album notes

Elvis Costello: Armed Forces
September 4, 2007, 11:40 pm
Filed under: Elvis Costello


Armed Forces
Elvis Costello
Released 1979

Accidents Will Happen: 8.3
Senior Service: 6.7
Oliver’s Army: 8.9
Big Boys: 6.6
Green Shirt: 6.7
Party Girl: 7.4
Goon Squad: 7.9
Busy Bodies: 7.4
Sunday’s Best: 6.3
Moods For Moderns: 6.5
Chemistry Class: 7.0
Two Little Hitlers: 5.9
(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?: 8.4
Overall Rating: 7.23

And just like that — Elvis Costello is a songwriter!

After handing the populace one pub-rock Buddy Holly clone record, and one “pock” album that was ultra cool but a shade off the best, Costello and his Attractions (now fully a part of the bloodline) decided to go all in. Armed Forces — yes, it seems like it’s anti-military … seems like — is the beginning of the good stuff, the real meat and potatoes of the Costello canon. It’s new wave to the extreme, playful, pure, punctuating and other words that begin with “P.”

First off — the whole anti-military, anti-fascist thing isn’t really there. “Oliver’s Army” is a snipe against the militree (as they call it over there in Eng-land). And “Goon Squad” is a bitter little ditty (actually it’s a blast of a rocker with bell tolls and some of Bruce Thomas’ finest bass playing) about the boys out at war. But other than those two, the actual war-themed titles are more about love, something Costello surely knows how to write about.

In fact, if you follow Costello (and you follow my reviews), you’ll notice the regular themes continue. There’s rants against so-called “douchebags” (“Big Boys”) and “little girls” (“Sunday’s Best”), love songs to people he probably met like once (“Party Girl,” “Chemistry Class” and “Green Shirt”) and crooners about the state of marital affairs (“Two Little Hitlers”). Women are much more the enemy than Northern Ireland to Mr. McManus.

But enough of the songwriting quotient. The songs are new wave bliss. “Busy Bodies” is a hook-filled pop gem with some blistering synth blips (yeah Stevie Nieve!), while “Moods For Moderns” is Costello probably aping David Byrne and the Attracts aping the Heads, and doing a yeoman’s job of it all. Then you got the two magnificent stunners, the underrated pop classic, “Accidents Will Happen” (that fade out is one of Costello’s finer moments), and the big single, “Army.” You’ll notice it’s a complete rip of Abba’s “Dancing Queen,” something Costello admitted to in the reissue liner notes. No problem. If you’re going to rip off any keyboard line, best do it from “Dancing Queen.”

Meanwhile, part of “Party Girl” is a blatant rip off “You Never Give Me Your Money” by the Beatles. Again, no problem. He’s an encyclopedia of pop, guys! Also, “Party Girl” is fantastic. And meanwhile more, he throws in the cover of Nick Lowe’s “Peace, Love and Understanding,” and makes it the kind of (sarcasm-laced?) anthem Bruce Springsteen would wet himself to write.

Yeah, the small misteps are small. “Senior Service” is solid but forgettable and “Green Shirt” is too caged. (Release the beast, Elvis!) And “Two Little Hitlers” isn’t his best foray at mock-reggae. But all things aside, if you want the prototypical new wave album, take your pick between this and Reggatta De Blanc and call me with the results.


Elvis Costello: Goodbye Cruel World
August 22, 2007, 8:16 pm
Filed under: Elvis Costello


Goodbye Cruel World
Elvis Costello
Released 1984

The Only Flame in Town: 7.9
Home Truth: 6.3
Room With No Number: 6.6
Inch By Inch: 4.3
Worthless Thing: 5.2
Love Field: 5.4
I Wanna Be Loved: 7.9
The Comedians: 6.5
Joe Porterhouse: 4.5
Sour Milk-Cow Blues: 6.0
The Great Unknown: 4.3
The Deportees Club: 5.3
Peace in Our Time: 7.4
Overall Rating: 5.96

I suppose you can call it an extension of 1983’s Punch the Clock. Or you can call it a lot of booze and drugs. Of course, you can also call it new production techniques. And you can call it a domestic breakdown. When you add it up, you get Goodbye Cruel World, a very damning, self-loathing album that tries to hide its fragility with synthesizers. Sadly, by 1984, anything hidden by synthesizers just sounds overwrought and cheesy. Which, for the most part, this is.

Don’t blame Elvis. He did say this was “our worst album!” So even he recognized the lapse here. But let’s not get too crapped away — this wasn’t a completely bad album. I mean, compared to the schlock being released in 1984, this isn’t bad at all. It’s just Costello’s big bump in the road, the slight mishap he created without thinking clearly.

