Friday, March 30, 2012

Spinning Songbook Countdown: All This Useless Beauty

The Attractions are back! For one final record.

After a series of tours with the reformed Attractions promoting Brutal Youth, the lineup followed Costello into the studio to make yet another excellent Pop record. Released in 1996, All This Useless Beauty is not much of a rocker but an album more in line with the more subdued songs in Imperial Bedroom. In fact, those albums share the same producer, Geoff Emerick.

The Attractions are once again in top form guiding listeners to a variety of musical styles, from the lush Pop of "All This Useless Beauty," to the Soul rhythm in "Why Can't A Man Stand Alone." The band performance in "Complicated Shadows" is particularly captivating, Costello starts the song slowly with a menacing Country tone before the band comes in without restraint. Sadly this would be the last album with the original Attractions. Costello and a bassists Bruce Thomas never really buried the hatchet.

I'm also a fan of "Poor Fracture Atlas" as slow song showcasing Steve Nieve on the piano and another excellent Costello vocal performance, his voice sounds great throughout the album. With a hypnotizing piano melody, Costello examines misunderstood manhood in one of his saddest songs. "I Want to Vanish" is another distinctive weeper, this time performed with The Brodsky Quartet.

I liked this album, it's possibly his most fully formed Pop album. Each song is different without any tune clashing with the others. Costello's voice is at his best and the production combines it near perfectly with the Attractions' performance. The band would follow Costello again on a world wide tour, which Bruce Thomas again documented in book form. He would not return again. 

Classics:  The Other End of the Telescope, All This Useless Beauty, Complicated Shadows, It's Time, I Want to Vanish

Songs I'd like to hear live: Little Atoms, Complicated Shadows, Poor Fractured Atlas, It's Time

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Spinning Songbook Countdown: Kojak Variety

I really wish this album was recorded live in some lounge with the band, composed of legends like James Burton, Marc Ribot and Jim Keltner, jamming freely while Costello plays crooner with R&B and Pop classics. I think it would benefit from a live atmosphere because it sounds restrained at times, never really taking off. Originally recorded in 1990 as a parting session for some of the musicians in Spike and King of America, Kojak Variety plays like an inside joke.

Songs by Little Richard, the Supremes and Screaming Jay Hawkins are missing the spark that made them great. Other songs like "Leave My Kitten Alone," "Pouring Water on a Drowning Man" and "Running Out of Fools" had been performed live or recorded before, sounding much better in my opinion (look for the Bonus Disc in the Rhino Records reissue of Blood & Chocolate for these.) Solid covers of lesser known songs by Bob Dylan, Ray Davies and Randy Newman show the depth of Costello's record collection but don't really add anything new. 

If I pull out this CD it's mainly for the Bonus Disc in the 2004 reissue which features a collection of covers Costello recorded for George Jones. Costello demoed songs by Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Tom Waits and Paul Simon in a Country music style hoping that Jones would record them in his classic style. Apparently the tape never reached Jones but that doesn't matter because these performances are great, just Costello and a guitar. Sometimes I wish he would record an album just like that.

Classics: The original versions are a must.

Songs I'd like to hear live: Any cover song in the set list would be great.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Spinning Songbook Countdown: Brutal Youth

This is the first Elvis Costello album I bought. I had been hearing a lot about the British singer but never much of his music. I knew the Saturday Night Live story, which I thought was awesome. I knew that I loved " Radio, Radio." I knew he was big among Rock critics and that he was known for songs about romantic failures. So I went into the local independent record store, the now defunct CD Warehouse, and looked for his name among the used CD titles only to find Brutal Youth. Like many influential albums in one's life, I picked it up after being dumped.

She told me she would be seeing somebody else on graduation night. The joy of leaving high school and knowing that your whole life is ahead of you turned into the bitterness of being rejected and the despair of seeing your hopes of being loved break into pieces. I was angry for the rest of the night, slept for two hours, called her the next morning and then drove to the record store.

I had never heard of this album and had no idea what to expect. I didn't know that it would feature the reunion of Elvis Costello and the Attractions in five of its songs, recording together for the first time in eight years. I didn't know that it was coming off the artier diversions into classical music and orchestral pop songs in The Juliet Letters and Mighty Like A Rose. I didn't know that many of the songs in this album would have little to do with love. After listening to it, I thought they all did and I liked it that way.

