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

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