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Rock Snob Sommelier: Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello picWhile Elvis Costello is most famous for ‘Alison’, co-opting Buddy Holly’s glasses, and a handful of punk/new wave classics like ‘Pump it Up’ and ‘(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love & Understanding’, his career is difficult to summarize in a couple of words.  He goes through music genres the way most rock stars go through groupies – except Elvis makes love to each genre and the dialogue is more cutting and vocabulastic.  I would say, “Elvis is a little too eclectic” but I fear he’d Fezzik me and retort, “Does that riddle you apoplectic?”

But if you’ve only listened to the handful of Elvis Costello songs that stumbled upon the pop radar, you’re missing out on a ton of great music.

The usual place to start with an artist is their Greatest Hits.  This format doesn’t work as well for Elvis Costello as the various attempts throughout the years mash together songs from his amazing and accessible first four albums with songs from his more ambitious and fussy subsequent albums.  If you insist on starting there,  the 22 song ‘First 10 Years‘ collection from 1977-1986 is where I’d start.

Below is my primer for exploring Elvis Costello’s catalogue.  I’ve aggregated his various musical tangents into three buckets:  Fun, Accessible Stuff (e.g., Pump It Up, What’ So Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding), American Roots/Soul/Country Crooner (e.g., I Can’t Stand Up), and Jazz/Classical/Tin Pan Alley Songsmith.  If a whole album is recommended, I don’t bother to write out every song.  Otherwise, I write out the songs I recommend cherry-picking.

Use the comments if you care to argue or feel I’ve overlooked anything!

Elvis Costello – The Fun, Accessible Rock Stuff

Album Year Songs Comments
My Aim Is True 1977 Like a lot of Ramones’ work, the songs on this album have one foot in the 1950′s and rarely exceed 3 minutes.  This album was backed up by the band Clover who eventually morphed into the ‘News’ – who’d have thought you could connect Costello and Huey Lewis with one degree of separation?
This Year’s Model 1978 Elvis’s first album backed by the Attractions.  He could’ve called this album ‘Pancreas’ since it’s so full of bile – e.g., the album starts with “I don’t want to kiss you, I don’t want to touch you”.   While it’s his punkiest album, the songs aren’t sprints all like ‘Pump it Up’ and ‘Radio Radio’.  ‘The Beat’ and ‘I Don’t Want to Go To Chelsea’ mix in world music flourishes reminiscent of The Clash.
Armed Forces 1979 This album illustrates how musical and melodic tone trumps lyrical tone.  Because the lyrics are drenched in fascism but it’s a very accessible and enjoyable album to listen to.  If you like ‘Alison’, you’ll like ‘Party Girl’.  ‘Oliver’s Army’ and “Peace, Love, and Understanding” are classic.  You know a band is on their game when they have you singing along to a song titled  ‘Two Little Hitlers’.
Blood & Chocolate 1986 Elvis’s last great album was a reunion of sorts as Costello had broken with the Attractions and his producer Nick Lowe for a couple of disappointing albums.  Aside from ‘I Hope Your Happy Now’, it sounds less like his older albums and more as an introduction to where Costello was heading.  ‘Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head” and “Batttered Old Bird” has him in his deep voiced croon mode that became increasingly enamored with.  “I Want You” blends the croon with the punk in one song (the croon part is actually better).  ‘Blue Chair’ is catchy but in a more controlled, songsmithy way than in previous albums.
Trust 1981 Clubland, Watch Your Step, From a Whisper To a Scream, Fish ‘n Chip Paper, Big Sister Recorded in between his R&B (Get Happy!) and country (Almost Blue) releases, Trust is probably his best mish-mash album.  ‘Clubland’ and ‘Watch Your Step’ show up on greatest hits packages – both remind me of earlier mid-tempo, menacing songs like ‘Watching the Detectives’ and ‘Accidents Will Happen’.  ‘From a Whisper to a Scream’ feels more like a catchy Squeeze song and not just because their lead-singer shares the vocal.
Imperial Bedroom 1982 Really Mystified, I Turn Around Both these songs are on the Bonus Tracks for this album.  ‘Really Mystified’ is his second recorded cover of the Merseybeats – a Liverpool peer of the Beatles that never quite invaded in the US (I Stand Accused on ‘Get Happy’ is the first song).  The 50′s jukebox vibe of the song is nothing like the rest of the album.  “I Turn Around” is a Costello-original that’s catchy but didn’t fit on this album – he should’ve saved it for the hit-deprived Punch The Clock.
Spike 1989 Veronica Co-written with Paul McCartney.  Very poppy song that’s a complete anomaly on an album that veers off in just about every music direction except rock.  Hearing this song 20 years later, I’m surprised how much the production reminds me of Michael Penn’s ‘No Myth’ which came out the same year.
Brutal Youth 1994 13 Steps Lead Down Unmistakably Costello and could’ve fit into previous albums if the guitar didn’t hog the mix.
All This Useless Beauty 1996 Shallow Grave The verses in ‘Shallow Grave’ have a jazzy vibe but the amped up chorus and lines like “Dig me down deep where the dead men sleep” scream rock.
The Delivery Man 2004 Monkey To Man This track’s catchiness and ’50s rockabilly feel would’ve fit well in ‘My Aim Is True’.
Momofuku 2008 Go Away The music in the verse feels like ‘Blood & Chocolate’ but the bridge and chorus is better.   Great song.