Problem is most of these songs aren’t at all memorable. Only a few may be, and even they have clones in 1984. There are three. There’s “Peace in Our Time,” a poignant little ballad with Lennon lyrics and McCartney music. There’s “The Only Flame in Town,” the Darryl Hall duet (best white singer of our time and most distinct singer of our time?), which really is a fun ditty. And there’s “I Wanna Be Loved,” Costello’s ultimate crooner that’s right on the mark with another obscure R&B cover of his, 1980’s “I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down.”

All these songs are purely 80s material. Everything else is too, albeit with some favorite Costello styles tied in. “Inch By Inch” is your brooding crooner, but it’s nothing really. It’s got this trying-to-be-sexy kinda thing going on, like a Bruce Willis song. Yeah, not good. “Worthless Thing” sounds like some Trust stuff, maybe some Punch the Clock stuff, and isn’t really much either. “Home Truth” is your “our relationship is in trouble” song (something Costello was writing a lot about at the time), and that at least has a nice melody and nice work by Mr. Steve Nieve.

Sadly, the second side rehashes a bunch of old styles to completely unthrilling results. “The Great Unknown” goes nowhere, “The Deportees Club” is like the Get Happy outtake he hid for four years, then decided, “what the hell, I’ll just throw it here.” At least the Get Happy stuff had soul. You can’t feel anything here. And “Joe Porterhouse” has nice hooks, but then they go nowhere. Basically, everything goes nowhere.

Which makes sense. Costello was going nowhere. His marriage was falling apart, his drug and alcohol use had completely caught up to him, his music — once ahead of the curve — had finally sounded dated. And while a few of these tracks aren’t necessarily bad, they aren’t necessarily good. “The Comedians” is fine and listenable, as is the one really uber-cheery song, “Room With No Number” (he couldn’t record 10 of these songs?) and the almost innovative “Sour Milk-Cow Blues.”

So you have three good songs, a couple songs that can hold your patience, then a bunch of puny poopers. All this is wrapped up in a dated ’80s sound with a tired guy hitting his mid-30s. I mean, the guy was throwing albums out there each year — one in ’77, one in ’78, one in ’79, one in ’80, two in ’81, one in ’82, one in ’83, and all quite good and quite unique. So like I said before, you can’t blame the guy. It all just finally ran out.

Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model
August 5, 2007, 10:46 pm
Filed under: Elvis Costello


This Year’s Model
Elvis Costello
Released 1978

No Action: 7.8
This Year’s Girl: 7.3
The Beat: 7.0
Pump It Up: 8.8
Little Triggers: 5.9
You Belong To Me: 6.5
Hand in Hand: 6.4
(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea: 7.7
Lip Service: 7.3
Living in Paradise: 5.6
Lipstick Vogue: 6.6
Night Rally: 6.2
Radio Radio: 9.1
Overall Rating: 7.09

After the raw debut My Aim is True, Elvis Costello joined up with a new band, hitched himself some shows in the British college circuit and pretty much got solid. Bring on This Year’s Model, a statement of an album that brings forth the chocolaty goodness of new wave in the form of fierce rock. It’s not pop, but not rock. It’s — I guess — pock. And the best pock album of 1978.

“No Action” is no “Welcome to the Working Week.” Costello is not snide, he’s scathing, and the band isn’t playing your standard rock ‘n’ roll track; this is a full-on winding performance … and best yet, it’s a full sound! In one song, the Attractions define their sound. And Costello defines his songwriting. (“I’m gonna rail on women and being too small for the good girls for the next 8 years.”)

But the songwriting is varied and disguised enough to work. “This Year’s Model” is more about the idea of Lindsay Lohan than Lindsay herself (for some reason, she is the girl I envision when I hear this song). It’s a very chic number, very singalongish and yet damning. “Night Rally,” the gloomy closer about not Fascism but … well … a night rally … points to the spacier and testier Armed Forces. The Beatlesque bridge saves it.

And oh those Beatles! They pop up all over the place in this record, believe it or not. The most telling examples are the poppers “You Belong To Me” and “Lip Service.” The former is a fair-enough reworking of 1965 with Nieve’s synth work, but the latter is a full-on pop stunner, a nod to 1964 if there ever was. Add the backwards tapes and bopping beat of “Hand in Hand” and you got yourself a Lennon fan!

Of course, Costello also kept his ear close to the 1978 grindstone. There’s “The Beat” with its sympathy and its very 1978-ish guitar work by the chorus. Listen close, it’s the little things! “Chelsea” is the rippin’ single, an ominous kind of track with some very warped keyboard lines. The echo effect does it well too. You got “Lipstick Vogue,” the only jam the Attractions pulled off, if you can call it that much. Nieve makes it sound Asian, Costello makes it sound like a romp. Probably the best closer choice.

