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ECSOTW#25: Between the Shame and the Sentiment

ElvisCostello_Momofuku

JORGE FARAH: So hey, before I start talking about this week’s pick, I want to provide you with a little bit of personal context. When I was a little kid, the life I envisioned for myself as a grownup followed my father’s template pretty closely, and really pivoted around two big milestones: get married by 26, have a kid by 27. It just made logical sense; I figured at that age I would have already lived through enough of my “roaring twenties” to feel like I could settle down, plus if I had a kid before 30 I wouldn’t be one of those really old, beaten-down Dads that some of my schoolmates used to have. I remember laying it all out for the school counselor one day, when I was 12 or 13 years old, and how she chuckled quietly to herself in bemusement (at the time I thought she was impressed by my foresight, but thinking back on it she probably realized the ridiculousness of my meticulously mapped-out adulthood). I didn’t really think about those plans too much as I grew older, but they were ever present in the back of my mind. I remember the thought creeping up on me when I turned 26 and had just gotten out of a long relationship, like the chilling dread of a looming deadline—“uh oh, I’m not there yet”. As the years passed I saw more and more people I graduated with taking the leap that still seemed too gargantuan for me to even consider. I’m 29 now, at the tail end of my supposed decade of hedonism, feeling nowhere near ready to be a father, and in no real rush to become one. To be perfectly clear, I love kids—I have two little siblings back home, ages 11 and 13, who fill my life with happiness—but when I think of the kind of disruption slipping into the role of “SOMEONE’S DAD” would be to the life I’m so fond of, I can’t help but recoil in horror. It’s cowardly and immature, I acknowledge that. My friends who are parents will often tell me that “you’re never really ready until it just happens”, and if I’m honest with myself, I really do want to be a father someday—I just don’t know that it’s in the cards for me for the next couple years. And that’s fine.

Elvis Costello was already a married Dad when he recorded My Aim is True at age 22, but you wouldn’t really know it from reading that album’s lyrics. Or the album after that. Or pretty much any album from the first couple decades of his career, where he explored all manner of nuanced emotions and the many shades of grey in interpersonal entanglements, but never really meditating on fatherhood. This may have a bit to do with the fact that fatherhood and international superstardom had both caught up to him fairly early, and we all know the former tends to push those lucky enough to acquire it into a sort of extended adolescence. By the time he finally mellowed out enough and got his life sorted, his first son Matthew was already an adult. It was only after having twins with his third wife that we got the very first Elvis song that is an unabashedly sentimental rumination on fatherhood. “My Three Sons”, from 2008’s Momofuku, is a lovely number that sets its own modest goals in the opening verse and manages to accomplish them with confidence. Out of the two most outwardly ballad-y songs on Momofuku, this one works best for me; “Flutter and Wow”, as much as I enjoy its 70s soul stylings, always felt to me like a mangled take of a River in Reverse cast-off that they just decided not to re-do. This song provides an emotional core to an album that is a bit of a tonal mishmash (albeit a really good one!).

It is both refreshing and a bit startling to find Elvis so open about this subject. It’s that openness and vulnerability, that directness of language that manages to sell the song’s heart-on-sleeve sentimentality—coupled with its gently descending and decidedly simple melody, it communicates a genuinely sweet sentiment which might’ve otherwise come off as schlocky or cheap (or just weird, if he had dressed it up in a bunch of metaphors about a butterfly drinking a dead monkey’s tears or whatever). “My Three Sons” is a sleepy little number, with Elvis’s flange-laden baritone guitar rumbling gently in the background, underlining the song’s lyrical “bedtime” theme: “Day is closing, old men and infants are dozing, that’s the kind of life I’ve chosen”. I’ve never experienced it for myself, but I can imagine the bittersweet combination of exhaustion and elation that comes with tending to a tiny little creature that is totally and completely dependent on you, and the contented resignation to it. The song captures that sleepy vibe beautifully, both in its composition and the performances; The Imposters are at their most restrained in the entire album, with the rhythm section playing a very minimal, almost metronomic accompaniment. Steve Nieve alternates from playing these big stately chords on the left side of his grand piano to providing a bit of harmonic lift on the melodica when the… chorus?… kicks in. Dave Hidalgo from Los Lobos is the unspoken star of the track, playing a soporific viola line that’s mixed discretely on the right channel, as well as something called an “Hidalguera”, which a bit of research reveals to be a customized nylon-stringed tenor guitar, panned all the way to the left. On an instrumental level, the song sounds like being cradled to sleep. Vocally, Elvis communicates the song’s sentiment very well, if a bit forcefully at parts; however, when he sings about “all the years that I might’ve been absent”, there’s a very real tinge of vulnerability and regret in his voice that adds a layer of depth to this lullaby.

