Tag Archives: Song of the Week

ECSOTW#28 : Things I Never Said, Some Things You Never Heard

one day

KEVIN DAVIS: I first became an Elvis Costello fan in 2002, and looking back now I can’t help but marvel at the prolificacy into which my fandom was born: When I Was Cruel, Cruel Smile, North, The Delivery Man, Il Sogno, My Flame Burns Blue, and The River in Reverse, all released in the five years spanning 2002 to 2006. Not only that, but Rhino’s famous 2CD reissues were being released concurrently with the contemporaneous material, so suffice it to say my earliest experiences with Costello’s music involved an expectation for the market to be flooded with it – new EC product every few months if not more frequently, spaced just far enough apart to be digestible but still with enough frequency for it to feel like a windfall. Sadly, this trend has died off considerably in the last five years. Not that the man doesn’t deserve to spend his guitar and his pen every once in a while and kick back and enjoy the fruits of his labor, but as a conditioned Costello fan with cravings, these are dark days; disillusioned with the business (and, according to his memoir, deeply affected by the loss of his father), EC has declared his album-making career more or less over. To what degree of permanence is anyone’s guess, but it is a fact nevertheless borne out by a comparative analysis; in the past five years, only Wise Up Ghost, his contributions to the New Basement Tapes project, and a handful of soundtrack tunes have seen release (and the Spinning Songbook disc, which I suppose I have to mention if I’m planning on mentioning My Flame Burns Blue), which in 2002 would have been six months’ worth of product.

To fill this gap in my expectations, my standard practice has been to hold off purchasing the soundtrack tunes until enough of them queue up to offer an album’s (or more likely an EP’s) worth of new if disparate material, to be played through in sequence where proper records used to be. “Sparkling Day,” from the 2011 film One Day, belongs to this motley assortment of misfit tracks culled from 2011-present. When Jorge and I were talking about doing this song a few weeks ago, my first thought was that it was a decent if unremarkable movie song that I didn’t remember a thing about except for the opening line. I downloaded it from iTunes the same day I bought EC’s cover of “It Had to Be You” from Boardwalk Empire, and loved the latter song so much that I barely even got around to committing a proper listen to “Sparkling Day.” I remembered the song receiving some pretty mixed feedback at the time, yet also remembered finding the criticisms of the song (that it was oversung, somewhat schlocky, etc.) to be somewhat overstated — the kind of knee-jerk response one might expect when an artist whose principles you respect contributes any song to a Hollywood romance drama (not that this is uncharted terrain for EC, but still).

Listening now, “Sparkling Day” strikes me as….oversung, and somewhat schlocky. The verses are melodically immaculate, and the transition into the chorus is jarring but powerful, yet I can’t seem to shake the feeling that this song calls for a quieter arrangement and probably a lower key. As is not terribly uncommon with Costello’s heavily orchestrated midtempo ballads, the nuance of the melody tends to sink under the weight of various forms of overkill — too much embellishment, unrestrained singing, etc. These more dramatic elements make sense when you consider the song’s original purpose, but they serve the standalone song poorly. I would love to hear the song in demo form, with the emphasis squarely on the tune, which independent of the presentation is quite pretty, though the song veers into jarring and less fluid musical sequences in the pre-chorus and chorus. Costello’s performance feels nasally as well — “up to me” sounds like “up to be” and so on — something else I feel like a lower key would remedy. Overall, it’s a pretty song done up too big and too grand — if you can see it with x-ray vision there’s a lot to enjoy, but aesthetically it’s a little rough on the ears.

JORGE FARAH: I’ve never seen One Day, the Anne Hathaway-starring feature film adaptation to the David Nicholls novel of the same name. The reviews weren’t kind, and the box-office results were middling. It doesn’t strike me as the type of movie I’d ever seek out—from its promotional poster to its IMDB synopsis, it looks exactly like the kind of overwrought Nicholas Sparks-like melodrama its reviews pinned it as. Nothing about it strikes me as genuine or honest or worth exploring. And yet, for one hot minute in 2011, I was actually interested in seeing it. This was 100% due to the fact that the film’s promotional materials made such a huge deal out of the soundtrack. “Original music by Elvis Costello!”, the ads boasted, which in hindsight is a bit bizarre—by 2011 Elvis was well past his commercial prime. Even his brief commercial resurgence with 2009’s Secret Prophane & Sugarcane was followed by the deafening thud of the public’s indifference towards the following year’s National Ransom.