The big two, however, are rooted in the late-70s but can actually move out of there. First, it’s “Pump It Up,” a minimalist pocker that would make even the dorkiest wallflower move around in disgruntled joy. Talk about pump! Second, there’s “Radio Radio,” the best song on the record (even though it wasn’t originally on it), and probably as punk as Costello ever got. Well, lyrically that is. The melody is absolutely pock.

Other pock: “Little Triggers” is the slow song and “Living in Paradise” is the reggae song, only neither is really that. “Triggers” is a bit too materialized and “Paradise” is a bit too like everything before it.

Elvis Costello was neither punk nor new wave. He was neither Ramones nor Police. He was, definitely, somewhere in the middle, a singular and shuffling songwriter without understanding of his place. So he wrote some songs, drenched them in keyboards and echoed drums and had them produced much cleaner than his first time out. What happened was pock, pure and simple. It’s catchy, but it’s edgy (in the vocal sense at least). Most importantly, it’s a good album.

Elvis Costello: My Aim is True
May 20, 2007, 3:43 pm
Filed under: Elvis Costello


My Aim is True
Elvis Costello
Released 1977

Welcome to the Working Week: 8.3
Miracle Man: 6.3
No Dancing: 6.0
Blame it on Cain: 7.0
Alison: 9.6
Sneaky Feelings: 5.7
(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes: 7.3
Less Than Zero: 7.7
Mystery Dance: 5.6
Pay it Back: 5.5
I’m Not Angry: 5.7
Waiting for the End of the World: 6.2
Watching the Detectives: 7.5
Overall rating: 6.8

In 1977, a Liverpuddian computer programmer named Declan McManus stumbled upon a record deal. He had a backup band — who would play a little with Huey Lewis — and an eccentric producer — who would be a fine solo performer in his own right. One album later, and he’d be on the way to humongous stardom.

My Aim is True, by Elvis Costello — as we know Declan — is one of the finer debut albums ever, as it presents the artist up front. His voice is scratchy, nagging. The songs are jumpy, disposable. The production is simple if not grungy. Nick Lowe — the producer — made sure to keep Clover — the back-up band — well in the background, never allowing any of the guys to display their chops. This one is all about Costello, his songwriting, his unique voice and his cool-as-squares style.

“Welcome to the Working Week” is a flat-out tour-de-force of an opener. “Now that you’re picture’s in the paper being rhythmically admired” puts Costello in the upper echelon of songwriters. And it was the first line of the album. Of his career! Every song is about as breezy and non-frilled as that. “Miracle Man,” “No Dancing” and “Blame it on Cain” all display fine writing, Costello’s influences and a garage-rock ethic. They merely support the opener’s fury.

The doors swing open gently with “Alison,” the oft-revered song of pretty much everybody born after 1965. Without a doubt, it’s a masterpiece. Costello lends some of his softest vocals to it, separating himself from any punk or rocker of the day, and the slow fade out is the one place Clover gets to shine. No need to get crazy. Its sparse production only solidifies its place as a standard.

“Sneaky Feelings” defines “I have to follow this?” and is a rudimentary track that shows Costello’s lighter side. The big boys come back to play afterward, as Costello begins to point the way to his future. “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” points at the more sonic rock that Costello would hand off to the Attractions. “Less Than Zero” is the first hint of Costello’s Nazi obsession, but it’s also the kind of song that is needed for something like “Radio Radio.” Dig the electric mashing way in the background, too. Yes, Costello’s songs rock.

And Costello pushes his versatility further with the final three tracks. “I’m Not Angry” is exactly the opposite, but lacks the musicianship that a Steve Nieve, Bruce Thomas and Pete Thomas would bring to the table. “Waiting For the End of the World” is top notch, but lacks the cynical production of a “Night Rally.” Finally, “Watching the Detectives,” the biggest single from the album, is the first reggae-influenced track from Costello, and maybe his best. Nice drum work on the hi-hat by Mickey Shine.

If I said “My Aim is True,” you’d likely blurt out “Alison.” Some would even say “Welcome to the Working Week” and some hipsters would say “Detectives.” Maybe “Less than Zero.” But if you’re the average music fan, you’re going to forget more than half of the stuff here. Which is okay. Costello probably didn’t intend for these songs to be instant classics. What Aim does very well is introduce a singer/songwriter. It presents his voice, his writing talents and his influences up front. And, to make him a star, it presents a couple standout tracks. From here, Costello would find the band that would make him huge, and everything would be right with the world.