Elvis Costello – The American Roots/Soul/Country Crooner

Album Year Songs Comments
Get Happy! 1980 This is my favorite Elvis Costello album.  For this homage to R&B/soul, Costello thankfully resists the urge to emulate Otis Redding and sticks to soul-inspired breakneck speed songs and mid-tempo numbers.  “Love For Tender”, “Imposter”, “I Stand Accused”, and “Getting Mighty Crowded” (the latter two of which are covers) just burst with life as does his sped-up cover of Sam & Dave’s “I Can’t Stand Up”.  Even the slower numbers like “New Amsterdam”, “Clowntime Is Over” and “Motel Matches” have a bounce to them.  And with 30 tracks on the expanded version, this one is a great value to boot!
King of America 1986 ‘Americana’ is the best one-word description for this stripped-down mix of rock, folk, country, and R&B.  The tales on this album are far from ‘happy’ but the music and melodies feel so warm that it’s a great rainy day album.  It’s a single album but, with 15 songs (and 20 in the expanded edition), it feels like a double album.  “The Big Light” is the catchiest song on first listen but songs like “Brilliant Mistake”, “Indoor Fireworks” and “American Without Tears” reward multiple listens.  Also love the cover of ‘They’ll Never Take Her Love From Me’ – a song written by Leon Payne and made famous by Hank Williams (note: Elliott Smith also does a wonderful cover of this song – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3NaTMcUtAzY)
My Aim Is True 1977 Stranger In The House, Imagination (Is A Powerful Deceiver) These two songs, both extras on the expanded album version, show Elvis was scattershot in his musical influences from the start.  The former sounds like a long-lost country song and was recorded by George Jones.  Imagination was a demo with an earlier band that shows his love for torchy Soul music and could’ve fit on the ‘Get Happy’ album.
Trust 1981 Different Finger A solid countryish number that doesn’t quite fit on the ‘Trust’ album.
Almost Blue 1982 Why Don’t You Love Me?, Good Year For The Roses, Sittin’ & Thinkin’ Elvis’s ‘country’ album is all covers which is a little disappointing.  The opening track (WDYLM) speeds up Hank Williams’ original and makes for a fun 90 seconds.  Most of the songs sound reverent to the original versions but I am partial to ‘Good Year For The Roses’ and especially the honkytonk song ‘Sittin’ and Thinkin.’
Spike 1989 Deep Dark Truthful Mirror, Pads Paws & Claws Backed by New Orleans musicians, DDTM is a great soulful song.  Love the first couple of lines:  “One day you’re going to have to face/A deep dark truthful mirror/And it’s going to tell you things/That I still love you too much to say”.  Pads Paws & Claws is a playful finger-snapper + Coal-Train Robberies is a good song that’s hard to classify so I’m putting it here.
Return of the Grievous Angel (tribute album to Gram Parsons) 1999 Sleepless Nights Costello had recorded two Gram Parsons songs on his Almost Blue album before Parsons was rediscovered in the wake of the alt-country movement.  But rather than retread those numbers, he recorded this Everly Brothers gem that Gram Parsons covered and released posthumously (well, someone else released it…or did they?).  This is the type of song where country and soul blend into one – like the equally fantastic “Dark End of the Street” that Parsons also covered.
Secret, Profane and Sugarcane 2009 Sulphur to Sugarcane This playful bluegrass-y song sounds like a latter-day Dylan song.  Not really sure what the title means but hard not to like a song with a lyric of  “The women in Poughkeepsie / Takes their clothes off when they’re tipsy/But In Albany, New York/They love the filthy way I talk”‘.