This is symptomatic of the strange place in pop culture that Elvis seems to have carved out for himself. Hardly anyone actually buys his albums, but he’s been around long enough that just his name has some built-in star power. For a while it looked like there was a real effort by the record label to push “Sparkling Day” commercially—there was even talk of an Oscar nomination– but then the song came and went without making much of an impression. Kevin is right that the respons from the fanbase was mixed, but I actually like the song quite a bit. I like that it’s a full-on pop production with The Imposters and an orchestra—the string arrangement isn’t much to write home about (though I do love the fact that a schmaltzy pop ballad resolves somewhat ominously with a bit of dissonance), but the kettledrums in the pre-chorus and the glissando into the proper chorus add to the song big, cinematic sound. I like the lyrics, which are charming and kind of sweet, if not particularly clever. Yes, Elvis does oversing a bit, but I’m not convinced the only way to fix that problem would be to lower the key. I think his straining here is of his own making, just an odd artistic choice.

Speaking of odd choices. My biggest gripe with this song—and one I haven’t really heard mentioned elsewhere, so it might just be me– is the jarring, awkward, uncharacteristically clumsy progression into the pre-chorus (“so don’tgocallingout…”), where Elvis sounds like he’s trying to cram way too many syllables into a very tight space. I can’t help feeling like the line would sound a lot better if the lyrics were “so don’t call out”, or simply “don’t go calling out”; for once, Elvis’s verbosity works against him when operating within a classic pop template. But truthfully, there would be enough space in that little musical moment to delivered the line as written if Elvis just sang it differently; he makes a truly bizarre choice in his phrasing and the words tumble out inelegantly, significantly dulling the dramatic power of the transition and completely wasting the syncopated, staccato phonetic nature of the lyrics as written. It’s the biggest blemish on a song I otherwise really enjoy… chintzy, Nicholas Sparks schmaltz notwithstanding.

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

outofouridiot

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

King-Of-America-e1375735847269

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#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#23: All That Bravado and That Fright

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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ECSOTW#22: Any Maybe, Any Might

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“’Put Your Big Toe In the Milk of Human Kindness’ is a demo of a song originally written for a Disney movie. Mercifully, the Mouse declined the tune, and I was able to cut it a few years later with Rob Wasserman and Marc Ribot for Rob’s album Trios. It now sounds to me as if I was attempting to write something like the Cahn/Van Heusen song ‘High Hopes.’”-Elvis Costello, from the liner notes to the Spike reissue, 2001

KEVIN DAVIS: Prior to his passing last week at the age of 64, Rob Wasserman was one of those guys whose name I would see pop up in album credits from time to time to whom I otherwise never gave a second thought. He appears on a few underdog albums by some of my favorite artists – Van Morrison’s Beautiful Vision, various live records with former Grateful Dead personnel, even a cameo on the famously derided Lou Reed/Metallica collab, Lulu. But session bassists aren’t high on the list of guys whose careers I find myself latching onto, so when my music geek friends inundated my Facebook feed last week with YouTube videos and sentimental remembrances, I found myself impressed – as so often happens with professional collaborators who lurk quietly on the peripheries of bigger-name careers – by the breadth and caliber of artists Wasserman accompanied. As I can tell, Wasserman played on three separate Elvis tracks: “After the Fall” and “Broken” (both from Mighty Like a Rose), and “Put Your Big Toe in the Milk of Human Kindness.”