When we wrote about “Favourite Hour”, we talked about how universality in art is anchored in specificity. It almost feels like I shouldn’t enjoy this song as much as I do, having never experienced any of the things described in its lyrics, but I think it is one of Elvis’s most modestly charming latter-day compositions. It brings a smile to my face, even as a child-free person; and though I may not know the true exhaustion of waking up in the middle of the night to feed a screaming infant, I can say I am (happily) familiar with the warm, comforting feeling of falling asleep to the sound of the voices of people that I love, and how in those last few lucid moments just before you succumb to sleep, you catch yourself thinking that this is as good as it gets, and you wouldn’t trade it for all the parties or drinks or boisterousness in the world.

KEVIN DAVIS: I have to get this off my chest up front: The way this line – “I never thought that I’d become/The proud father of my three sons” – is worded drives me bonkers. The inclusion of the possessive pronoun my makes it sound as though (a) Elvis’s three sons were already out there wandering the earth somewhere prior to EC assuming fatherhood of them, or (b) he expected to become a father to someone’s kids, just not his own. This is cumbersome syntax; Elvis generally knows better than this. I suppose one could wonder if the second verse, in which EC refers to “all the years [he’s] been absent,” doesn’t subtly give away a more deliberate logic behind that wording; one could question whether the aforementioned item (a) isn’t exactly what Costello means to convey, as he retrospectively views himself in his absenteeism as a sort of biological pater but not a “proud father” (or, later, a “humble father”), the latter status being reserved for the warmer, more familial frame of mind depicted by the song. But to my ears, “My Three Sons” doesn’t really seem to call for this tricky of a reading. Furthermore – without going too far down the rabbit hole of celebrity tabloid speculation – it doesn’t seem like this explanation would be as applicable to his relationship with his younger children, and either way it’s impossible for us to know. Taken at face value, that phrasing causes me to wince a little, which for a guy who uses so many words I’m surprised I don’t find to be a more regular occurrence. If I was a professor I’d probably dock Elvis at least a third of a letter grade for it.

But I’m not a professor, and this is pop music, not composition class, and ultimately that’s the only beef I really have with this otherwise charming, non-assertive little song. Like Jorge, I always expected to have children and, let me tell you, unlike Jorge, children are exactly what I got – four in the house now with a fifth on the way (with a breakdown of two daughters and, yes, come January, three sons), so theoretically I am as optimally primed as anyone to identify with music like this. That said, I’m not sure that finally is why I identify with music like this. Oftentimes, when a songwriter writes about his wife or his kids or his pets or whatever other symbol of domesticity has captured his attention that day, the profundity of his emotions consumes their subtleties and complexities; there are arguably no more nuanced relationships in the world than those between people who share households, but writers’ compulsions to write about these relationships usually come in broad strokes, and as such, many of these songs are written in a language that anyone who has ever watched an episode of Full House can understand. I think this accounts to an extent for the air of suspicion that tends to surround songs of this ilk, and the element of cynicism with which they’re so frequently met; they strike listeners as less “serious,” though no reasonable person would argue that the sentiments in songs of this nature aren’t mostly genuine. As a result, it ends up being a rare instance where the Hollywood tearjerkers and the Hallmark cards get it totally right, and as discerning art consumers we like to think we’re above that. And as art consumers, perhaps we are. But as humans, these feelings are embedded in our DNA.

So when I say that these sentiments of fatherhood, etc. aren’t why I identify with songs like this, what I mean is that I don’t think this song necessarily taps into a secret emotion that only fathers are capable of understanding; presumably, the facsimile that non-dads create in their minds as to what the song is getting at is probably equally close to the real thing as what I can take from the song. What Jorge says about the song feels right to me: It’s not that it so intuitively taps into the specific relationship between parent and child that it is isolating to anyone unable to call that specific experience to mind for themselves, but rather, it zeroes in on the more general emotion of unconditional closeness between two people. This song arguably has plainer language than any other song Costello has ever written: “I love you more than words can say”; “I bless the day you came to be/With everything that is left of me” – these lines could come have from anywhere, and yet one of the wordiest songwriters in pop history puts them to work as if they’re the only ones that will do. The sentiment is the same everywhere you go, which is why it’s on the music to set the song apart.

