AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #224 : ELVIS COSTELLO

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.

1. Alison.

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.’

2. Waiting For the End of the World.

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.

5. Brilliant Mistake.

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.

6. Lovable.

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.

7. Veronica.

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.

9. A Slow Drag With Josephine.

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.

10. Tripwire.

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.

 

JTFL

OVERDOSING ON COVER VERSIONS (6)

This was played at a funeral I attended just before Christmas.

It’s a song that was chosen by a good friend of mine as the final piece of music as he said goodbye to someone who had been by his side for 49 years since their first date. He and his wife had both been fans of The Kinks back in the day. It was a wonderful way to get across their love for one another and, as often happens with music at funerals, it choked me up:-

mp3 : The Kinks – Days

And yes, the early pressings of this #12 hit from 1968 did appear as Day’s, a grammatical error on the part of someone at Pye Records which must have infuriated Ray Davies.

Twenty-one years later, Kirsty MacColl recorded the songs and released it as single. Strange as it may seem, it too reached #12 in the charts:-

mp3 : Kirsty MacColl – Days

A little bit of research threw up that a few other folk have had a go at the song over the years:-

mp3 : Elvis Costello – Days
(as featured on the soundtrack to the movie Until The End Of The World, released in 1991)

mp3 : Petula Clark – Days
(released in 1968, just a matter of months after the original)

mp3 : Luke Kelly – Days
(not sure of the actual release date of this, from the late lead singer of The Dubliners; it’s proof however, that this is a superb folk as well as pop song)

Enjoy.

WHEN THE MUSIC AND LYRICS PROVE EQUALLY BRILLIANT

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Second posting about this artiste in quick succession.  But this time it doesn’t feature his inital backing band and it only highlights how even two ICAs wouldn’t really do justice.

There are times when its the music that makes a song so utterly fantastic. Then there are other times when its the lyrics that make a song so utterly memorable. And just sometimes, both music and lyrics are as stunning as the other…

in 1986, the LP King Of America was released. It was the tenth LP in the career of Elvis Costello, and for the first time in seven years he hadn’t relied on the talents of The Attractions. Instead, it was a record released by The Costello Show featuring the Attractions and Confederates. Another change was that the songs were credited to Declan McManus, the singer’s real as opposed to stage name.

The Confederates were not a band as such, but instead a collection of top session musicians, most of whom had played and recorded with Elvis Presley. Some folk reckon its this fact that led to the songs not being credited to the be-spectacled Elvis….

Now I’m no great expert on every recording made by Elvis Costello, but I usually argue that this is the best LP he ever made. It’s a truly stunning bit of work that contains lyrics that go in many different directions – there’s the bitter and twisted, the poetically lovely, the hilarious put-downs and the occasional bit of self-deprecation – all underscored by some of the best and most varied music he would ever commit to one LP. As evidenced by the words to Brilliant Mistake, the LP’s opener:-

He thought he was the King of America
Where they pour Coca Cola just like vintage wine
Now I try hard not to become hysterical
But I’m not sure if I am laughing or crying

I wish that I could push a button
And talk in the past and not the present tense
And watch this hurtin’ feeling disappear
Like it was common sense
It was a fine idea at the time
Now it’s a brilliant mistake

She said that she was working for the ABC News
It was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use
Her perfume was unspeakable
It lingered in the air
Like her artificial laughter
Her mementos of affairs

“Oh” I said “I see you know him”
“Isn’t that very fortunate for you”
And she showed me his calling card
He came third or fourth and there were more than one or two

He was a fine idea at the time
Now he’s a brilliant mistake

He thought he was the King of America
But it was just a boulevard of broken dreams
A trick they do with mirrors and with chemicals
The words of love in whispers
And the axe of love in screams

I wish that I could push a button
And talk in the past and not the present tense
And watch this lovin’ feeling disappear
Like it was common sense

I was a fine idea at the time
Now I’m a brilliant mistake

This would stand alone as a near perfect bit of poetry – and like so many of the best poems, it has a number of interpretations.

EC himself in an interview in 1986 said:-

“Brilliant Mistake is a sad song, but it’s also sort of funny. It’s about America and it’s about lost ambition, not lack of inspiration. It’s about a disappointed or frustrated belief. It’s a song that people are going to read wrong. One line in it is, ‘There’s a trick they do with mirrors and with chemicals.’ It means celluloid and mirrors, movie cameras. It occurred to me the other day that people will think it’s a reference to cocaine. “

However, a more commonly held view was that Elvis was in the midst of a very painful and messy divorce, and that the heart of the song was a criticism of himself and his behaviour.

mp3 : The Costello Show – Brilliant Mistake

Now I make no apologies for adding a second song to this post – another from the LP and the track that I believe is the best he’s ever recorded:-

mp3 : The Costello Show – Little Palaces

This is basically a solo song – the acoustic guitar and mandolin are played by Elvis, with just a hint of string bass to back it up, played by Jerry Scheff. The closing few minutes of this song often bring a tear to my eye – the raw and powerful images invoked by the lyric and the traditional almost folk-like music.

I remember also when this LP was released that many long-time fans thought this would be the end of The Attractions. But instead, within six months, another LP – Blood & Chocolate – was released, and this was a bona fide band record.

And sometimes I think that just might be the best EC album……

Happy Listening.

READ IT IN BOOKS : ELVIS COSTELLO

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My love for music extends to the written word. I haven’t counted them up but I do have a substantial number of biographies about musicians and bands….its certainly into the many hundreds and it grows by the year as I have a rule of thumb never to toss away any book, even if I don’t like it.

