Tag Archives: rockabilly

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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