And it does, in its way – just enough to take the listener on a journey, but not so much that it distracts from the sentiment of the song, which is eventually its anchoring force. What I really like about “My Three Sons” as a composition is how the melody seems to carve out a slightly more complicated space with each line: “Day is dawning/Almost sounding like a warning/Wind was rushing through the trees, almost roaring” – each line extends just slightly further than the last, planting its flag just a little higher on the mound, changing the overall course of the melody ever so slightly before returning to home base again. There is a “child’s first steps” tentativeness to this melodic approach which well mirrors the content of the song, and which the Imposters’ restrained backing supports with just the right degree of gentility. Costello’s vocal performance, on the other hand, seems casual enough for the weight of the lyric (and appropriately relaxed for what I understand to have been the leisurely, almost recreational vibe of the Momofuku sessions), but perhaps a bit too undisciplined to tap into the full potential of the tune; this is one of many (many, many) songs I’d like to hear magically transposed to the North or Painted From Memory albums, where EC’s knack for getting to the hearts of simple melodies was in peak form. But what’s here is fine enough: A perfect case study in why songs that convey major sentiments are often destined to be minor pieces of work, as they re-articulate feelings that have long since been void of surprises but which are nevertheless always nice to have reawakened.

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ECSOTW#24: She Thought Too Late and Spoke Too Soon

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KEVIN DAVIS: The prevailing reputation (and therefore most common angle of discussion) of Imperial Bedroom in Elvis Costello’s catalog is that of the eclectic, indulgent masterpiece; this was the record that, to paraphrase Costello himself, saw him and the Attractions partaking in the kind of big-budget largesse that defined the Beatles’ middle years, because when the record label’s footing the bill why not experiment with that eighty-piece orchestra you always dreamed of having your keyboardist conduct? But not unlike Sgt. Pepper, my (purely anecdotal, of course) experience has been that, while most fans tend to really like Imperial Bedroom and agree that it ranks among EC’s most creative and vital works, not many list it in their uppermost tier of personal favorites. This is certainly the case for me; I find it an extremely satisfying listen and am in awe of many of its songs, but when compiling my list of true favorites, it always lands somewhere in the 5-6 position. For one, it lacks the conceptual musical through-line that many of the albums I like better do – the relentless, youthful energy of This Year’s Model, the fireside storytelling of King of America, the late-night romantic warmth of North, all records defined by leaner musicianship and consistency of mood. I sometimes wonder if records like Imperial Bedroom, anomalously lavish works which so gregariously announce their own greatness, aren’t destined to always fall a notch short of records like the others I mentioned (though I realize that I am in a significant minority in preferring North to Imperial Bedroom), even though they register more impressively on the surface, simply because there are so many more layers to peel back to get to their essences. I would be interested in seeing some statistics on this; perhaps some liberal arts grad students can take this on as a final project.

This is, of course, not to say that there isn’t a wealth of emotional complexity to be found in the songs of Imperial Bedroom, which of course there is, perhaps no more pronouncedly than on “The Long Honeymoon,” a minor-key bossa-nova ballad which documents a young wife’s internal despair as she struggles to come to grips with her husband’s probable infidelity. This song was around at least in embryonic form during the Trust era, from which we have a lovely but partial instrumental piano demo, recorded around the same time as his covers of “Gloomy Sunday” and “Love For Sale.” What’s interesting about this recording is how much of what would become the final arrangement was already built into the DNA of Elvis’s demo, only to be disseminated piece by piece as more and more musicians were added to the fold. Steve Nieve’s dual organ and piano lines are the star of the arrangement, as they are on much of Imperial Bedroom – indeed, this record may be Nieve’s finest hour as a keyboardist, no other that I can think of giving him such an array of venues in which to showcase the incredible range of his talents. Here he gets a chance to play precisely the kind of “lead-rhythm” that Bruce Thomas and Pete Thomas so nimbly demonstrated on This Year’s Model – extensive, technically elaborate “comping,” emerging from the mix and demanding attention but never falling from its functional purpose of propulsion. The most gripping examples of this in “The Long Honeymoon” occur at 1:29 and 2:59, respectively, during the section in the chorus where Elvis sings, “There’s no money-back guarantee/On future happiness” – this is a defining musical moment in EC’s catalog for me, where words, melody, and instrumentation come together in a perfect cocktail of ingredients to tap into an emotion so specific and so profound that no one individual component could have conveyed it singularly.

Producer Geoff Emerick really did a beautiful job with the “touches” on this track. In particular, there is an egg shaker (or some other form of percussive “whoosh”) that appears in the left channel at the end of every second measure during the verses – it’s one of those dumb little things that I look forward to every time I listen to the song, and soon it occurs to me that this trivial little embellishment is actually a significant rhythmic anchor, a sort of taunting “tick,” not unlike the clock that the song’s narrator no doubt can’t keep watching. Elvis turns in some of his classic “spy film” guitar playing, similar to “When I Was Cruel No. 2,” adding an air of cinematic mystery to the proceedings; likewise, Steve Nieve’s farfisa organ (or keyboard designed to imitate one) offsets his traditional piano with a mournful, exotic elegance. The final mood is a kind of bizarre, lingering tension, effectively capturing that anxiety of knowing something awful is coming, but being powerless to do anything other than sit and wait for it to happen.