I got a pleasant surprise from Santa this year, courtesy of Cullen Skink, a friend who was an occasional contributor to the old blog. He gave me a copy of Complicated Shadows : The Life and Times of Elvis Costello, originally published in 2004. The book is the work of Graeme Thomson, one of the most prolific contributors about music and culture to newspapers and magazines here in the UK as well as the author of a number of bios with Johnny Cash, Kate Bush and George Harrison among those he has covered in addition to the man originally named Declan McManus.

It is a cracking read – for once the promo blurb on the cover got it spot on with its description being ‘meticulously researched and fluently told’. It is the work of someone who clearly very much admires and respects the singer but at the same time who pulls no punches in terms of offering a critique of some of the music that EC has released, nor does it shy away from behaviours or incidents showing the singer in a less than flattering light. One review at the time of its issues said “As believable and fair a picture of the man himself as I suspect is actually possible. He’ll not like it though.”

It again brought home just how diverse a career Elvis Costello has enjoyed over such an extended period of time. The reader is left with a clear impression of a man who is determined not to be pigeon-holed in any shape or form and who has such incredible self-confidence that he feels no form of music is beyond him. And for the most part, he’s been proven to be right and time and time again he’s defied those who have written him off with some sort of masterpiece coming on the back of some lesser well-received recordings.

If you’re a fan of Elvis Costello but haven’t got round to reading it then I recommend it highly. Equally, if you’re someone who likes biographies of famous folk, musicians or otherwise, then I can also recommend this as an entertaining and enlightening read.

Four songs today, lifted from a 1989 EP centred around a song lifted from his then new LP Spike and co-written with his then partner Cait O’Riordan, former bassist with The Pogues, but containing three other ballads from various points in his back catalogue:

mp3 : Elvis Costello – Baby Plays Around
mp3 : Elvis Costello – Poisoned Rose
mp3 : Elvis Costello – Almost Blue
mp3 : Elvis Costello – My Funny Valentine

Enjoy

 

E.C. IS GOD

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(This is another posting lifted from the old blog back in March 2007 –  I had intended to feature one his singles today but instead felt it worthwhile sharing the old stuff)

I like to roam around hundreds of music blogs – sometimes looking for good ideas to steal and call my own – but mostly to read what other people have to say and occasionally listen to the mp3s they put up with the postings.

Many bloggers have a section that details the names of their favourite singers and bands, and I’ve come to discover that there is a name of a great singer/songwriter that doesn’t crop up all that often, and yet if you asked music-lovers the world over whether or not they like him, you would get an awful lot more folk shouting ‘AYE’ than you would those that would whisper ‘NAY’. I’m talking about Declan Patrick McManus aka Elvis Costello.

Have a think about this man’s recording career which now spans 30 years, and how many different styles and genres he’s had a go at. There’s been New Wave, Stax/Motown, Country & Western, Easy Listening, Classical, Jazz/Swing, Folk, Cover Versions, Protest Songs, Soundtracks, Pop and Rock.

I wouldn’t even begin to try to count how many labels he’s recorded for far less calculate just how many singles and LPs he has released in various guises. And there must have been at least eight Best Of compilations over the years.

He’s also been involved in high-profile recordings with folk of the stature of Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach (and they have stature whether you’re fans or not). He’s produced umpteen bands over the years, not least The Specials and The Pogues, the latter of whom he helped turn from a cult act into a chart act. And he’s been in numerous TV and film productions, often appearing as himself. He’s written songs and whole albums for other artistes.

So quite clearly the man is a living legend.But as I said his name rarely appears in the list of favourites that you find on many blogs.

I suppose part of the difficulty in anyone automatically reeling-off EC as one of the all-time greats is the fact that he has turned his hand to so many different things, some more successfully than others, and I don’t think there can be too many who can claim to own every bit of music he’s recorded and released over the past three decades. And given how long he has been going, there will naturally have been the occasional duff LP put out, and perhaps one or two of the projects were a bit too vain, and possibly even pretentious, rather than of top-drawer quality. I don’t think even EC would say that writing for, recording with and producing Wendy James in her thankfully brief post-Transvision Vamp solo efforts would be a high point of his career.

Some bloggers might have been embarrassed by some of the daft things he has said or done over the years, such as the drunken racist comments he uttered about James Brown & Ray Charles in the late 70s. Or the fact that he has been less than flatteringly portrayed in a number of rock biographies, not least this,  written by Bruce Thomas the long-time bassist with The Attractions.

But overall, there can be surely no argument that as a composer and lyricist, there are few who can hold a candle to the talents of Elvis Costello in the latter part of the 20th Century, particularly in his prime of the late 70s and throughout the 80s. I could probably post any of maybe 100 songs to illustrate my point, but instead I’ve gone for this handful including some lesser known stuff:-

mp3 : Elvis Costello & The Attractions – Watching The Detectives
mp3 : Elvis Costello & The Attractions – Man Out Of Time
mp3 : Elvis Costello – Brilliant Mistake
mp3 : Elvis Costello – Little Palaces
mp3 : Elvis Costello & The Attractions – Battered Old Bird

The first two were singles. Tracks 3 & 4 are on King of America. Track 5 is one of many outstanding tracks on Blood & Chocolate.

And here’s a cover version of a Nick Lowe song that he did as a b-side in 1991

mp3 : Elvis Costello – The Ugly Things

Enjoy