Sunday, April 22, 2012

Spinning Songbook Countdown: National Ransom

Elvis Costello's last grand album brings us to the end of the countdown and a few days away from his Spinning Songbook concert in Clearwater. 

National Ransom is an epic record with 16 songs featuring members of the Imposters and the Sugarcanes as well as guest stars like Vince Gill and Leo Russell.  The end result though is a challenging album that works better as a collection of songs. 

The album goes through so many different styles of music, from a variety of time periods, that it can be jarring at times. Released in 2010, it kicks off with a timely title cut about the financial crisis, followed by a song about a struggling performer in the '30s and a song about Katrina before going further back into the '20s for "Slow Drag With Josephine." This is all in the first four songs. 

That's not to say that these songs aren't great, "Jimmie Standing In The Rain" and "Josephine" are some of the best songs he's ever written along with others in this album, but, for me at least, they seem isolated from one another and result in an album that feels disjointed.

"Stations of The Cross" is the Katrina song mentioned above and it's a far more sorrowful song than anything on River In Reverse. If there is a recurring theme in National Ransom is death and this song is the most vivid, with the line about "faces like meat spoiling" in the storm's aftermath being particularly gruesome. 

"You Hung The Moon" is a beautiful but slightly out of place orchestral ballad about a family trying to contact their dead soldier son, killed for defecting. "Bullets For The New-Born King" is about the assassination of a recently elected leader and the poignant "One Bell Ringing" deals with the 2005 of Jean Charles de Menezes, killed by London police after being misidentified as a suspect in the 7/7 bombings.  

Again, these are excellent songs but to hear "The Spell That You Cast," a fun rockabilly number about a bewitching moll, after "One Bell Ringing" totally takes away from the impact of such a solemn song.

The same happens when you go from the rollicking hard-luck story of an aspiring starlet in "Church Underground," one of the songs in the album that truly rocks, to the Jazz hall sounds of "You Hung The Moon." 

The theme of death returns in "All These Strangers," a hypnotic rant that seems to be someone's final words. It's another reflective tune that takes a while to warm up to one that seems to be a fitting end until it's disrupted by the upbeat Jazz number "A Voice In The Dark." Set in the '30s, this song comes as a relief after the heavy subject matter across the rest of the album.

This was also the first album where I some of the songs before they were recorded, something that might have hurt my expectations. "Five Small Words" was performed with the Sugarcanes on tour and recorded with two of the Imposters, giving it a Western feel that loses the momentum of the frenzied live version.

"I Lost You," co-written with Jim Lauderdale, featured vocals by both during its live outings, something that was sadly changed when it was time to record it.

One song I loved, simply because I could see myself as the male character within it, is "That's Not The Part Of Him You're Leaving." I saw it live in Jacksonville and heard it many times on bootlegs and thought it was an immediate classic. An example of Costello turning a common occurrence among women and men who are "friends" and calling them out on it. But I think I ruined it with those advance listens, because when I heard the studio version I couldn't help but feel that something was missing.

In fact, that's how I feel about the whole album but when one of it's songs comes on, all alone, I end up doing what I do with some of my favorite Costello songs. Enjoy it immensely.

Classics: "Jimmie Standing In The Rain," "Stations Of The Cross," "Slow Drag With Josephine," "Dr. Watson, I Presume," "One Bell Ringing," "That's Not The Part Of Him You're Leaving."

Songs I'd like to hear live: "Stations Of The Cross," "Church Underground,"  "Dr. Watson, I Presume," "One Bell Ringing,"

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Spinning Songbook Countdown: Secret, Profane & Sugarcane

I was looking at the upcoming dates for Costello's tour in Florida and noticed something peculiar. The show at the Florida Theater in Jacksonville on Friday, April 27, will be exactly two years since he performed at the exact same venue. It will also be two years since I met him, told him how grateful I am for his music and had my copy of Secret, Profane & Sugarcane signed by the man himself.

That 2010 concert was a thrill, it featured Costello backed by The Sugarcanes - the all-star band of acoustic musicians that provided the music for this album. I got to see Stuart Duncan, Dennis Crouch, Jerry Douglas, Mike Compton, Jeff Taylor and Jim Lauderdale bring the record to life on stage as well as several captivating arrangements to classic Costello songs.

One of my favorite memories of that night was the exuberant performance of "Complicated Shadows," a song first recorded with the Attractions on All This Useless Beauty and turned into a country jam on this album, as the lighting turned the band into gigantic shadows as they burned through this song.

He didn't really play a lot of songs from this album, released almost a year earlier in 2009, but focused on a variety covers including "Happy" by the Rolling Stones and "Friend Of The Devil" by the Grateful Dead as well songs from his upcoming National Ransom album.