JORGE FARAH: When Kevin first suggested writing about “The Long Honeymoon”, I don’t think we knew yet that Elvis would soon announce a series of US concerts with The Imposters billed as “Imperial Bedroom and Other Chambers”, which promises to highlight this particular album. And this is an interesting album in EC’s discography—his first real sprawling, big-budget, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink orchestral affair, a departure from the relatively bare-bones four-piece stuff that preceded it. It’s just fortuitous that we get to explore one of the album’s very best songs this week, as Elvis himself dusts off some of the deep cuts from its tracklist.

Y’know, Kevin is absolutely right about the ranking for Imperial Bedroom (or, as I’ve seen it accurately-yet-annoyingly stylized in certain circles, IbMePdErRoIoAmL—which, I mean, yeah, that’s what it says on the sleeve, but come on). I think it was the first Elvis Costello album that I ever referred to as “my favorite”, but now I wonder how much that has to do with its grand ambitions and what everybody else kept telling me I should feel. When I last put together an updated ranking of the albums about a year ago, it came in at number 5—and now I’m thinking that seems a bit too high. It’s a stunning collection of songs, but I’m not sure I like it better than Brutal Youth or Trust. Yes, the album makes a big deal out of announcing itself as a “masterpiece”—even its marketing campaign sought to imprint that descriptor into the collective consciousness, much like every press release about filmmaker Zack Snyder consciously includes the word “visionary” somewhere in its opening paragraph. “Anything repeated often enough will eventually become accepted as truth”. And yet, I wouldn’t go as far as saying that Imperial Bedroom is not a masterpiece. It just seems like an album deliberately designed to be impressive—from its lush orchestral arrangements to its off-kilter zig-zaggy melodies that seemed a bit too tricky even by Elvis Costello standards—rather than the visceral gut-punch of his very best work. I do wonder if I would be as big an Elvis Costello fan if his discography consisted mostly of albums like this.

That said, “The Long Honeymoon” is absolutely one of the album’s standout tracks. And I come to this opinion after years and years of skipping over it, having forgotten the pleasures of the studio version and instead choosing to remember the awkward live performance from the Costello & Nieve box-set. I’ll elaborate, because I can imagine a lot of EC fans raising an eyebrow at this: the Costello & Nieve collection is a box-set containing several limited-edition live EPs featuring selections from Elvis’s 1996 stripped-down tour with Steve Nieve. It does contain a lot of wonderful performances, but there are a few songs here and there where Elvis and Steve sound somewhat at odds with each other. One of the versions of the song included in the set features a particularly thin and reedy performance from Elvis, while Steve hammers away at the song’s arpeggios with uncharacteristic clunkiness. So the song drags along in this labored manner for five awkward minutes. It’s really no big deal; even world-class musicians—and people who had performed together for close to 20 years at that point—are allowed to have an “off” performance. In fact, there’s a much better version of the song elsewhere in the set. But for some reason, it’s that clumsy version (from the Boston show) that I remembered most vividly. Much like “Put Your Big Toe in the Milk of Human Kindness”, I’m struck by how different performances can cast a dramatically different light on the song’s core composition; when I re-listened to the studio version for the purpose of this blog post, I was surprised by how effortless it seemed, how relaxed the performances were, and how rich and vibrant the production sounded. It was like rediscovering an old favorite that I never even knew I loved this much.

“The Long Honeymoon” is a great example of how a song can be intense without being loud as hell. It’s a relatively quiet little bossanova-inspired number drenched in a dark, foreboding vibe, befitting its paranoid lyrics of marital discontent. The choice to go with an “exotic” arrangement pays off wonderfully, as there’s an unnerving sultriness that runs through the song’s duration.  Though the song’s dynamics are pretty even throughout, it seems to build in tension as the protagonist falls further into despondency. The result is one of Elvis’s most cinematic songs, with the French horns that quietly creep in during the very end underlining its noirish tones. EC would revisit this general style (and subject matter) in Momofuku’s “Harry Worth”, leaning a little more strongly into the bossa rhythm, but falling a bit flat in comparison to what he accomplished here.

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ECSOTW#19: Signed With Love and Vicious Kisses

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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?