Elvis Costello – The Jazz/Classical/Tin Pan Alley Songsmith

Album Year Songs Comments
Imperial Bedroom 1982 This is kind of like Costello’s Sgt. Pepper album – the one with tons of production ambition that leads to fan respect but not necessarily frequent playback.  Not coincidentally, Beatles engineer Geoff Emrick produced this album.  “Beyond Belief” is great if a bit overproduced – like the kind of thing Phil Spector might have done if he got his hands on it.  “Man Out of Time” is the better track in my eyes – love the soaring chorus on it.  “Human Hands” is another highlight for me – a mash of avant-garde piano, ska verses, and an infectious chorus:  “Whenever I put my foot in my mouth/And you begin to doubt/That it’s you that I’m dreaming about/Do I have to draw you a diagram?/All I ever want is just to fall into your human hands.”
Armed Forces 1979 My Funny Valentine This is on the extended version of Armed Forces.  As torchy as the original standard but if you like that kind of thing, it’s a good version.
Punch The Clock 1983 Shipbuilding One of the only salvageable songs off Costello’s least successful albums during his peak era (the other album being Goodbye Cruel World).
King of America 1986 Poisoned Rose Sounds like an old standard.  Elvis has recorded a number of songs in this vein but this one is my favorite.
Spike 1989 Tramp The Dirt Down, Baby Plays Around, Coal-Train Robberies Tramp The Dirt Down is set to a pretty Scottish or Irish melody and is the nastiest song aimed at a politician (Margaret Thatcher) that I’ve ever heard.   Here’s the final two lines in the chorus:  “…That’s when they finally put you in the ground/I’ll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down”.  ‘Baby Plays Around’ is a ballad in the style of ‘sad drunk Sinatra’.
Mighty Like A Rose 1991 So Like Candy Another song he co-wrote with McCartney, this song has a melancholy verse that reminds me in tone of Eleanor Rigby but the chorus takes it in a more white-eyed soul direction.
The Juliet Letters 1992 Jacksons, Monk & Rowe This song from Costello’s classical pop album has a nice violin riff (or whatever you’d call it in classical terms).  It’s the type of song that’ll sneak on to your Pandora and you’ll be surprised how much you like it.
All This Useless Beauty 1996 The Other End (Of The Telescope), Starting to Come To Me, World’s Great Optimist The Other End (Of The Telescope) and World’s Great Optimist were both piano-driven songs co-written with Aimee Mann.  The former song was originally recorded on the third and last ‘Til Tuesday album – the melody feels more like an Aimee Mann song but Elvis does a good version of it.  ‘World’s Great Optimist’ is an outtake that also sounds like Mann and was recorded on her first post-Magnolia album.  While both performances are good, I prefer the lyrics in Costello’s version as they are less cryptic (who’d have thunk?!).   ‘Starting to Come to Me’ is a Tin Pan Alley that appears to be in the chord of ‘Bouncy C’.
The River In Reverse 2006 The Sharpest Thorn Recorded with Allen Touissant (the pianist on Deep Dark Truthful Mirror), this song feels like the soundtrack to a New Orleans wake for someone who loved & lost & drank a lot.  In other words, it’s awesome.

Fun Stories/Trivia/Musings

- Given name is Declan McManus.  Costello is his mother’s maiden name.  I guess he chose ‘Elvis’ since ‘Buddy’ would’ve been too on the nose.