I imagine this last song is the most immediate connection most Costello fans draw to Wasserman, it probably being the most significant of the few collaborations between the two men, with Wasserman’s record serving as a vessel for the song’s release as well as an excuse for an unplugged session (along with guitar wizard Marc Ribot) that seems to vaguely foreshadow Secret, Profane and Sugarcane. I have no idea which Disney film this may have been written for (the song dates back to 1986 or so, and according to Wikipedia the Disney films released around that time were The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective, and Oliver and Company), or if it was even written with any specific film in mind, but I find myself amused at the thought of it appearing in any of them, simply because I can’t imagine what would compel a character in an animated film to sing this lyric. The prevailing impression of the song is, I suppose, somewhat Lewis Carroll-esque: endearing gibberish, reaping the occasional nugget of wisdom. But it’s still difficult to imagine Disney finding EC’s references to the Virgin Mary and his off-the-cuff philosophizing about the nature of belief particularly integral to any of its storylines. The song captures the playful spirit of “High Hopes,” as Costello rightly acknowledges in his reflection, but it lacks that song’s effortless sense of narrative; for as playful as it is, it’s ultimately probably too abstract to serve its intended purpose.

All that aside, this is a masterfully composed song, laying down a litany of sophisticated musical ideas in a very short time, within the confines of an extremely economical song structure. The song opens with a sort of arrhythmic passage that recalls some of the “musical monologues” that Sinatra would use to lead in to some of his greatest performances, from “Can’t We Be Friends?” and “I Can’t Get Started” to “I Get a Kick Out of You” and “Luck Be a Lady” – this is a long lost compositional device that builds an element of anticipation as the listener awaits the introduction of the rhythm, weirdly causing the song to commence with a sense that you’ve already been fulfilled by it. Costello moves swiftly from one chord to the next, incorporating many clever but sensible changes from transitional sevenths which emphasize harmonic suspense (the first syllable of the word “starry”) to irrational minor fourths which allow the melody to integrate rogue blue notes (the first syllable of the word “simply”), all culminating in the childlike, nursery-rhyme melody that makes up the chorus section (“but always so capricious…”). Both Wasserman and Ribot treat themselves to tasteful but accomplished leads throughout, and Costello negotiates the peaks and valleys of the vocal melody with admirable precision.  So while I don’t know Wasserman well, I have to be grateful to him for giving a final version of this track a place to call home. The demo on the Spike disc just doesn’t hack it.

JORGE FARAH: See, for the longest time, the demo version on the Spike disc was the only version of this song that I was aware of, and I didn’t really give it much of a chance (it took me forever to wade through the bonus disc content of Mighty Like a Rose, where the much-superior Ribot-and-Wasserman recording was waiting for me with arms outstretched). The demo felt like a vaguely-charming yet ultimately failed experiment; an early attempt at the kind of vaudeville tune he’d later master on National Ransom, but not a whole lot more than that. The fact that the version featuring Wasserman is such a monumental improvement speaks to how a great performance can elevate a song, bringing out all the charms that were hidden away in the awkward tentativeness of the demo version. Unlike, say, the difference between the “It’s Time” demo and its final released form, Wasserman/Ribot’s take on “Put Your Big Toe…” is not some radical reimagining of the tune; in fact, the song remains more-or-less intact from a compositional standpoint, but everything about it just clicks and pops somehow. I guess it should be no surprise to learn that a song is improved by the involvement of two world-class musicians such as Rob Wasserman and the great Marc Ribot, two extremely skilled players who are also highly versatile, playing it mostly straight for this performance. Both solos are playful and fun, yet fill in around the corners of the song’s main melody in a hugely satisfying way.

And so now that I’ve seen the song’s virtues so much more clearly, I look back on the demo version a lot more favorably. Despite the fact that I find the song’s title and main lyric to be extremely off-putting (seriously, how gross is the phrase “the milk of human kindness”? And putting your foot into it?), this is now one of my favorite Elvis deep-cuts. Like KD said, it really is a very well-composed song, a sort of showtune that is equal parts Cole Porter and the Sherman Brothers (speaking of, I love the fact that this is a rejected Disney tune; it makes me wish that Elvis did an entire album based on the imagined soliloquies of non-existent cartoon characters. Think of the possibilities!). Aside from what Kevin said about the “musical monologue” at the start, I also enjoy the unwinding, off-tempo opening verse as a structural device. It’s something that Elvis is quite fond of. For live performances of National Ransom’s equally showtuney “A Voice in the Dark”—a song that jumps right into the action, without the opening monologue–  Elvis has actually borrowed the first verse of a different song, Arthur Johnston and Johnny Burke’s “Pennies From Heaven”, a song that “A Voice in the Dark” actually has a lot in common with thematically and melodically. As a devoted student of 20th century pop music, you get the feeling EC wishes these long-lost tropes were more prevalent these days, and with songs like “Put Your Big Toe in the Milk of Human Kindness” he’s doing his best to make that happen.