Still, I would have loved to hear "Red Cotton," possibly my favorite song from this album. It starts out as a thought that gets away from it's subject, circus founder P.T. Barnum (more on that later,) and delves into the slave trade during the 19th century without lacking contempt for the practice.

The song is one of four tracks originally written for an opera about Barnum, Danish author Hans Christian Andersen and Swedish singer Jenny Lind. The fact that they appear in an album tinged with the sounds of Bluegrass and Americana alongside new recordings of old songs might lead some to see this as less of an album and more of an quirky collection of songs. But the band's musical dexterity and T Bone Burnett's production turn these diverse orphans into kindred spirits.

The themes of The Delivery Man return in this album with two songs that should have been released with that album, or at least as bonus tracks. "Hidden Shame" and "I Dreamed Of My Old Lover Last Night" were both written years before this album and could've easily derailed the album but instead they fit right in with the latter ingraining in my head the fear of speaking secrets while asleep.

"Sulphur To Sugarcane" is a somewhat lewd travelogue in the voice of a politician who seems to have bed a girl in all 50 states. It's a hilarious song to hear live, specially when he name-checks the city he's playing at.

The album ends with two sweet love songs. "The Crooked Line" is almost like a sequel to "Ring Of Fire," completely dedicated to a life-long love and how lovely that idea sounds. "Changing Partners" is a cover of a song made popular by Bing Crosby about the brief emergency when you momentarily lose your dance partner and realize that you've never want that to happen again.

This album has some detractors and it may not be one of Costello's most captivating releases but it does have its charm, from the great musicians backing Costello to the dazzling album cover by Tony Millionaire. It's easy to see yourself watching the world go by while drinking mint juleps and listening to this. I look forward to it.

Classics: "My All Time Doll," "Sulphut To Sugarcane," "The Crooked Line"

Songs I'd like to hear live: "My All Time Doll," and "Red Cotton"

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Spinning Songbook Countdown: Momofuku

We have Jenny Lewis to thank for this album. It may not have happened without her.

Just before this release, Costello had been adamant that he would not be releasing any new material, telling Word Magazine in an interview published in March 2008 that something like 60 discs have come out with his name on it, "let the blood soak into ground for a while."

A month later, Momofuku - possibly Costello's most perplexing album title ever- was released quietly, which is too bad because this album is meant to be played loud!

Momofuku was recorded the first months of 2008, following Costello's guest appearance during the recording of Lewis' second and vastly under-rated album Acid Tongue.

The album was cut quickly with the Imposters in the same studio as Acid Tongue and with some of the same players. Jenny Lewis provides backing vocals as well Johnathan Rice, "Farmer" Dave Scher. David Hidalgo from Los Lobos joins on a couple of songs and Pete Thomas' daughter Tennessee also drums.

The spontaneous recording, the fantastic guests and an oddball title make this one of Costello's most enjoyable releases.

"No Hiding Place" kicks off a three-punch attack of perfect pop rock, followed by "American Gangster Time" and "Turpentine" each featuring Steve Nieve's trademark keyboards. The vocal supergroup and the father-daughter drum team give "Turpentine" a searing, alien atmosphere.

"Harry Worth" tells the story of a couple whose relationship keeps deteriorating with each Elvis Costello appearance in their town. "Flutter &Wow" carries the opposite sentiment in a soul-inflected love letter to his wife, Diana Krall.

"Stella Hurt" is a hard rocking number based on the story of a forgotten singer from the '20s. "Mr. Feathers" follows with a cabaret tune about a woman's encounter with a seedy figure from the past.

Costello gets sentimental on "My Three Sons" singing about his recently born twins and now adult son. The album closes with two alt-country songs and a killer b-side.

"Go Away" is a classic throwaway song. Steve Nieve plays a riff straight out of a ? And The Mysterians song while Costello rants about spy movies, epics and screwball comedies amid a joyful chorus featuring Lewis' great voice. It's a fitting ending for an album truly recorded just for the fun of it.

Classics: "American Gangster Time," "Harry Worth," "Flutter & Wow," "Stella Hurt"

Songs I'd like to hear live: "No Hiding Place," Turpentine," "Harry Worth," "Stella Hurt," "Mr. Feathers," "Pardon Me Madam, My Name Is Eve".

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Spinning Songbook Countdown: The River In Reverse

One week left!

Next Tuesday is Elvis Costello's concert at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater and I can't wait. Until then I got four great Costello albums to get me through the work week, starting with The River In Reverse.

This joint effort with New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint is my favorite of Costello's three collaborative releases. It features the Imposters as well as the Crescent City Horns for an album steeped in the rich sounds of the Big Easy.

The album was recorded just a few months after the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe in 2005 and features several songs influenced by the disaster as well as a few classic Toussaint compositions.