Costello's 15th album starts with a three-punch succession of excellent Rock songs. "Pony St.," "Kinder Murder," and "13 Steps Lead Down" are all guitar driven tunes that hark back to some of Costello's earliest albums. In my post-break up state, I saw these as perfect ways to exorcise the feelings I had left for this girl. Leading me to mistake the tragic story in "Kinder Murder" for a validation of being led-on and duped. "13 Steps Lead Down" was just a great song to hear while driving, singing along to drown out the voices of rejection and anger in my head.

Despite "This is Hell" being nothing more than a portrait of Costello's idea of hell, one where "My Favorite Things" is always played by Julie Andrews and not by John Coltrane, I honestly saw it as a song where someone feels like they are in hell because of how a relationship ended. Projecting my own hangups was easier on the next few songs: "Clown Strike," "You Tripped at Every Step," and "Still Too Soon to Know." These are all great Pop songs and somewhat healing, though the maudlin "Still Too Soon to Know" hit me harder because it's about being betrayed. 

"Just About Glad" and "All the Rage" also provided some musical catharsis in the form of two kiss-off songs. The former is meaner and seems like more of a guttural response. The latter is the better of the two featuring some great word play by Costello and a less strident tune than "Just About Glad." The chorus always made me feel better:

Say "Goodbye"
Baby can't you act your age?
You know why
I'm going to give it to you straight
Although I'll never be unhappy as you want me to be
Still it's all the rage

I'd like to think that these songs got me through the time my heart was broken until it healed up for someone else. Since that time, I've only grown fonder of the album. Finding deeper meanings in some of these songs that at first seemed to only speak to my sad state. Songs like "London's Brilliant Parade," "Rocking Horse Road" are particularly stunning despite having nothing to do with romantic adventures. Nowadays, I find myself picking out the torch song "Favorite Hour" as my favorite song in the album. In the song, Costello expertly details the moment before an execution, a moment that could take the place of any dreaded occurrence in one's life. Despite how important the other songs were to me at a specific time, "Favorite Hour" will remain important to me for the rest of my life.

Classics: 13 Steps Lead Down, Clown Strike, London's Brilliant Parade, Rocking Horse Road, All the Rage, Favorite Hour

Songs I'd like to hear live: 13 Steps Down, Rocking Horse Road, All the Rage, Favorite Hour

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Spinning Songbook Countdown: The Juliet Letters

In high School I read a book called Who's Who in Hell by Robert Chalmers and it had this somber moment where the main character is in a funeral for his wife and "The Birds Will Still Be Singing," the closing song on The Juliet Letters, begins to play, at her request, and the way he gets through it is by pressing a needle into his finger. After reading this, I thought to myself that I had to hear this song.

It took about a year and several of his albums before I finally found the CD so dearly alluded to in Chalmers' book and I got to hear one of Elvis Costello's most inventive departures.

The album, a collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, is a "song sequence for string quartet and voice" inspired by an article about a professor in Verona who answered letters addressed to Juliet Capulet.

It's a very unconventional pairing, the Brodsky Quartet is famous in it's own right for beautiful orchestration and performances of classic works but to hear only string instruments backing what could very well be rock or pop songs can be distracting at first.

After the first listen and getting over the intentional hoarseness in songs like "Swine" (not easy considering it's the third cut on the album) and "This Offer Is Unrepeatable" I became enraptured with most of the songs on this album.

Each song is modeled after a letter, "This Offer Is Unrepeatable" is a spam letter; "Dear Sweet Filthy World" is a suicide note, but there is one that is completely heartbreaking and stunning based on a letter Costello received from a soldier in Iraq during the first Gulf War.

"I Thought I Write To Juliet" is almost like an epic song from a musical because of the different vocal performances by Costello along with a sweeping and haunting orchestration by the quartet. The song also has quotes directly lifted from the letter:

"This is a letter of thanks, as I'm so bored here in I can't say where
So I'm writing to people that I may never meet
And I was thinking of something you said..."

I like to think that last line is referring to the chorus in "Oliver's Army" that goes "And I would rather be anywhere else but here today," which I remember often when pressed with a particularly annoying task, however, it seems like nothing considering what soldiers like Constance go through.

I think that same feeling inspires Costello's rant-like commentary upon receiving Constance's letter in which he confronts the situations both the soldier and the singer are in, desperately asking for comfort and how to respond when you have never been in the same situation. The music reflects this perfectly ranging from sweeping to frantic and ending in a chilling note that sounds like air raid siren warning of imminent danger.

It's possibly my favorite song in the album.

Then there's "The Birds Will Still Be Singing." People always talk about songs played at funerals, including "Free Bird," but this one seems essential, almost like it needs to be heard during such a loss. A solemn and final goodbye expressed, as Costello wrote in the liner notes for this album, "from a place beyond death."

