A GUEST POSTING by JONNY THE FRIENDLY LAWYER
ELVIS COSTELLO WITHOUT THE ATTRACTIONS
ICA #136 listed the 10 Best Songs by Elvis Costello and the Attractions. Lots of folks griped about their favorite tracks being left out, and of course they were in the right since it’s impossible to list only 10. But I did it anyway; my only rule was that the set had to feature all three of the Attractions: Steve Nieve, Bruce Thomas and Pete Thomas.
To be honest, I lost interest in EC after 1986’s Blood & Chocolate. It was fun when he made a couple more records with the Attractions in the 90’s (Brutal Youth and All This Useless Beauty), but only because he toured them. No one could touch Elvis, Steve, Bruce and Pete as a live act. GTFP and I saw a fantastic set when they came to Los Angeles in ’94. But while those last records have their moments they can’t touch Costello’s eight earlier records with the Attractions (nine if you count 1981’s country covers album, Almost Blue).
This time around I tried to come up with the 10 best tracks from an Elvis album without any of the Attractions. Unfortunately, this rules out all his records with the Imposters because they’re just the Attractions with Davey Faragher on bass instead of the irreplaceable Bruce Thomas. The task proved a bit harder than I thought because even when he’s recording with an entirely different set of musicians Elvis likes to have Pete or Steve around the studio. For example, I hate everything on Mighty Like A Rose except the lead single, ‘The Other Side of Summer’ which features Thomas. Likewise, I wanted to include ‘Days’ from the cover album Kojak Variety, but Thomas is on that song, too. I’m not a fan of Painted From Memory, the album EC did with Burt Bacharach, though I kind of like ‘I Still Have That Other Girl.’ But Nieve shows up on that track. You get the idea.
So, here goes: The 10 best Attractionless Elvis tunes, just for the sake of another argument.
The entire TVV congregation knows that Elvis recorded his first album, 1977’s My Aim Is True, with a California band called Clover, nicknamed the ‘Shamrocks’ for the LP. It’s a fantastic record and it would have been easy to just take half the songs for this ICA from Elvis’ remarkable debut. But I think we can all agree on ‘Alison.’
I chose WFTEOTW because I love it and used to sing it in a cover band. It’s also got John McFee (later of the Doobie Bros.) playing pedal steel guitar, an instrument that wouldn’t feature on an original EC song for some time. But, really, anything off My Aim Is True would have made the cut. ‘Sneaky Feelings’, ‘Blame it on Cain,’ ‘No Dancing’, ‘Pay It Back’, ‘Less Than Zero’—every track is a winner.
3. Hoover Factory.
One or two folks complained that ‘Hoover Factory’ didn’t make it onto the first ICA. But this track, originally released as a B-side to the ‘Clubland‘ single in 1980, is just Elvis by himself. None of the boys were around so this tune happily gets included here.
4. New Amsterdam.
I don’t remember if anyone missed ‘New Amsterdam’ the first time around but it, like ‘Hoover Factory,’ is just Elvis on all vocals and instruments. An album track from Get Happy!!, perhaps the most beloved EC & the Attractions LP of many friends of this venerable blog.
I didn’t know what to make of King of America when it came out in 1986. Why on earth would Elvis dispense with the best band in the world? The Attractions played on a single tune, ‘Suit of Lights’, which is…okay. I just couldn’t get my head around Elvis wanting to hook up with legendary session guys like Jerry Scheff, Jim Keltner, and James Burton. (It was kind of cool to see double bassist Ray Brown in the credits, I’ll admit.) I still don’t like the album but I do like two songs. The rhymes are a little forced on ‘Brilliant Mistake’ but it’s a classic Costello pop song with elegant chord changes and a proper chorus, and he sounds great singing it.
Here’s the other song from KoA that I like. It’s a basic number co-written with Elvis’ then-wife, Cait O’Riordan, but it does move right along. What elevates it into something special is the perfect harmony vocal sung by David Hidalgo of LA’s favorite sons Los Lobos.
Elvis formally ditched the Attractions when he released Spike in 1989. I hate everything on it except the single, ‘Veronica’, one of three tracks co-written by Paul McCartney, who also plays bass on it. The song reached number 19 in the US charts which, believe it or not, is the highest any Elvis song ever got in the States.
We’re still in the 80’s. Everything Elvis did for the next 30 years that was worth listening to featured the Imposters or at least one of the Attractions. The great man did release a fair bit of music without them but it’s terrible. (For The Stars, Il Sogno, North—ugh.) There were loads of guest appearances on compilations, tributes and other artist’s records but that’s cheating. Nope, I can’t find a worthy inclusion on an Elvis album until…
8. Hidden Shame.
Elvis turned the century with some pretty good efforts: When I Was Cruel (2002), The Delivery Man (2004), The River in Reverse (2006, with the legendary Allen Touissant), and Momofuku (2008). But all those records featured the Imposters. In 2009, Elvis went down to Nashville and recorded a straight up bluegrass record: Sacred, Profane & Sugarcane. It was another genre exercise but this time it really worked. The band is relaxed, the songs are strong, and Elvis sounds right at home. ‘Hidden Shame’ is a good example, featuring Stuart Duncan on fiddle and Union Station’s Jerry Douglas on dobro.
Sugarcane was such a welcome surprise that Elvis gave it another go with a year later with National Ransom. The Imposters all made appearances this time around, but not on the charming ‘Slow Drag’. It could almost be a vaudeville number—acoustic guitar, fiddle and mandolin underneath a lively vocal melody. If, like me, you were turned off by Elvis’ latter year self-indulgent genre jumping, his albums with the Sugarcanes are a good opportunity to turn back on.
Everybody likes The Roots! So does Elvis, apparently, so they cut a record together in 2013 called Wise Up Ghost. Elvis sounds like Elvis no matter who he plays with but this time out the vibe is calm, understated and unhurried. Elvis is on equal terms with his jazzy cohorts. Of course, if you can’t chill with ?uestlove you ought to pack it in.
Bonus Track: God Only Knows (live).
For reasons I can’t imagine, in 1993 Elvis thought it would be a good idea to record a quasi-classical album in the form of melodramatic letters sung over compositions by the Brodsky Quartet. You have to admire a guy for taking such a leap, but that doesn’t mean the songs are any good. It’s a mismatch made in heaven. All us dutiful fans bought it and listened to it exactly one time. Then, on some damn compilation or other, I heard this version of the Pet Sounds classic. Unlike the stilted Juliet Letters, the song was lively, playful, and fun. After all these years, it’s still one of my favorite Attractionless Elvis songs.