"The River In Reverse" specifically revolves around the tragedy. A much darker composition than the other songs on the record. Costello's sings about how the betrayal in the response to the storm and its aftermath while the band plays a nearly broken rhythm with an eerie piano melody surging in the background. It's a stunning song, one that takes a while to warm up to.

"Broken Promised Land" and "International Echo" follow up on the Katrina theme, the lack of response and the choices residents had to make."Ascension Day" is the most affecting of these songs though. Almost like a requiem for the 1,500 lives lost. Led by a majestic piano performance by Toussaint, Costello solemnly describes the most vivid images from the storm.

Thought the subject matter of these songs seem a bit too serious, they never cease to be a joy to listen to and fit perfectly well with the more popular subject matter through the rest of the album.

"On Your Way Down," "Who's Gonna Help A Brother Get Further" and "Freedom For The Stallion" are all Toussaint originals from decades before Katrina that specially apt.

Costello is a big fan of Toussaint, the two have worked together since the eighties, and the rest of the album shows that admiration with the selection of songs.

"Nearer To You," "Tears, Tears and More Tears" and "Wonder Woman" are great love songs featuring solid performances by the band but the stand out for me is "All These Things."

Costello first recorded a version of this beautiful song in 1986. It was officially released in the Blood & Chocolate reissue, which was where I first heard it and how I first knew I was in love.

I was driving on an scenic road lined with palm trees, on my way to meet the woman who would become my wife. I had just picked up the reissue and was listening to the bonus disc for the first time when this gem came along and I knew that I could never let her go.

The version on that reissue is good but the one in this album is so much better. From the band's dramatic performance to Costello's finest vocals, "All These Things" is the highlight of the album for me. I couldn't help but be floored again by this song.

Classics: "The Sharpest Torn," "Who's Gonna Help Brother Get Further?," "The River In Reverse," "Ascension Day"

Songs I'd like to hear live: "Own Your Way Down," "Tears, Tears and More Tears," "All These Things"

Friday, April 13, 2012

Spinning Songbook Countdown: My Flame Burns Blue

I really meant to listen to this stunning live album all the way through but I couldn't managed to get past track two for much of the day.

"Favorite Hour" is in my opinion the best song off 1994's Brutal Youth but this version rivals the original with a new arrangement by Steve Nieve and the grand participation of the Netherlands' Metropole Orkest.

The song's lyrics, described by Costello in the liner notes as "about the anticipation of an execution," could also be applied to whenever you dread an upcoming unpleasant event. Today was one of those days.

Today was the last day for several of the journalists I work with. They each had more than 25 years of experience with the newspaper and they were offered a buyout. They are glad to retire but their service to the paper and the community is unmeasurable. It's a loss for an already thinned newsroom and we had to say goodbye today.

Along with the execution imagery, somewhat gruesome for such a lovely melody, there a lots of descriptions of time passing. The brutal youth being wasted, "bejeweled movement" measuring lost time, and then there's the desire to "arrest the time." I felt like that all day today. Some of the people I learned from the most are leaving and I have a feeling that it's only gonna get worse. There will always be times when you want things to stay the same and this song is perfect to hear when they won't.

That's my melodramatic rant for today, let's get back to the music.

2006's My Flame Burns Blue is actually Costello's first official full-length release and it showcases his prowess as a big band leader. The set, which combines two performances during the North Sea Jazz Festival, features some incredibly interesting versions of Costello classics as well as some of his artier projects.

Among the highlights is a version of "Watching The Detectives" that turns one of his best known songs into the soundtrack for a witty detective film. "Clubland" gets a somber start before it plays up the party atmosphere and turns into a dizzying operetta. "Episode of Blonde" benefits from the bolder horn arrangements and "God Give Me Strenght" gets even more dramatic.

Still, my favorites off this marvelously sounding live album are the quieter songs like "Favorite Hour." "Can You Be True," from North manages to be even more touching. "Almost Blue" from 1982's Imperial Bedroom is gorgeous.

Another song that stands out is "Almost Ideal Eyes," an out-take from the recording sessions from All This Useless Beauty that ended up as a killer B-side.

I wouldn't recommend this album to someone just diving into Costello's sprawling output, unless they were a Jazz fan, but it's definitely worth a listen - not only for the incredible live performance that it captures but how perfectly these songs work with a big band arrangement.

Also, you'll end up listening to "Favorite Hour" over and over.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Spinning Songbook Countdown: The Delivery Man

"I am the mighty and magnificent" Costello howls in the opening track to yet another fantastic album, 2004's The Delivery Man.

The Imposters are back in probably one of their finest album performance, jumping back and forth from dirty Southern rock to old school country. I cannot recommend this album enough.