- He got into trouble in 1979 when, during a drunken argument, it was revealed that he referred to James Brown as a “jive-ass nigger” and Ray Charles as a “blind, ignorant, nigger”.  James Brown eventually forgave Costello but Ray Charles refused to ever see him.

- He came up with the second alterego of Napoleon Dynamite for a 1982 B-side and as an emcee for the Blood & Chocolate album.  The co-writer/directors of the Napoleon Dynamite movie (Jared and Jerusha Hess) claim it’s a coincidence – Costello cares to differ.

- Costello recorded ‘Human Touch’ on 1980′s Get Happy! and ‘Human Hands’ on 1982′s Imperial Bedroom.  Both songs communicate his want/need for being held or touched by a human woman – which seems odd to distiguish from just a woman’s hands or touch.  I think he was reeling from an affair with a female android jointly created by the Oxford Dictionary and Royal Academy of Music that understood all his lyrical and musical references.

- While Elvis’s popularity peaked before the MTV era, he did produce this highly entertaining promo video for the Get Happy! album. So that’s where Billy Joel learned his dance moves

- This line from ‘Brilliant Mistake’ makes me think of Elizabeth Hasselbeck (just replace ‘News’ with ‘View’):  “She said that she was working for the ABC News.  It was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use.”

- My absolute least favorite song on a peak-era Elvis Costello album:  “Shot With His Own Gun” from the ‘Trust’ album.  It makes me wish that I could switch spots with the song protagonist.

- My favorite vocabulastic rhymes by Elvis Costello:

** Tramp The Dirt Down: “When England was the whore of the world Margaret was her madam/And the future looked as bright and as clear as the black tarmacadam”
** Little Palaces: “And the doors swing back and forward, from the past into the present/And the bedside crucifixion turns from wood to phosphorescent”
** Pills And Soap: “They come from lovely people with a hard line in hypocrisy/ There are ashtrays of emotion for the fag ends of aristocracy.”

- Here’s a great list of Elvis Costello’s lyrical slams.

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  1. kevin
    September 14th, 2010 at 12:16 | #1

    Great article, though I have to disagree with your assessment of Punch the Clock. “Everyday I Write the Book” is probably my all-time favorite of his.

  2. itch
    September 14th, 2010 at 13:20 | #2

    This is wonderful. It is hard to get a handle on such a large and eclectic catalog.

    I want to add one song to the roots/country category. “Radio Sweetheart” is a 1977 Stiff recording that marries up-tempo pop with pedal steel. [It appears as a bonus track on the reissues of "My Aim is True".]

  3. September 14th, 2010 at 15:23 | #3

    @kevin Thanks! I gave the whole ‘Punch the Clock’ album another listen. It’s listenable but just nothing I can really recommend. I dislike the production – I like the addition of horns when music is gritty, soulful, or anthemic but this album is just super-polished and the horns seem disingenuous. I like “The World And His Wife” and “Let Them All Talk”. I can take or leave ‘Everyday I Write The Book’. Unfairly or not, I compare it to the similarly-titled Nick Lowe track “When I Write The Book’ which came out a couple years prior and is a much better song imho.

    @itch Thanks! ‘Radio Sweetheart’ is a pretty good track but I’d say it’s more fun/accessible Elvis vs. roots/country and that whole ‘My Aim Is True’ is worth buying. I singled out the other two bonus tracks (Stranger In The House and Imagination) in case someone was doing an Elvis Costello roots/country mix.

  4. kevin
    September 17th, 2010 at 11:15 | #4

    Rudy — Thanks for your response. I haven’t heard the album in it’s entirety (which probably speaks to the fact that it isn’t very good). I’ve never heard “When I Write the Book”. I will check it out later tonight.

    Really excited about the launch of the new site… Best of luck to you!

  5. September 17th, 2010 at 12:05 | #5

    @kevin Thanks Kevin! Let me know what you think of ‘When I Write The Book’….

  6. Tony
    September 21st, 2010 at 05:48 | #6

    More Rock Snob Please!

  7. September 21st, 2010 at 11:28 | #7

    @Tony Okay, I’ve got the next one picked out – just need to re-listen to all the albums and then crap out a couple thousand words :0

  1. November 3rd, 2010 at 12:49 | #1