"Eternity stinks, my darling, that's no joke," Costello sings surrounded by strings that sound somber but hopeful as he reaches the song's refrain, a reminder that not matter what, life goes on. I've always enjoyed its sentiment and also the confrontation with mortality it represents. When he sings: "If I'm lost or I'm forgiven, the birds will still be singing," it's not only about moving on after the closing track in your life but it address the fear of whether there is nothingness or an afterlife, however, that question shouldn't really matter because for others there will always be songs to keep on singing.

Classics: Jacksons, Monk and Rowe, The Birds Will Still Be Singing

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Spinning Songbook Countdown: Mighty Like A Rose

This is not a very joyous album. It's bleak, angry, intimidating and sad for most of its running time. Mighty Like Rose also contains what could possibly be the worst album performance Costello's ever done, "Playboy to a Man." Every time I listen to this album I dread this song's arrival. Another Costello-McCartney composition, the version in this album is like a train wreck put to a beat. Costello's voices does the weirdest contortions, sounding manic and harsh, while the band seems to be playing two different songs at once. Thankfully, it ends shortly after three minutes. I always skip it. Besides, there so many others to enjoy.

Released in 1991, Mighty Like a Rose was originally intended as an Attractions album but due to a "legal squabble" (or most likely the 1990 publication of Attractions bassist Bruce Thomas' book The Big Wheel) ended up featuring many of the same players from Spike and King of America. "The Other Side of Summer" opens the album with a sardonic look at what lies beneath the gloss of popular culture, all performed in an fantastic Beach Boys-style tune. The video conveys this perfectly inter-cutting flashy sights of a Hollywood paradise with homeless faces and a dour, bearded Elvis Costello performing amid a bevy of models.


Most of the album features lush orchestral pop songs and a few grim experiments. "Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs are Taking Over)" and "Invasion Hit Parade" are assaults on all senses that despite some interesting sounds fail to captivate. "How to be Dumb" plays out like a response to Bruce Thomas' book, which detailed the dynamic between the singer and the band during relentless touring. The song is one of Costello's best put downs, including the line: "You could've walked out any time you wanted, but face it, you didn't have the courage"

The anger theme continues with "All Grown Up," another response song though one that's tempered with one Costello's best vocals and a grand orchestral arrangement. This one sounds like it could be directed to a former flame who would take credit for several of Costello's songs. "So Like Candy" is another McCartney-Costello composition and one that sounds just as a good as "Veronica." A perfect pop song for those struck with heartbreak.

The album closes with the song I'd like to hear when the curtain closes on me. "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4," is a carnival-like tune on the subject of death and belief or the lack of it. Though I love this version, I've also enjoy ed subsequent live versions that are stripped down to just Steve Nieve at the piano and Costello's unamplified voice. He often asks audience members to join in, something I hope to do the Spinning Songbook Tour rolls into town.

Classics: The Other Side of Summer, All Grown Up, So Like Candy, Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4

Songs I'd like to hear live: How to be Dumb, So Like Candy, Couldn't Call it Unexpected No. 4

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Spinning Songbook Countdown: Spike

No two Elvis Costello albums sound the same but it's pretty rare that one of his albums sounds like two or three different records. Spike, Elvis Costello's Warner Brothers debut, is all over the place musically. Recorded in New Orleans, Ireland and Hollywood and London, Spike draws from the musical backgrounds of all these places for a very schizophrenic listening experience. In addition to all those varied musical influences, Costello's 12th album also has a legendary cast of players: Christy Moore, Allen Toussaint, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Roger McGuinn, producer T-Bone Burnett, Chrissie Hynde and Paul McCartney, who co-wrote the album's greatest hit "Veronica."

Along with dabbling in storied musical legacies, Spike also features several songs drawing from Costello's family legacy. "Veronica" is about Costello's grandmother and her difficulty grasping to reality in her old age. "Any King's Shilling" and "Last Boat Leaving" were born out of his grandfather's experience as a military bandleader and the family often left behind.

Costello also delivers two of his most scathing political songs. "Let Him Dangle" wades into the capital punishment debate with a long-running case Costello found in old newspapers. The better song though is "Tramp the Dirt Down," an Irish traditional in which Costello contemplates whatever satisfaction may come from stomping on Margaret Thatcher's grave. Whenever I listen to it, I wonder if she's ever heard it and how many people will act out the song when she dies.