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

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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 #13: We Met in a Head-On Collision

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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

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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 #8: It’s a Status Thing

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KEVIN DAVIS: When I was first discovering Elvis Costello’s music, most of his catalog – minus a few heavy-hitters and his two or three most recent releases – was out of print, with each of his vaulted long-players patiently waiting its turn to be reissued in immaculate enhanced format by Rhino Records over the course of the next two to three years. In retrospect, my timing in this couldn’t have been better; the window for obtaining these definitive editions of Costello’s albums was small (maybe only a few years, prior to Hip-O Records acquiring the catalog and re-re-releasing everything again in inferior single-disc versions), so a couple years on either end and I easily could have missed out on all the glorious B-sides and rarities packaged with these editions at virtually no extra cost, not to mention EC’s fantastic self-penned liner notes. But at the time I was incapable of seeing this. I was consuming Elvis’s music at a quicker pace than Rhino was reissuing it, and soon enough I found myself in the awkward position of having to choose between learning the finer points of a virtue called “patience” (a concept I wasn’t overly familiar with but which sounded terrible) or turning to less than honorable methods of procurement involving the Kazaa file-sharing service and my parents’ dial-up modem. Without much consideration, I elected to go with the latter, and soon began a relatively directionless deep dive through the bowels of Elvis Costello’s middle career (reader’s note: I have since purchased all of Elvis’s albums, some twice – please do not sue me), with virtually no regard for any kind of sensible “trajectory.” Albums often took weeks to assemble, and the quality from track to track was very inconsistent; some folks were thankfully sticklers for things like bit rate, but apparently less scrupulous pirates could throw up 96kbps and somehow lose no sleep over the issue. These were hard times. They were beautiful times, but they were hard times.

Suffice it to say, Punch the Clock was not an especially enjoyable album to piece together one forty-five minute download at a time – even when the server’s resident EC junkie seemed to be online for indefinite lengths of time, three quarters of an hour is a long time to wait to hear “Mouth Almighty” or “Charm School,” especially when the local mom-and-pop internet company providing our service would inexplicably experience connectivity errors every twenty minutes and force the downloads to start over. This burdened less-than-stellar songs with an unnecessary sense of added disappointment (to this day I dislike “Love Field” probably far more than it deserves), but the upside was that the good ones felt like winning lottery tickets.  That in mind, I was instantly blown away by “The Greatest Thing”; it seemed like the fully shaped version of all the splattered lyrical and musical clutter that accounted for some of the same album’s lesser tracks. I will confess, I am a sucker for overly wordy songs, but Elvis no doubt sometimes gets carried away, and in its lesser moments Punch the Clock simply has too much going on for all of its compartmentalized busyness to work cohesively. But “The Greatest Thing” is almost Ellingtonian in its spatial reasoning – it’s the musical equivalent of giving someone an entire truckload of groceries and then watching as they effortlessly find the one way it can all fit into the cabinet. Between basslines, horn charts, backing harmonies, and spitfire vocals that border on rapping, there is nary a second of down time to be found in this song; it is all but literally a non-stop, action-packed thrill ride.

However, the thing that finally resonates with me isn’t the song’s irresistible, flamboyant musicality; it’s its parade of quotable one-liners in defense of the institution of matrimony. Popular music is full of generic tributes to romantic love and God knows plenty of odes to sleeping around, but married dudes could use a few more anthems like this justifying their lot in life. Granted, I have never been particularly astute at reading Elvis’s snark-o-meter, so there’s a chance that this song is actually about the exact opposite of what I’ve always believed it to be about, but in an isolated sense, there’s no mistaking a couplet like, “But I won’t be told that life with the one you love is sordid/Just because some authority says you can’t afford it,” or even, “Since nights were long and days were olden/Woman to man has been beholden.” This is not an altogether inappropriate song to write about in the week following our discussion of North; this song plays like young Elvis’s version of that same sentiment, only instead of reflecting reverie and longing from within the context of the relationship itself, here he snipes back at those on the outside who dare suggest that love might not conquer all. This is the authentic Costello voice of 1983 – not even his greatest declarations of love are exempt from backhanded swipes at the buffoons the world forces him to suffer daily.

Not enough can be said about Bruce Thomas’s bass work in this song – his locked-in showboating is in perfect conversation with the composition throughout, working meticulously in the spaces left between lyrics and horn arrangements. I especially love the riff he plays following the line “I punch the clock” in the third verse – one can imagine a young Flea or Les Claypool hearing that three-second doodle, thinking, “You know, I am going to make a career out of that.” The song is pure elation – don’t miss it.

JORGE FARAH: I wish there was something of substance that I could add here but, geez, if I’m entirely honest—“The Greatest Thing” never really registered with me. In fact, when Kevin first suggested doing this as a Song of the Week, I spent several days under the mistaken impression that he meant the throwaway Nick Lowe cover “The Ugly Things” that EC recorded as a B-side in the late 80s. Punch the Clock is one of two or three Elvis Costello albums I just never listen to. And I’m not sure why. History has relegated this album to “fluke hit” status, and somewhat unfairly lumped it together with its considerably less interesting follow-up Goodbye Cruel World; both albums representing a stylistic shift towards shimmery, radio-ready pop numbers with brass sections and backing vocalists, but only one of them being in any way successful at it.

