Saturday, December 13, 2008

music: early-to-mid Elvis: confidence is all

It's easy to overlook Elvis Costello and the Attractions' Get Happy!, coming between the breakthrough of Oliver's Army and the pop near-perfection of Trust. This twenty-song side venture into R&B, soul, ska and country (and plenty of new wave) is exploratory but so assured. It has a lot of killer couplets, such as this from Secondary Modern:
This must be the place
Second place in the human race
Elvis even gets clever before the song: the title: "5ive Gears in Reverse" has more allusion than most other songwriters can fit in the actual lyrics! In later reviews EC dismissed his wordplay as facile, but he's wrong about himself (as usual): why not be generous and provide another dimension for listeners?

Nick Lowe's production is probably the best Elvis ever got, it's spacious with great bass. Elvis Costello's more recent group records (Brutal Youth, All this Useless Beauty, When I was Cruel, The Delivery Man) suck sound-wise.

With the Imposters in concert and on record EC is trying to get back to the brash intensity of the early Attractions. But what made them so special was not the rock 'n' roll, it was the cocky exploration of new areas.

Listening to Get Happy! made me turn to Imperial Bedroom, the almost masterpiece. What keeps it off "Best 50 albums of all time " lists isn't its ambition but the anxiety (and the average engineering despite Beatle's engineer Geoff_Emerick producing). There's a sense of constriction about the record, so you admire it more than love it. The cathartic release into sweet sadness in the final song Town Cryer is heartfelt but inadequate:
I'm the town crier
And everybody knows
I'm a little down
With a lifetime to go
Maybe you don't believe my heart is in the right place
Why don't you take a good look at my face
Other boys use the splendour of their trembling lip
They're so teddy bear tender and tragically hip

Labels: ,

Friday, May 4, 2007

music: Elvis has pummeled the building

Driving up for the last skiing of a crummy season, we saw a billboard for Elvis Costello and the Imposters in Reno. I knew it would be strange to see him in a conference room/ballroom and that his recent Imposters work is channeling his rock impulses, not his wide musical horizons.

Well, it was a pounding, loud, nearly unrelenting set from the Man in black. They played a lot of Attractions' greatest hits, a great "Alibi" off When I was Cruel, an acoustic "Alison", and ended with "Pump it Up". All very predictable. It was nice to hear several songs off Get Happy!, but lacking the loose R'n'B shuffle on the album. Likewise a raucous "Shabby Doll" from Imperial Bedroom but none of the more varied tracks off that ambitious album. And nothing from the poppy albums that followed.

I'd have to lay the blame at Pete Thomas' feet. EC hailed him as a great rock drummer in his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech, but without a producer to dial him back, he's just hitting hard with the knobs stuck at 7 to 10, and the rest of the band follows.

Elvis' guitar work ever since playing with Marc Ribot has tended towards noise chords accompanied by belting vocals. It's clearly an intentional musical decision, but I don't get it.

Steve Nieve gave a scintillating solo on "Clubland", but for much of the set he played that weird funhouse organ style from early Attractions.

Worthy, but one-dimensional.

Labels: ,