In the liner notes to the 2001 reissue of the album, the singer himself notes that if "Veronica" hadn't become a hit - and in doing so making the album one of his best sellers - Spike might have become one of his most obscure outings. Upon first listen, it's easy to see why he could be right. Whenever I put it on, I nod my way through the first two tracks but I really look forward to track three, "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" which features a delightful piano tune by Allen Toussaint and quite perplexing lyrics. Another highlight follows in "God's Comic," a cynic's idea of heaven and a God that's lying on a water-bed. Other songs like "Baby Plays Around" and "Satellite" and "Last Boat Living" will surprise you after repeated listens. If you don't let the oddest detours, like "Chewing Gum," "Staling Malone," and "Pad, Paws and Claws," bother you, then there is plenty of joy to be found throughout this album. 

Classics: Deep Dark Truthful Mirror, Veronica, God's Comic, Tramp the Dirt Down.

Songs I'd like to hear live: Deep Dark Truthful Mirror, God's Comic, Baby Plays Around, Last Boat Leaving

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Spinning Songbook Countdown: Blood & Chocolate

I think I nearly lost my voice this morning when I listened to Blood & Chocolate on the ride to work. The 20-minute drive just before dawn was much more enjoyable with Elvis Costello and the Attractions blasting on my stereo. The raucous energy of Tokyo Storm Warning always rouses me to sing with Costello who rants over a menacing Pete Thomas drum beat, describing postcard-like tour snapshots from around the world. The there's the drama of "I Want You," an almost psychotic song from the point of view the jealous, unrequited lover that's made even more creepy by Steve Nieve's church organ surging in the background. The album closes with personal favorite, "Next Time Around" featuring one of the all-time best Costello lines - There's a second-hand emotion on battered forty-five - and Bruce Thomas' incredibly bouncy bass. These are some of Costello's catchiest songs and the Attractions deliver their fiercest performances yet. Sadly, it would be their last album together for another 8 years.

Blood & Chocolate was released in 1986, the same year as King of America, and besides closing out the first Attractions era the album is also the last he recorded for the Columbia label. While none of these things were apparent when it was first released, it kind of seems fitting that a good way to cap these phases of his a career would be with a bang. There's the nonsensical stomp of "Uncomplicated," the power-pop rush in "Crimes of Paris" and "Blue Chair." "I Hope You're Happy Now" has to been one of the greatest break-up fuck-you's ever put into song. There are a few dark songs in the album like "I Want You," the tragic apartment building stories in "Battered Old Bird," and Mr. Misery's tale in "Home is Anywhere You Hang Your Head." For some reason, it didn't do so well when it came and it's a shame because it's one of the forgotten classics in Costello's career. 

The album also prompted the original Spectacular Spinning Songbook series of concerts featuring guests like Tom Waits and Buster Poindexter as well as a go-go cage for audience members who spin the wheel. He brought the wheel back last year and it'll finally come to Florida in April. I can't wait.

Classics: I Hope You're Happy Now, Tokyo Storm Warning, I Want You.

Songs I'd like to hear live: Tokyo Storm Warning, Battered Old Bird, Crimes of Paris, Next Time Around.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Spinning Songbook Countdown: King Of America

The first time I saw Elvis Costello live was in 2005 during the tour for The Delivery Man. I had already devoured most of his albums, except for King of America and Painted From Memory, so I thought that I would know all the songs he would perform that night. Midway through his set, he performed "Our Little Angel" and not only was I glad to be surprised with a great song I hadn't heard before but I also knew that I was missing out on a really good record.

1986's King of America, Costello's 10th album, is almost like a rebirth after the self-inflicted pain of 1984's Goodbye Cruel World. The album marks Costello's first collaboration with T-Bone Burnett as well as the first time since My Aim is True that the singer is supported by a new band for most of the album. Though the Attractions were going to be involved in part of the record, they were relegated to one song in the final cut. The new band was comprised of a seasoned musicians, some of whom even played with the original King of Rock himself, Elvis Presley. These new elements and a longer period of time between recordings helped make this one of Costello's best albums. It features an almost indescribable mix of Folk, Rock and Country music that provide a rich setting for some of Costello's most character-driven songs. 