Unlike Kevin, I adore “Love Field”—his 1995 Meltdown festival performance with Bill Frisell having illuminated the song for me—but am not quite as enthusiastic about “The Greatest Thing”. I share his admiration for Bruce Thomas’s impossibly fluid bassline—he really shouldn’t sound that effortless moving up and down the neck of the bass like that—and Elvis’s rapid-fire vocal delivery—he really shouldn’t be able to cram so many words into such a short amount of time—but ultimately this strikes me as the kind of song that a pop master like EC could write in his sleep. That said, as unabashed, ultra-earnest love song, there’s a lot to enjoy in this number, even if the obtrusive horn arrangement puts this uncomfortably close to Katrina and the Waves territory.

More than any appreciation I can make about the song itself, though, what this track represents to me right now is a reminder that there’s an entire world of Elvis Costello songs I am only vaguely acquainted with. Even after all these years, there’s so much left to discover and even more to reassess. Isn’t this the greatest thing?

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ECSOTW #2: Throw Another Joan on the Blaze

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KEVIN DAVIS: I’ve always had a special fondness for the songs that Elvis Costello co-authored with Paul McCartney in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s – not because they’re the greatest or even among the greater songs in either artist’s canon, but because they seem to embody everything that’s good about songwriting partnerships between giants. On paper, collaborations like this generate excitement via the time-tested more-is-more principle (“If I like Elvis Costello, and I like Paul McCartney, then I’ll love something that features both of them!”), but we all know how these things can go once the rubber hits the road – big egos get in the way of one another, toes are stepped on, neither artist commits fully to the exercise, and the finished product ends up being a pile of crap that plays to no one’s strengths. To that end, the McCartney/MacManus collaborations always struck me as very self-aware in the sense that each artist seems to bring to the table only what they’re confident can strengthen the work of the other artist – love him though I obviously do, Costello’s writing can be unwieldy at times, and McCartney’s penchant for cutesiness will haunt him till the end of his days. In leaving these occasional hindrances at the door, McCartney and Costello were able to create a small, inspired body of highly pleasurable but comparatively slight work (“Veronica,” “So Like Candy,” “Pads Paws and Claws”) that find clever and heartfelt if not overly profound lyrics being fit to songs built out of simple melody and rich harmony, well in the ballpark of each songwriter’s individual output but still distinct enough to feel like you can pick out which parts were contributed by which musician (there are parts of “So Like Candy” that are difficult for me to imagine not having been written by McCartney, as well as lyrics in all of the songs that could only have come from EC).

“Shallow Grave,” from 1996’s oddity roundup All This Useless Beauty, is among the lesser of these lesser compositions, but it came up on my iPod’s shuffle the other day and I was struck by it – by the craftsman’s panache of it, as described above, but also by its sense of economy. Last week, in writing about “Lipstick Vogue,” I mentioned how efficient the Attractions were at fitting a great deal of precise technical musicianship into a small space, and I would say the same thing about this song in regards to its compositional musicianship – it is no surprise to me that Costello’s songwriting partner here is a guy who penned some of the most sophisticated compositions of the popular era in a format where songs running in excess of three minutes were considered a risk. “Shallow Grave” runs for 2:07, and in that short time manages to cover a verse (“when I fall in endless sleep”), a pre-chorus (“throw another clown to the lions”), a musically erudite, non-repetitive chorus (“I won’t lie in this poor shallow grave”), another verse, a bridge (“the tinker, the tailor”), another pre-chorus, and another chorus, all while leaving time in between for Elvis to pound rudimentarily on his guitar in pursuit of the same undisciplined, distorted ruckus that calls all the way back to the opening chords from Blood and Chocolate. As they do on much of All This Useless Beauty, the Attractions (who were back for a short-lived and reportedly tense reunion) play a diminished role, but I’m particularly fond of Steve Nieve’s rolling piano in the pre-chorus, immediately following the lyric, “Throw another clown to the lions” – it underscores the sense of playfulness in the melody, such that the song’s themes of man’s inevitable demise as well as some of the songwriter’s more particular postmortem preferences almost becomes an afterthought.