"Button My Lip" kicks off this collection of songs, an intentional concept album as opposed to the gorgeous accidental melodrama of North, with an unrelenting jam session that combines elements of "America" from West Side Story and feedback heavy arrangement. Though it's the heaviest song on the album, it also let's you know that you are in for a surprise.

Next is the first of the album's alluring country ballads and the first song that specifically deals with the somewhat convoluted story behind the album. The concept revolves around three women whose lives are impacted by a man with a hidden past. The album's liner notes lists the names of the women - Geraldine, Vivian and Ivy - and the man, Abel, along their respective tracks but stops short of laying out the story for listeners.

It also doesn't help that one of the songs that sparked this Southern tale is not included in the album. Costello wrote "Hidden Shame" around 1989 after reading a newspaper story about man facing a charge who had done a much worse and undiscovered deed when he was a child. The song, recorded by Johnny Cash, would later officially appear in Costello's 2009 album Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane.

Abel seems to be the child, now an adult, who returns as a delivery man to an isolated town touched by a major conflict (Possibly a war, since the album was recorded as the Iraq War marked its first year) and becomes an important figure in the lives of the three women.

Geraldine, her daughter Ivy and Abel figure in the lovely "Country Darkness." Lucinda Williams' weathered voice brings Vivian's stormy character to life in "There's A Story In Your Voice." Emmylou Harris gives Geraldine a fragile tone in the heart rending "Hear Shaped Bruise." And the whole story comes together in the bluesy title-track. "In a certain light he looked like Elvis/In a certain way he feels like Jesus."

All those songs are great but the album adds a five more songs unrelated to the central story though they share the same themes.
Geraldine is a widow because her husband died in a war, a theme that appears in the blistering "Bedlam." Pete Thomas' drums go haywire as Costello mixes the story of Jesus' birth and with the rescue of Private Jessica Lynch from Iraq, both self-perpetuating myths.

One of the most beautiful songs in the album, the Oscar-nominated "Scarlet Tide," was written for a film about the Civil War but perfectly fits at the end of this album. Costello, accompanied by an ukulele and Emmylou Harris' fine vocals, sings about the price of war and the people who willingly gamble with it:

Man goes beyond his own decision
Gets caught up in the mechanism
Of swindlers who act like kings
And brokers who break everything
I think I like every song on this album and have fond memories of driving around blasting the "Needle Time" and "Monkey to Man" on my car when I got the album. The latter is a hilarious sequel to Dave Bartholomew's song "The Monkey," in which they can't believe that the cruelty of man evolved from a monkey.

Still, there is one song that I must always play twice, "Either Side Of The Same Town." A perfect torch song, this time between a man and his former lover and the unbearable sense that they might run into each other again when certain feelings remain in place. This is what Costello does best, he can take the sorrow we've all experienced at one time or another and makes it worth reliving again and again. 

Classics: Country Darkness, Either Side Of The Same Town, Bedlam, Monkey To Man, Heart Shaped Bruise, The Scarlet Tide. 

Songs I'd Like To Hear Live: Either Side Of The Same Town, Bedlam, Needle Time, The Judgement.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Spinning Songbook Countdown: North

It's very rare that you hear a concept album built with jazz ballads but that's exactly what I think of whenever I listen to North.

This 2003 album features eleven moody and intimate performances, beautifully sung by Elvis Costello and driven by Steve Nieve's eloquent piano. Each song seamlessly segues into one another as musical themes reappear throughout the album. All the songs are love songs, some without a happy ending.

The lyrics are so candid and vivid that I just can't help but imagine a story around them; they even seem to appear in a specific order, from the tragic beginning in "You Left Me In The Dark" to the hopeful conclusion in "I'm In The Mood Again."

The album starts at the end with "You Left Me In The Dark," a song about a dissolving relationship. "Someone Took The Words Away" continues with the subject being struck, "tongue-tied" with a new feeling. Still, he's conflicted.

"Fallen" tries to reconcile this new feeling in the face of that other relationship, lamenting "the moment when love went wrong."

The next few songs see that infatuation turn into full-fledged love. "When Did I Stop Dreaming," "Still" and "Can You Be True are some of the best love songs Costello's ever written. "Still" features the Brodsky Quartet and is possibly the loveliest tune in the album.

The tempestuous song-cycle closes with "I'm In The Mood Again," a Manhattan-set epilogue with the better man out subject has become. He's happier, carefree and hopeful. The journey was worth it.

The album coincides with the end of his relationship with Cait O'Riordan and the beginning of his relationship with jazz vocalist Diana Krall. I'm sure Costello would say that any similarities would be purely coincidental.
Classics: "Someone Took The Words Away," "Fallen," "Still," "Can You Be True," and "I'm In The Mood Again"
Songs I'd like to hear live: "Still," "When it Sings," "I'm In The Mood Again" and