 I think nearly all of the songs in this album could be expanded into short stories.Without confessing too much, Costello manages to bring several stories to life in the span of the album's 15 songs: from the dissolving couples in "Brilliant Mistake" and "Indoor Fireworks" to the sad lament of a girl taken advantage of by a soldier on leave in "Sleep of the Just." That last song is particularly affecting as it closes the album. I think that in this album Costello fully embraces the device of singing from another person's point of view, like in "Our Little Angel" where a parent seems his daughter's spurned lover very discouraging advice. There are glimpses of Costello in more biographical songs like " I'll Wear It Proudly" and "Lovable" both honest expressions of finding new love - the album coincides with the beginning of Costello's relationship with Pogue member Cait O'Riordan; while "Poisoned Rose" sounds like the conclusion of one very sad affair. King of America does include two covers, The Animals' "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" and J.B. Lenoir's "Eisenhower Blues," which add to the Americana feel of the album but not much else.

Classics: Brilliant Mistake, Our Little Angel, Indoor Fireworks, Little Palaces, American Without Tears, Poisoned Rose, Sleep of the Just. 

Songs I'd like to hear live: Our Little Angel, Little Palaces, Jack of All Parades, Suit of Lights, Sleep of the Just

Friday, March 16, 2012

Spinning Songbook Countdown: Goodbye Cruel World

  Elvis Costello went from singing about "The Greatest Thing" in 1983's Punch the Clock to singing "Worthless Thing" in 1984's Goodbye Cruel World. How does this happen? Divorce.

While the title and subject matter of the songs in Costello's ninth album is bleak and downbeat, the music aims for that stylized '80s pop that continuously betray the dark self-truths in his lyrics. Goodbye Cruel World is another Clive Langer & Alan Winstanley production that fails in trying to repeat the success of Punch the Clock, despite a guest appearance by Daryl Hall and a clear effort to capitalize on the musical fads of the time.

The fatigue from recording nine albums in seven years along with nonstop is clearly shown oin the performances by the Attractions and the singer himself, whose divorce proved distracting and prompted more songs about heartbreak. All the circumstances behind this album led Costello to call this his worst record when signing the worn copy of a Hollywood actor at the set of the movie 200 Cigarettes, according to his liner notes for this record. It's no wonder then that one of the album's highlights and possibly the best expression of how he felt is a cover. 


It took me some time to warm up to Costello's version of Farrell Jenkins' "I Want to Be Loved." I first heard it in a compilation I bought as an introduction to Costello and it was always a track I would skip. It slowly began to seep into my brain, particularly the keyboard part by Steve Nieve. The video above adds so much more to the song.The clip is a perfect single take on Costello who appears in his most vulnerable state while a series of strangers come into the photo booth he is in to give him a kiss. He looks sad almost to the point of tears, giving the song's lament a deeper meaning.

Years later when I bought this album I gained an appreciation for the songs beneath the dated production. "Home Truth" and "Joe Porterhouse" for instance have resonated more with additional years of marriage and closer listening. Recent live performances by Costello have brought me back to "Love Field," though I love the atmospheric opening in the original version, and "Inch by Inch," reminiscent of Peggy Lee's "Fever." Costello's update of "The Comedians" for Roy Orbison has turned the song into one of his buried treasures. 

There is one song I immediately liked when I first heard this album,"Peace in Our Time." While "Shipbuilding" is subtle in it's political intent, this song is weighed down by the many references to the political climate at the time. From taking shots at President Reagan to singing a bout nuclear war, the songs now sounds dated but still remains an idealist's refrain. Costello sings in an understated vocal and plays a simple folk tune on his guitar. He also "played" an anvil giving the song percussion. The songs sounds hopeful and cynical at the same time. After the disparate sounds of the album's first 12 tracks, this song's arrival is a fitting and relieving end.

Classics: "I Want to Be Loved"
Songs I'd like to hear live: "Love Field," "Joe Porterhouse,"  "The Comedians" (Updated version,) and "Peace in Our Time"

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Spinning Songbook Countdown: Punch the Clock


5:30 in the morning is not the best time for the unfettered glee of "Let Them All Talk," the opening song in Elvis Costello's 1983 album. In fact, many of the songs in Punch the Clock are best enjoyed in a lighter mood. Songs like "Love Went Mad," "The Element Within Her," and "The Greatest Thing" are all gratingly upbeat and repetitive. Every time I hear them I'm reminded why I don't listen to this album so often."The Element Within Her" was actually played last year during the first leg of the Spinning Songbook tour after years of never making the set list but in a new arrangement that improves on the album version. The first of two collaborations with '80s hit makers Clive Langer & Alan Winstanley, producers of hit albums by Madness and Dexys Midnight Runners, Punch the Clock seems like a clear attempt at reaching those chart heights. And while the record succeeded at that, it also now sounds like a victim of the '80s.  