JORGE FARAH: Yes! Before I zero in on the song in question, I’d like to say that I love the living hell out of All This Useless Beauty. It often gets treated like it occupies a minor place in EC’s discography, in part due to its premise and commercial reception—it was famously the lowest-selling album in his career when it first came out. But it has a special place in my heart; this was one of the first Elvis Costello albums I bought during my initial process of discovery. Because I hadn’t followed EC’s career in any sort of linear fashion—or adhering to any specific criteria– I had absolutely no idea this was supposed to be an “odds-and-ends” compilation, or a collection of songs originally written for other artists. I didn’t really know anyone who liked Elvis Costello, so I didn’t know where to go beyond the universally-agreed-upon “first three albums” rule. I had no sherpa to guide me, so I just kind of picked up whatever I was able to find in music stores down here in South America. In a way, approaching a discography this large with this kind of freedom was oddly liberating; the album I bought after this one was Get Happy, and then The Juliet Letters after that. Each album was its own surprise, like discovering a couple dozen new artists and processing their individual discographies. I was roaming a wide, open space, free to wander wherever my curiosity took me, free from the influence of tastemakers or public perception, gathering jewels I stumbled onto along the way. To me, it was just a really good Elvis Costello album, a collection of smartly written pop tunes that incorporated many distinct influences. And even now, knowing of the minutiae of its genesis (thanks to the extensive liner notes in the Rhino reissues), that’s exactly what it feels like. A solid collection of songs (if a bit over-produced in parts; it’s really the only EC album that has that dreadful mid-90s radio-pop shimmer).

I’ve also heard it referred to as some kind of prelude to EC’s Burt Bacharach collaboration Painted From Memory; the logic being they’re both largely made up of piano ballads. But that doesn’t really hold true for ATUB—yes, the album does feature songs like “I Want to Vanish”, “Poor Fractured Atlas”, and its wonderful title track– but it also features some lively jaunts and ferocious playing. “Shallow Grave” has never been my favorite ATUB song, but rediscovering it during this exercise gave me a new appreciation for its minor pleasures: Bruce Thomas’s measured bassline, Steve Nieve hammering down masculine chords on the left side of his piano and quickly moving to the right for the pre-chorus, Pete Thomas’s clank-steam-boom (to borrow a line from Tom Waits) and EC’s jagged, angular guitar leads (likely stemming from his playing a right-handed guitar despite being a lefty). A jerky, stopstutter arrangement that explodes in the chorus and rolls back for another go-around, it accomplishes a lot in its modest running time. As primal as the song sounds, there’s a tricky dexterity to the musicianship on display here; I reckon the Attractions wouldn’t really know how to approach this song in 1978. At the very least, they’d need a minute to collect themselves in time to tackle “Poor Fractured Atlas”.

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ECSOTW #1: Sometimes I Almost Feel Just Like a Human Being

Welcome to the Elvis Costello Song of the Week! Again!

Some time ago, the editors of a site called Trunkworthy had a nifty idea for a weekly column: For an entire year, they’d explore a different song in Elvis Costello’s intimidatingly expansive catalog. The purpose of this exercise wasn’t so much to provide any sort of in-depth academic analysis of the music, but to share some oft-overlooked tunes with the world. And, I suspect, just to geek out over their favorite musician on a weekly basis.

We have nothing but respect for Trunkworthy’s efforts. But a year’s worth of weekly picks amounts to a mere fifty-something tunes which, for a discography as enormous as Costello’s, is barely scratching the surface. There are many gems still to be unearthed. So we (Jorge and Kevin; you can read about us in the About page, we are very interesting) decided to take it upon ourselves to pick up where Trunkworthy left off. We’ll avoid the songs they already covered, letting whim dictate where we go each week in our unabashed Costello proselytizing.

And so we begin our journey (again) with…

LIPSTICK VOGUE. This Year’s Model, 1978.

JORGE FARAH: “Lipstick Vogue” is a stunner of a song. It is caustic, it is witty, it is clever and melodic and aggressive. From a songwriting point of view, it is an undisputed triumph. But we can’t really talk about the track itself without also exploring what it (and its corresponding album) represented for Costello’s fledgling career: a showcase for his new band.

The fact that Elvis and his record label managed to assemble this particular group of musicians to play this particular set of songs is a minor miracle in of itself. This Year’s Model was the perfect debut for The Attractions, and The Attractions were the perfect band for This Year’s Model. The album disposed of the laid-back, California-cool arrangements that decorated My Aim is True, and which rendered some forward-thinking compositions into a kind of New Wave approximation of American radio rock. In contrast, the songs on This Year’s Model popped with furious resolve. They were sharper, tighter, and altogether cleverer than anything on MAIT. They incorporated elements of pop, krautrock, dub reggae, funk and classical, resulting in a musical melting pot that marginally resembled what music journalists in the late 70s stubbornly referred to as “punk”. And as a band of world-class instrumentalists, The Attractions played better than anybody in punk– though just as loud, and just as fast.