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ECSOTW#21: Stay the Hands, Arrest the Time

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JORGE FARAH: There are some Elvis Costello songs that are so deeply ingrained in my memory that attempting to write about them becomes a process of blindfolding finger-pointing at a diorama of superlatives. There are some songs that I’ve listened to so many times that I can’t adequately verbalize why they work so well except to say “just listen to this.” Now I’m going to try to tell you about a song that is sometimes my all-time favorite Elvis Costello song, but, seriously—especially if you haven’t heard it before—please just listen to it. As always, there’s a link at the bottom of this post.

“Favourite Hour” is the closing song to Brutal Youth, an album that signaled Elvis’s “proper” return to rockn’roll after his 1993 collaboration with The Brodsky Quartet and a couple high-budget pop experiments. It was Elvis’s first real “loud” record since 1986’s Blood and Chocolate, as well as the first album since to feature The Attractions (though, interestingly, the album is not credited to Elvis Costello and The Attractions, presumably because Bruce Thomas only played on five out of the 15 songs). It’s one of my favorite Elvis albums because it combines the pop hooks, aggression and drive of his early work with a more thoughtful, refined approach to songwriting, honed by two decades of perfecting the art. But this song isn’t a loud, absurdist tale like “My Science Fiction Twin”, or a snarky send-off like “All the Rage”. This song isn’t boisterous. This song doesn’t really sound like anything else on Brutal Youth, or really anything else on any Attractions album. This is a gentle, mournful, quietly devastating piano ballad that sounds like something from a completely different album, far removed from the “20% Amnesia”s and “13 Steps Lead Down”s of this one. It’s interesting that it functions as an album closer and also as a kind of title track. I can understand why – it’s too solemn and final to fit anywhere else in the tracklist, and too good not to release – but to me this always seemed like a song out of time; something that would’ve fit perfectly in The Juliet Letters (with a few slight lyrical adjustments) if he had only written it a year earlier.

Regardless of the fact that it’s probably in the wrong album, “Favourite Hour” is still among Elvis’s most accomplished pieces of songwriting; a perfect convergence of subject matter and musical composition. The song, apparently born out of a writing prompt from a songwriting workshop Elvis himself was leading somewhere, describes the creeping realization of terrible truth: the anticipation and melancholy of a death-row inmate on his way to his hanging, his desperation faded to profound sadness and regret. A song that flirts with “prettiness” for the length of the verses only to be knocked down dread’s darkened corridors by the fractured chords in the chorus; the vocal melody attempting briefly to ascend to something less dour, but receding promptly back into the grey. The album version is gorgeous—Elvis accompanying himself on the piano, his tentative and unadorned playing focusing the listener’s attention to the melody and the sentiment of the lyrics, his vocals lined gently with reverb. The words describe a very specific scenario, but universality in art is anchored in specificity, and I’ve always felt like these lyrics could apply to any instance of regretful longing. In the tradition of the Great American Songbook, Elvis is a master at finding the space where both truths can converge.

There’s also a full-band demo version that was released with the Brutal Youth reissue, and it’s just as beautiful; Pete Thomas turns it into a kind of funeral dirge. And the most harmonically fleshed-out version of the song is the showstopping live performance from My Flame Burns Blue, with accompaniment by jazz orchestra The Metropole Orkest, which propels the song to a whole other level of drama. All versions are great, but the original on Brutal Youth will always have a special place in my heart. I’m not sure if it’s because it’s the first version I heard, or if it’s just the ridiculous amount of times I’ve listened to it throughout my life, but I feel like it’s a part of me in a way only a handful other Elvis Costello songs are. It’s a genuine wonder to me that more people haven’t covered it, but maybe that’s for the best.