The fact that a lot of the songs in this album sound alike make three of Costello's most enduring songs stand out. I'll begin with "Shipbuilding," possibly one of the most understated protest songs ever. A mournful song that's really about Falklands War that doesn't even take place in those island off the coast of Argentina. Costello sings about the toll war takes on the home front and how a whole nation can be complicit when leaders go down a war path. The song, co-written with Clive Langer, features Jazz legend Chet Baker who plays a trumpet solo that sounds just as tragic as his sad, drug-addled life. It totally makes sense that this song closes side A on vinyl when you hear the CD and completely lose the sentiment "Shipbuilding" evokes when the charging horns blare on kicking off "TKO (Boxing Day.)" Another standout is "Pills and Soap," a stark rant inspired by the early hip-hop by Grandmaster Flash. Finally, there's "Everyday I Write the Book," the Elvis Costello song you're most likely to hear at pharmacies, big box stores and shopping centers. It's a cute song about love lost featuring a female vocal group and the Attractions' grooviest performance yet. Though I enjoy it, I can't help but prefer the alternate version below - a much more rock-based arrangement that makes the song ten times better for me. 

Classics: Everyday I Write the Book, Shipbuilding and Pills an Soap.

Songs I'd like to hear live: Everyday I Write the Book ( Alternate version,) Shipbuilding, The World and His Wife.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Spinning Songbook Countdown: Imperial Bedroom

Imperial Bedroom is one of my favorite Elvis Costello albums. A big departure from his previous efforts, featuring a new producer and every type of instrument you can think of, this 1982 album has some of the best songs he's ever written. I also think it honestly captures what Elvis Costello was going through at this point in his career. A crumbling marriage, an alcohol regimen and a resounding disappointment with the alluring first-flickers of love; all these thing show up in this album. On Imperial Bedroom, things get real.

Just listen to "Almost Blue," the darkest song in the album - a mournful take on infidelity and the guilt carried with it. The disillusionment with marriage and love continues with "Long Honeymoon," a tale of a doubtful wife, and the melodrama of "Boy With a Problem," which also mentions "night spend drinking to remember..." Though there are bright moments throughout, "Human Hands" and "Pidgin English" come to mind, the album can be kind of gloomy. "Town Cryer," best exemplifies this with the line: "love and unhappiness go arm in arm." Alcohol and unhappiness reappear on another timeless classic from this album, "Man Out of Time."

"You drink yourself insensitive and hate yourself in the morning," I love that line and it's a sentiment that I've embraced many times since I first heard it. For me "Man Out of Time" has always been about becoming self-aware, realizing your detachment from a life viewed with both cynicism and wonder. The kind of thing you realize after a night of heavy drinking.

Classics: Beyond Belief, The Long Honeymoon, Shabby Doll, Almost Blue, Man Out of Time, Human Hands, Town Cryer

Songs I'd like to hear live: Beyond Belief, Man Out of Time, Almost Blue, The Loved Ones, Human Hands, Boy With a Problem, Town Cryer.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Spinning Songbook Countdown: Almost Blue

With 1981's Almost Blue, Elvis Costello tried to turn his fans onto Country and Western music. I'd like to think that in most cases, he succeeded. The album seems like a huge gamble, something that a record company would shy away from nowadays. Starting with producer Billy Sherrill, known for working with Tammy Wynette, who wasn't crazy about the cover songs picked, according to Costello's liner notes for the album. There's also the abrupt change from the previous two albums Get Happy and Trust. It's no wonder some vinyl pressings came with a sticker that said "Warning! This album contains Country & Western music and may produce radical reaction in narrow minded people."

Almost Blue features covers of songs from legends like George Jones, Hank Williams and Gram Parsons. The covers themselves are not radical re-workings, except for maybe the punk-like stomp of "Why Don't You Love Me Like You Used to Do," but several come close to matching the originals. I love Gram Parsons and I credit Costello for kindling that appreciation but the versions of "How Much I've Lied" and "I'm Your Toy," or "Hot Burrito #1," are gorgeous. Steve Nieve's piano on the former is perfect and Costello does this emotive vocal in the latter that is heartbreaking. That same voice appears in "Good Year For The Roses," a George Jones song that Costello makes his with a very understated performance that places you in the middle of the marital dispute that's the subject of the lyrics.

There's one more highlight surrounding this album that is not part of the track list but a B-side to the "Sweet Dreams" single. A live rendition of Leon Payne's "Psycho" recorded in 1979. Costello also recorded a version with Billy Sherrill but the live version is the best in my own opinion. The singer fully embracing what he would come to call "method singing" for this creepy but affecting song about a serial killer, complete with a twist at the end. The Attractions sound just as insane as the song's subject with the help of a menacing pedal steel guitar played by John McFee. That performance, along with some of those songs on Almost Blue, are a great preview of the singing Costello would evoke in his next album, a masterpiece?

