disparate source material. But when songs have lives of their own prior to settling down on a record, sometimes it’s difficult to shake the baggage; to that end, The Delivery Man has always felt a little to me like two or three mini-collections of songs, put into a blender and jumbled up, cohering only so far as they make up a sort of time capsule of “songs Elvis Costello was writing and performing in 2003-2004.” (Since All This Useless Beauty was the second EC album I bought, its reputation as a career-spanning collection of odds and ends didn’t register with me until years after the fact.)

As is often the case when you first hear a song in an intimate setting and then hear it later in a more polished, augmented format, my first impression of many of the The Delivery Man songs was that they’d been unduly “beefed.” Furthermore, of all of Costello’s many guises, that of the Southern-rock troubadour seemed perhaps his most inauthentic to date; for as many fine songs as he wrote for this record, there was something about this style that he just didn’t seem destined to put his finger on (though perhaps because I’m a native of the Midwest and only a few states away from the birthplace of this music, I’m needlessly hypersensitive to its finer points). “There’s a Story In Your Voice” – a song which, to my knowledge, was one of the songs specifically drafted for this record – is probably the “deepest South” Costello gets on the album, with plenty of assistance from the unmistakable guest vocals by Lucinda Williams. I have to admit, my biases get me a bit here, and I ultimately dislike this song for a very uncomplicated reason: Williams’s voice drives me up the wall. Her exaggerated, slurred-out drawl is a dealbreaker for me here. I simply cannot stand listening to her sing.

Attempting to look past this for purposes of this exercise, however, I’m still struck by the feeling that this just isn’t one of EC’s stronger compositions – the weakest on the album, in my opinion, and possibly my least of favorite of his post-2000 offerings. The vocal melody runs all over the place, never settling in a place that feels entirely satisfying, messy and nonfunctionally sophisticated in a way that all of Costello’s weakest writing tends to be, though perhaps here this is exacerbated by the fact that there are arguably no two singers on the planet less suited to harmonizing with each other than these two. Each singer is so distinct, so idiosyncratic, that it feels utterly impossible for them to fuse in any remotely musical way; instead, the voices jockey for foreground space, in a move that I’m sure is supposed to sound authentic and gritty but to my ears just sounds bad. There is a sort of appealing, cavernous openness to the performance, I suppose – Costello’s guitar, as it does, rings big and primitive, with echoes of Blood and Chocolate and Brutal Youth, and Pete Thomas in particular gives the song a sort of effortless, almost swing-like rhythm that makes it sound as close as rock-and-roll can to hoedown music. But I can’t get past the aesthetics: This is one of the few Elvis Costello songs that has always just been agony to my ears, and this time around was no different.

*His actual comment regarding Lord of the Rings was this: “I have one thing to say about the Oscars: ‘Fuckin’ ‘obbits.’”

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ECSOTW #10: This Never Was One of the Great Romances

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KEVIN DAVIS: There’s a vague trend that seems to recur in the bodies of work of careerist songwriters like Elvis Costello: First the artist fumbles around briefly in search of an identity; soon, he begins to filter out little things that don’t work, and in relatively short order happens upon a sort of idealized version of himself, carving out his niche in the culture and laying the groundwork for a longer, more multi-purpose career;  eventually, once this position is well-established, the artist begins branching out, severely pushing the boundaries of his own parameters, or – in some cases – trying to work within someone else’s entirely. This last characteristic may be truer of EC than most, but it’s also applicable in varying capacities to Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, and dozens of others – one assumes that, to the artists, these records are half an intellectual exercise, and half a tribute to music etched deeply into their brains from way back when, which presumably they feel the credibility that comes with having an established identity gives them license to go back and explore without being mistaken for ripoffs.

This pattern is part of why I find “Stranger in the House” such an interesting entry in the EC canon. One of his earliest professional studio recordings, it pre-dates the moment at which his musical identity really came into its own, yet it’s clearly an homage to a style of songwriting that he knew wasn’t his –one doesn’t listen to “Stranger in the House” and get the impression that Costello was hoping it would be his springboard to stardom as a Nashville crooner. It’s not unusual for a songwriter to experiment with other voices while still in pursuit of his own, but it’s rare at that point for the experiment to betray no evidence of the search. With that in mind, My Aim is True is kind of like a man standing in front of a mirror trying on clothes – and “Stranger in the House” is that man’s Halloween costume.

Musically, it’s a pretty standard-issue tale of domestic country heartache, a snapshot of that moment where both parties in the relationship know things have gone south but neither wants to be the first to acknowledge it, and told in a language that would become common to EC when he’s trying to put his stamp on a novel genre: “And I look down for a number on my keychain/’Cause it feels more like a hotel everyday.” I’d forgotten what a lovely vocal performance the original studio version (which appears on the My Aim is True Rhino bonus disc, and was apparently also released a bonus 45’ record with original pressings of This Year’s Model) is, not to mention how warm the recording, with John McFee’s mournful pedal steel arguably making better use of itself than it does anywhere on My Aim is True, as well as pointing the way forward to Almost Blue a few albums down the line. As on that record, the harmonically simple, country-by-numbers melody here really gives EC a chance to show off the contours of his voice in a way that his own trickier melodies rarely do, favoring heart at the expense of wit.