KEVIN DAVIS: “Song out of time” is right – in fact, it took until the 2006 release of My Flame Burns Blue for me to truly “get” this song, not because there’s something inherently superior about that particular version but because Brutal Youth just wasn’t ever an album I went for when I was in the mood for mournful piano ballads. That said, each of the three versions of this song offers something that the others specifically do not, and since Jorge did such a nice job addressing the more universal qualities of the song, I’d like to take a minute to look at the differences between its three commercially available recordings. Like “Stranger in the House,” which we covered a few months ago, the three arrangements of “Favourite Hour” are not so different from one another, but they’re different in just the right places – each one has its own character, and presents the song in a slightly different light. (Note: the list below is chronological, not in order of preference.)

  1. Church Studios demo, 1992: The Elvis Costello Wiki dates this version to December, 1992, suggesting that maybe it would have been around in time for The Juliet Letters, which was recorded several months prior but didn’t hit stores until 1993. Regardless, it may not have been entirely clear to Elvis at this point that the song demanded such intimacy – Pete Thomas’s percussion, dirge-like as Jorge accurately describes, sounds like someone dragging his feet in a procession, and Steve Nieve’s organ, while nicely played and adding a redemptive element that the released version lacks, is extraneous. Instrumentally, this would have been the more appropriate arrangement to include on Brutal Youth, but it least effectively serves the song; Costello’s vocal performance feels hindered by the additional instrumentation, surrendering some of its emotional timbre to its spectators. I’m happy we have this version, but I understand why it was scrapped. It’s a solitary song, and true solitude doesn’t include bandmates.
  1. Brutal Youth version, 1993: When I saw Elvis and Steve Nieve perform in 2004, one immediate difference I immediately noticed in their piano playing (Elvis did a few solo tunes, so we had the chance to see both men tickle the ivories for a while) is that Nieve is a concert pianist who treats the piano as an end while Costello is a songwriter who treats the piano as a means. Similar to Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Neil Young, his playing is endearingly “functional” – chords plodding along in perfect time with few frills, exclusively as harmonic support for the vocal melody. In the case of all of these artists, there is something about this style of playing that feels critical to creating the illusion that the listener is honing in on a private moment; compared to something like, say, “Shot With His Own Gun,” which is a bit out of EC’s depth as a pianist and therefore demands the listener acknowledge the presence of professionals in his proximity, “Favourite Hour” feels like an intimate internal dialogue inadvertently captured in stereo. This is not so inappropriate an end to Brutal Youth, I suppose, in a lot of ways Elvis’s rawest album (to this point in his career, only Blood and Chocolate contained so many songs that so emphasized Elvis’s unapologetically shambolic rhythm guitar playing), and certainly a record born out of its own share of internal turmoil. Suffice it to say, once I had the epiphany, I found myself seeking out Brutal Youth for mournful piano ballads a lot more often.
  1. My Flame Burns Blue version, 2004: I know I said that there isn’t necessarily anything inherently superior about this version of the song, but I still think it’s my favorite, the sole determining factor being that I think this is the version that Elvis sings best. Not only do the added years in his pipes suit the subject matter, the sense of vocal discipline and control over timbre that EC accumulated through his experiences recording Painted From Memory and North are exactly the touches this song calls for, particularly in the orchestral environment of MFFB. While this version begins with a sort of overture that sets the stage for the drama in the song, the Metropole Orkest interfere minimally with the song’s more basic structure once Costello and his piano take over. Rather, they hover spectrally in the background, swelling periodically to emphasize the gravity of the lyrics. There are a handful of other tracks on MFFB that work this way, but none of them are as strong compositionally as “Favourite Hour.”

The death-row-inmate story is new to me, and – while fascinating – only serves to illustrate just how meaningless an artist’s intentions for his own work ultimately are. This song means something entirely different to me – something I’m not sure follows as clear of a narrative as EC’s meaning, and something I’m not sure it’s even worth bothering trying to put into words, but I like it when songs work this way. The story for me is in the rises and falls of the chord progression, in particular spots where the vocal melody just soars (“So stay the hands…”), and the beautiful language (“Put out my eyes so I may never spy/The waving branches as they’re waving goodbye”); the emotional message of the song is ultimately greater than any single tale it can tell. One of his finest songs of the ‘90’s, for sure.

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ECSOTW#20: The Genuine Voice of His Unlovely State

wendy james

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

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

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

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

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

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ECSOTW#19: Signed With Love and Vicious Kisses

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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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