Classics: Why Don't You Love Me Like You Used to Do, Sweet Dreams, I'm Your Toy, Good Year For the Roses,

Songs I'd like to hear live: How Much I've Lied, I'm Your Toy, Psycho

Friday, March 9, 2012

Spinning Songbook Countdown: Trust

"Watch Your Step" snuck up on me. It wasn't even while playing this album but while listening to a Rykodisc compilation of Elvis Costello's best songs that I bought for the woman who would become my wife. I got her the album to introduce her to Costello. We were driving around listening to this CD featuring the best of the Attractions years and "Watch Your Step" came on. At first I couldn't recognize it and wondered how could I have missed it, this gorgeous keyboard-driven song with some of Costello's best singing yet that's incredibly catchy. I looked up the song online and found that I had it all along on an used copy of Trust, Elvis Costello's 1981 album. I couldn't believe that I had missed it. It's now my favorite song on this album, which is a hard thing to say because there are many.

Trust is Costello's fifth album in five years and one that expands the creative relationship between him and the Attractions. Trust also shows some of the fatigue from continuous touring and recording, as well as the drug and alcohol infused lifestyle that went with it, on several throwaway songs that made it in to the album. I'm sorry but "From a Whisper to a Scream" just sounds like the theme song to some cult '80s TV show that was canceled too soon. "Luxembourg" is rockabilly din that could have worked better as a B-side. Still, most of the album sounds excellent with yet another outstanding performance from the Attractions. Steve Nieve is the MVP here I think with his rich piano flourishes on songs like "Shot with His Own Gun," and "New Lace Sleeves." Still Trust is a great band record with Costello leading the Attractions through thrilling tracks like "Lovers Walk," and "Strict Time" while also dropping hints about his next project with the country-themed "Different Finger." Rediscovering "Watch Your Step" has changed this record for me, helping me appreciate the hidden gems in it and reminding me that there are still many to find.

Classics: Clubland, Lovers Walk, Strict Time, Watch Your Step, New Lace Sleeves, Shot with His Own Gun, Big Sister's Clothes

Songs I'd like to hear live: Lovers Walk, Pretty Words, Watch Your Step, New Lace Sleeves, Fish 'N' Chips Paper ( I work at a newspaper - "Yesterday's news is tomorrow's fish and chip paper") and Big Sister (an different version of Big Sister's Clothes)

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Spinning Songbook Countdown: Get Happy!!

This is the album that makes me wish bassist Bruce Thomas continued to make records with Elvis Costello. He is all over Get Happy!!, expertly playing a bass guitar that seems to have an infinite amount of strings. It's hard not see why his role was so prominent in this album when you realize that it was influenced by the Stax sound of Booker T and the MGs along with other classic soul records Costello picked up while touring in the U.S. Those albums are all about bass and keyboards and while Steve Nieve perfectly hits the right notes, Thomas' bass stands out throughout the albums' 20 tracks.

Now that's another great thing to get happy about, a 12-inch slab of vinyl with 10 tracks per side. Some pressings even included a notice assuring the listener that the production was still top notch despite the massive track list. Released in 1980, Get Happy!! was another hit for Costello and signaled a further departure from the Punk wave he rode through the late '70s. Each song goes by fairly quickly nearly all are memorable, from the full blown attacks on High Fidelity and King Horse to the slower, darker tunes like Clowntime is Over and Riot Act.

For me, Get Happy!! is a joy to listen regardless of your state of mind. The title perfectly captures what these songs do when you're singing along to them in your car, even the ones like Motel Matches - a sad, country-tinged tune that always breaks my heart. Sometimes singing along to someone else's heartbreak can make you feel better about your own.

Classics: Opportunity, Possession, Clowntime is Over, New Amsterdam, High Fidelity, I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down, Motel Matches, Temptation, Riot Act

Songs I'd Like to Hear Live: King Horse, Possession, I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down ( the slow version,) Black and White World, Motel Matches, I Stand Accused

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Spinning Songbook Countdown: Armed Forces

"Oh I just don't know where to begin..."