I wouldn’t really file “Stranger in the House” among EC’s greater compositions, but it always sticks in my mind as one of those songs that was always bubbling just below the surface during those early years – for a song that was never technically on one of his albums, that there have been five officially released versions of it (the original outtake version, the Hollywood High version, a weird ambient rock take recorded for the BBC in late 1978, a duet recorded with George Jones, and another live version appearing on the Almost Blue bonus disc) is impressive, and if the EC Wiki site is to be trusted, it has been performed sporadically live throughout his career, though never as regularly as during those first few years. In his indispensable Rhino liner notes, he explains that the song was omitted from My Aim is True because “including a country ballad was not thought to be a smart move in 1977,” and later suggests that the George Jones duet was mostly his A&R guy’s doing (though he admits it was a dream come true). That in mind, it’s hard not to see this song as a “one that got away” of sorts – though, anomalously in this type of situation, it seems EC and the song have made good on their pact to remain friends.

JORGE FARAH: This is one of those songs that must’ve been a real headscratcher back in 1977, but makes a whole lot more sense when viewed through the prism of his later career. This is actually the first indication that Elvis was more than just a hipster with a funny name—that his interests ranged beyond the musical effigy-burning, “here and now is all that matters”, “never trust anyone over 30” mentality of the ‘77 generation. This was, in a way, the first genre excursion for a musician who would essentially make a career out of genre excursions. In hindsight, it’s pretty funny how self-conscious he was of his interest in countrypolitan ballads; I remember reading about an incident where he scrambled to hide his George Jones records before he was supposed to have journalists visit his tour bus. Come on. That’s adorable.

The song itself is a quaint little number, with Elvis putting aside his early-career wordplay and hyper-literate sophistication in favor of the down-home country stylings of his favorite Nashville stars of yesteryear. It’s not without its charms, but it’s also trying very hard to fit a specific song mold, which sometimes does make it sound somewhat staid and unremarkable. But Elvis pulls it off, and what should be a minor throwaway has actually endured as a somewhat pivotal song in his discography.

As to the five officially released versions, I must comply with my nature as a compulsive ranker and list them from best to worst:

1- Live at Hollywood High. This 1978 performance all but transforms the mild-mannered country ballad into a seething blast of punk anger, which, sure, flattens out the song somewhat, but also elevates it from bog-standard “woe is me, I’ve made a mess of my life, aren’t I so tragically and fundamentally broken” to something louder, stronger, more assertive, more resilient, indignant, foolishly clinging on to the tattered vestiges of a broken relationship, screaming bloody murder, refusing to give up, pigheadedly climbing back on the ring for another round of life’s vicious pummeling. Speaking of pummeling, what other word could possibly describe what Pete Thomas, Bruce Thomas and Steve Nieve are doing here? If the original studio version is a placid horseback jaunt through the countryside, the Hollywood High version is the kind of high-turbulence stormy sky that compels agnostics to hastily utter their last-ditch Heavenly Fathers. Yeah, I’ve been there. Don’t judge.

2- Original studio version. A breezy, laid-back, California-cool approximation of the Nashville sound. This version shines in its simplicity, with a confident and relaxed vocal performance by Elvis. The boys in Clover do a really good job on this one, probably their best performance out of the entire My Aim is True sessions.

3- Almost Blue live version. Similar to the BBC version, but with at least a little bit of kick to it. Plus! John McFee is back, and playing with The Attractions this time. His contributions make this not-particularly-great arrangement worth listening to.

4- BBC version. I’m not exactly sure what they were going for here. It sounds like they tried to transform the song into a strange, droney New Wave thing, but the tempo is too slow and clutters up the melody, making this a bit of a chore to listen to.

5- George Jones duet version. Look, I love hearing George Jones sing. Who doesn’t? The man could recite the entirety of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and somehow make it compelling, so thoroughly listenable is his voice. And yet here he is, singing a song written by my all-time favorite songwriter, and it feels as rote and joyless as anything I’ve ever heard. Conceived as a kind of tribute to the archetypal George Jones song, it has the unfortunate effect of sounding relentlessly average when in the hands of actual Nashville musicians. Also this duet exhibits one of my musical pet peeves: pronoun switching. “He gets the feeling that he doesn’t belong here”? Come on. I’m sure this collaboration was a thrill for Elvis, though you can’t really tell from his own listless, hoarse, probably gin-soaked performance. Why is it that when Elvis does guest spots on other people’s records he tends to amp up his vocal affectations? Is there a built-in pressure to sound particularly Elvis-y? I’m thinking of “Carpetbagger” with Jenny Lewis and “Monster Went and Ate My Red 2” with Elmo particularly. And does it even count as duet when one of the singers is made out of felt?

Starting this week: we have a new schedule, and we’re going to try our best to stick to it. Look for new posts every Friday at 10 AM Eastern time!

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