Tag Archives: king of america

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#26: The Toast of the Town and the Talk of the Bedroom

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KEVIN DAVIS: Probably because my favorite King of America tracks are all folky, narrative-rich mini-movies (“Our Little Angel,” “American Without Tears,” “Sleep of the Just”), I tend to forget that the record is also home to a few better-than-decent uptempo romps which round out the other end of Elvis’s periodic Americana fascination. While these songs all scan as somewhat slight in comparison to the dense vignettes that account for the majority of the record, they are effective palate-cleansers; they bring elements of fun and tempo to the proceedings, and — along with a couple of well-placed covers — keep the finished product from feeling too “singer-songwriter”-y. Wisely slotted in the number-two position, “Lovable” immediately establishes the range of American music this record intends to excavate; had “Brilliant Mistake” been followed by “I’ll Wear It Proudly” or “Indoor Fireworks,” songs like this and “Glitter Gulch” and “The Big Light” (even “Poisoned Rose”) would have felt anomalous later in the record. Putting “Lovable” in a place of prominence affirms early on that King of America intends to be just as much an album of pop music as it is a work of literature. (Coincidentally, this is our second song in as many weeks to feature unsung-hero work from David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, whose vocal harmonies throughout give this song just the right degree of polish it needs to achieve this end.)

“Lovable” is a song that I can imagine fitting right in on My Aim is True, with its perfect blend of folk, rockabilly, and modern cynicism — can the acoustics and add a little pedal steel from John McFee and the song pretty swiftly becomes a close cousin to the likes of “Blame It On Cain” and “Radio Sweetheart.” It begins with a four-count leading into a walking bassline, which works as a rhythmic device but more importantly works as a trope; it calls to mind an aesthetic with its own affiliations and loaded history, and immediately frames the song in that language. That in mind, “Lovable” always makes me think of some kind of 1950’s sitcom cafeteria dance — guys in checkered button-ups and girls in high-waist circle skirts, eating ice cream and using phrases like “hanky-panky” and “back seat bingo” to describe their physical exploits. Costello’s repurposing of the word “lovable” (as in, “widely available to be loved”) then ends up being a fun subversion of expectations; presumably there weren’t many songs on Al’s jukebox on standby for those moments when Potsy or Ralph had an ex that they felt needed slut-shamed. Costello doesn’t explicitly lay out his justification for these barbs in the lyrics; it’s left to our imagination whether this girl was playing around behind the narrator’s back, or if the harsh language is merely his last line of defense against a lover who broke his heart and then had the audacity to move on. Whichever it is, this is not a song I imagine you’d want to be on the receiving end of (a forgiving listener could take the rest at face value but “the toast of the town and the talk of the bedroom” is pretty unambiguous stuff); a cynical read of the lyrics might even involve the thing “going ‘round the town” not as a rumor but as a sexually transmitted disease. Truth or fiction, this is some Taylor Swift-level revenge stuff – land on which I suppose EC has had a lease since at least ten years before Taylor was born.

JORGE FARAH: The advent of digital music consumption has made it very convenient to pick-and-choose buffet-style from our music libraries to assemble on-the-go playlists, as well as extremely tempting to surrender to the capricious whim of the Shuffle feature (which, by the way, I’m convinced is sentient enough to detect when I am going through a breakup, and cruel enough to determine that this means I absolutely need to listen to When in Rome’s 1988 melancholy-synthpop hit “The Promise”). The ability to quickly pick and skim through an album’s tracklist has also made it very easy to forget what an album is, or what an album tries to do, and replace it with our own misremembered and heavily biased notions. The fact that I only ever listen to the weightier, sadder, more traditionally singer-songwriter-y King of America songs has fooled me into the idea that King of America is a weighty, sad, traditionally singer-songwriter-y album. And this imagined version is the album I kind of still want King of America to be: a mood album, an intimate album, a kind of guitar-based precursor to North (though, to be fair, from reading the last couple entries in this blog it would seem like we want every Elvis Costello album to be North). But Kevin is right: that’s not what the record is, and it’s certainly not what the record aims to be. It establishes its scope very early on with this rowdy little stomper—“slight but swinging”, as EC himself calls it in his liner notes to the 2005 reissue– which, along with “Eisenhower Blues” from this same record, has the distinction of being perhaps the Elvis Costello album cut I’ve listened to the least (on an album not produced by Clive Langer).

But I’m not immune to the song’s charms: Jerry Scheff’s walking bassline is a delight to listen to against Jim Keltner’s spirited drumming, especially when he goes all the way up the neck and dances around during the modulation in the second half of the song. The electric guitar rumbles along nice and deep in the background, and Elvis is in fine voice throughout. It’s a very catchy song, crisp and well-produced like everything else on the record (and you might say pretty much everything T. Bone Burnett touches, though I do have some issues with the thuddy, muddy sound of some of the tracks in National Ransom— but that’s a gripe for another blog post). I almost wish they had included gospel-style handclaps punctuating the snare drum to go along with the Sunday-school organ sound, but I suppose that might feel a bit incongruous considering the song’s subject matter. Speaking of which, that’s another thing that I’m not completely on board with: I understand that vindictive put-downs are an integral part of not just Elvis Costello’s career, but also the musical terrain he’s exploring through a lot of this album; Elvis himself refers to this as “one of [his] most personal songs”, so we know the hurt came from a very real place. But where I could feel the visceral, dramatic weight of a similarly snappy and upbeat song like “High Fidelity”, the anger here comes off as facile and performative.

But “High Fidelity” and “Lovable” are very different songs, working off of very different templates, and attempting very different things. Maybe it’s unfair to compare the two. Maybe I’m doing the same thing to “Lovable” now that I did to King of America as a whole: fixating on what I want it to be rather than what it simply is. And for what it is, “Lovable” is perfectly likable.

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ECSOTW #11: Rome Burns Down and Everybody Fiddles

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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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