Elvis Costello's third album is another one of his bests and shows how fast he was growing as an artist then. It's not very often that your listen to songs about executive ambition (Senior Service,) military efforts (Oliver's Army and Good Squad,) and relationships (Party Girl, Big Boys and Two Little Hittlers) in the same album. Armed Forces also foreshadows how versatile and proficient The Attractions would become as a band in the ensuing years. Originally titled Emotional Fascism, this album was released in 1979 and became Costello's first major hit in both sides of the Atlantic. It's another great place to start if you've only heard the classic tunes.

I like Armed Forces a lot. I don't think I could have gotten through my years as a waiter without reciting: "And I would rather be anywhere else but here today," a phrase from Oliver's Army, Costello's take on the push for military work. It also has so many other classic songs but there's one that I think is vastly underrated and near perfect, Two Little Hitlers.

I love everything about this song, more so than the US final track and more well-known- (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding? There's the ear-wormy guitar riff, borrowed from Bowie's Rebel, Rebel, and those amazing pun-heavy lyrics that sound more like ramble than a typically structured song. It's such a fun, pop tune that I never really realized how great it was until several years after I bought the album. It's the only song in this album on which I always hit repeat after each listen.

Classics: Accidents Will Happen, Oliver's Army, Green Shirt, Party Girl, (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding

Songs I'd like to hear live: Big Boy (though preferably something like the demo version not the one on this album) Goon Squad, Oliver's Army and Two Little Hitlers

Spinning Songbook Countdown: This Year's Model

This is the album I want Elvis Costello to sign when I see him live in April. This Year's Model is one of my favorite albums and the one that turned me into the Obsessive-compulsive fan that would listen to all his albums in the run-up to a concert. If you've heard it, you'd understand.

This Year's Model is an undisputed classic in every respect. It's Costello's first album with the Attractions, the excellent backing band that would become such an integral part of Costello's early albums. It's also the Elvis Costello album that is pure punk, emerging in the middle of British punk's heyday and delivering genre classics like Pump It Up and Radio, Radio. The vinyl version has an inspired gag by designer Barney Bubbles, the title being cut off and the color bars making the cover look like a brilliant mistake. It's also a perfect album with no clunkers and a thrilling, frenetic sound and that will make you forget about the speed limit if you're listening to it while driving.

This is the first album I listen to whenever I go on a road trip because it's such an unrelenting burst of music that makes any dull highway somewhat fun. The Attractions deliver such a great performance, from Peter Thomas' fast-paced drums to Bruce Thomas' bass on a never-ending groove and Steve Nieve's driving keyboards. Then there's the man himself, singing songs on the mean side of those on My Aim Is True. Each song tinged with cynicism and the frustration of lust, love and youth.

Classics: No Action, The Beat, Pump it Up, You Belong to Me, (I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea, Lipstick Vogue and Radio, Radio.

Songs I'd like to hear live: No Action, You Belong to Me, Hand in Hand, Lipstick Vogue, Night Rally and Radio, Radio.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Spinning Songbook Countdown: My Aim is True

It's the end of the welcome week for many but the start of a grueling nine-day schedule for me but it's OK, I got something to look forward to. In about 7 weeks I'll be following Elvis Costello's latest tour, seeing him live three times as he makes his way through Florida. I've been looking forward to this since last October and I cannot wait for his Spectacular Spinning Songbook to roll into the sunshine state. The tour features a gigantic wheel of songs which audience members get to spin, a set up that brings back a similar theme Costello used for his concerts during the '80s.

So besides kicking off this crazy week with "Welcome to the Working Week" from Costello's My Aim is True, I'm also launching the Spinning Songbook Countdown and listening to each of the man's albums in chronological order as the first concert approaches. Costello's debut is filled with clever songs, including five now-classic songs. Even though the instrumentation, provided by Clover - later known as Huey Lewis and the News - has its limitations, the album accomplishes to match the live pub rock sound that inspired Costello at the time.

It wasn't my introduction to Costello and it's not my favorite but it remains a great listen throughout. The greatest thing about being an Elvis Costello fan is how many times each of his albums rewards you with things you've never noticed before. When your first listen is all about his witty, heartfelt lyrics and the captivating hooks and melodies, later listens reward you with surprising delights. In My Aim is True you can find these in the walloping drum sound in "Waiting for the End of the World" and the frenetic organ sound in "I'm Not Angry." It's no wonder that My Aim is True stands as one of the greatest debuts of all time.

Classics: Welcome to the Working Week, Alison, (The Angels Want to Wear My) Red Shoes, Mystery Dance, Watching the Detectives

Songs I'd like to hear live: Welcome to the Working Week, Mystery Dance, I'm Not Angry, Less than Zero, Waiting for the End of the World