Out of the songs on This Year’s Model, “No Action” and “Lipstick Vogue” probably come closest to fitting the “punk” label, though the latter is driven by a drumbeat that is much closer to Buddy-Rich-by-way-of-Brazilian-Samba than anything Tommy Ramone ever did. It is indeed one of the loudest songs in the album, but that’s mostly the volume of the amps and the abandon in their playing; there’s actually barely any distortion on the studio track, as Costello’s guitar takes a backseat to Steve Nieve’s insistent organ and Bruce Thomas’s galloping bass, rising and receding in the choruses like a migraine. Elvis has talked about how this song was his attempt at approximating the music coming out of New York at the time—Television, Talking Heads, the aforementioned Ramones—but this feels like an entirely different thing. Wilder. Looser. More chaotic.

And wordier! The lyrics to this thing are both deeply affecting and laugh-out-loud hilarious, a tonal mishmash that Costello would mine for much of his career as an effective way to communicate his neuroses. The words alternate between sternly-worded-letter and cathartic monologue. They are peppered with fragmented put-downs to a would-be romantic partner towards the end of a relationship that has become toxic. A word that was sometimes used to describe Costello in his early days was “misogynistic”, and that can be a valid reading of some of his more questionable lyrics (“Living in Paradise” jumps out as a particularly egregious example from this album). I always got the sense, however, that all of Costello’s seething anger is coming from a place of profound self-loathing and inadequacy, as he ends up calling his own bluff in the chorus.

Before I cede the floor to Kevin, I’d like to just say that I’m glad this song exists as something I can link people to when I get that bemused smirk after I say I’m a fan. You see in Argentina, where I live, Costello is not exactly a household name. Most people identify him as the bespectacled balladeer who sang that one song for that one Julia Roberts movie. “Lipstick Vogue” is usually the song that I present to rid them of that image. Preferably that one live version from 1978, the really loud and angry one, where he’s wearing a pink suit in the rain. You know the one. That’s the stuff.

KEVIN DAVIS: Thanks, Jorge – and what an appropriate first song you’ve chosen here. Hard-pressed though you’d be to single out any one “definitive” track in a body of work as deep and as varied as Costello’s, there’s definitely a case to be made for “Lipstick Vogue” being the definitive showcase for the Attractions as an ensemble, effectively distilling the essence of their broad-ranging powers (over their next seven albums, they would support Costello on everything from an album of country-and-western covers to a pair of horn dense crusades for chart domination produced by the same guys that produced Madness’s “Our House”) into three and a half minutes of bottled fury. The musical theme here is “freedom within constraints” – were you to isolate Bruce Thomas’s and Pete Thomas’s bass and drum tracks, respectively, you could be forgiven for assuming that you were listening to two soloists lost in crotch-grabbing displays of virtuosity. That these individually frantic and musically flamboyant instrumental pieces interlock with such cooperative perfection is probably the single greatest gift the Attractions gave to Costello’s songs; there really is no underestimating just how much raw, uncut musicianship this quartet was capable of cultivating within the confines of a small space. Buddy Rich feels like an appropriate analog to Pete Thomas’s drumming here – adrenalized, dexterous, but still very deliberate and controlled. Bruce Thomas’s bass “fills” emerge as the drumming pulls back, transitions that sometimes occur within fractions of a second but feel too precise to be accidental. Throughout, Steve Nieve’s descending keyboard passages blanket the song’s urgent gallop with an offsetting dose of mood – he is very much the harmonic heart of the song here.

Costello’s reputation in the late ‘70’s as “angry young man” no doubt emerged from songs like this, wherein he dishes out tidbits of sunshine like “sometimes I think of love as just a tumor,” and “sometimes I almost feel just like a human being” – raw, supercharged emotional sentiments that over the course of EC’s next few albums would be sublimated into varying forms of intellectual linguistic dizziness but still exist here in the form of pure vitriol. I’ve always liked the moment in this song immediately following the delivery of the title line – “not just another mouth in the lipstick vogue” – where the composition lands on its rogue root chord, and Costello and Nieve join in on a brief, harmonically tense two-chord sequence that to my ears always hinted at the sadness that anyone who’s ever been hurt in love knows is the driving force behind every song like this, before returning to the frantic sprint of the song’s breathless verses.

Folks like me and Jorge who grew up in the dgital age might do well to consider for a second the role that this song played on the original UK issue of This Year’s Model – the original 1978 US vinyl issue, as well as all subsequent CD versions, closed the album with the contemporaneous uptempo single “Radio, Radio” as opposed to the downbeat “Night Rally” (which was outright omitted from the original US version). But in its original incarnation, “Lipstick Vogue” was a penultimate catharsis of sorts, a final dash to the finish before the wind-down, one last outlet for any lingering musical wrath that couldn’t be purged by the likes of “No Action” and “Pump It Up.” In 1978, Elvis Costello had a never-ending supply 

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