Album of the Week, March 29: Imperial Bedroom by Elvis Costello and the Attractions

EC-IBfrontBy the time he released his seventh album, Elvis Costello had established himself as a force to be reckoned with. After a stunning debut, he churned out a steady series of albums that each had a significant number of critics crying “masterpiece!” The erstwhile Declan MacManus proved a deft hand at a wide array of musical styles, applying his encyclopedic knowledge and broad tastes to post-punk, art pop, honky-tonk, country, and R&B. Through it all, the Attractions proved themselves one of the finest bands in the business, adapting to all the twists and turns and lending a solid consistency to every disc. Costello’s smart, wry lyrics were the other constant, analyzing and often skewering politics both personal and governmental. After five strong albums with producer Nick Lowe and the fascinating country covers experiment Almost Blue, he entered the studio with a set of tracks composed on piano and never tested live. He also engaged Beatles’ engineer Geoff Emerick to produce, bringing in the right talent to juggle the complex sounds he wanted to explore. The result set the template for his next 30 years of music and proved that everything he had absorbed and disseminated to date was in preparation for his bold reinvention of pop music.

Title Imperial Bedroom
Act Elvis Costello and the Attractions
Label Columbia Release Date July 2, 1982
Producer Geoff Emerick (from an original idea by Elvis Costello)
U.S. Chart  #30 U.K. Chart  #6
Tracks
  1. Beyond Belief
  2. Tears Before Bedtime
  3. Shabby Doll
  4. The Long Honeymoon
  5. Man Out of Time
  6. Almost Blue
  7. …And In Every Home
  8. The Loved Ones
  9. Human Hands
  10. Kid About It
  11. Little Savage
  12. Boy With A Problem
  13. Pidgin English
  14. You Little Fool
  15. Town Cryer

This wasn’t just pop like 1982 radio. It was an honest, loving tribute to — and reinvention of — pop music traditions from Tin Pan Alley to the Great American Songbook, from the Brill Building and Bacharach to Lennon and McCartney. With his usual casual arrogance, deep feeling, and literate observations, Costello crafted a set of 15 songs that are at once diverse and cohesive.

Things kick off with Beyond Belief, a torrent of words that creates a single snapshot. Breathlessly narrating a casual encounter in a bar, he infuses it with emotion and potential, breaking off the narration just before it all comes together. It’s a smart, energetic, almost brutal beginning, two-and-a-half minutes of the finest of Costello. Tears Before Bedtime is a bit of vintage pop, a cinematic moment that captures the kitchen sink drama mood with a bit of carnival flair. Shabby Doll, inspired by a cabaret poster, dissects sexual politics with epic wit and a Gershwinesque melody. The aching Long Honeymoon closes the first section with another nicely narrated relationship snapshot and a warmly emotive vocal.

The opening and closing moments of Man Out of Time recall early Costello with a crazed guitar and angry howl. Fading in and out of these moments is a stately march of a song lamenting a figure who has lost his place. The juxtaposition is wonderful and the effect is both jarring and resonant. While Almost Blue shares a title with Costello’s previous album of country covers, the song itself is a smart jazzy piece that recalls the best of Cole Porter. The lament of a man worn thin by life, it’s become a standard and one of Costello’s most covered songs.

The next trio fit nicely together. …And In Every Home has a bright, Beatlesque horn section under a story of illusory domesticity. The Loved Ones features a joyous piano figure with a martial drum as Costello sings of the challenges of romance. Human Hands is the most New Wave of the cuts, a quick plea for compassion. The three create a clever, cohesive emotional set.

The slower Kid About It features a minimalist keyboard setting and a higher register vocal. These elements underscore the open emotions of the song, making it one a more straightforward but no less effective moment in Costello’s journey. Little Savage uses layered vocals and simple, driving pop to explore the dichotomies of human nature in a smart pop snapshot. In Boy With A Problem — written with Squeeze’s Chris Difford — things get more elliptical but no less emphatic. It’s a resigned number with just a hint of hope.

Pidgin English is another standout in the whole Costello catalog. It’s a surging mini-epic in a swirling post-psychedelic setting that ponders the power of words. Given the singer’s longstanding reputation for wordplay, it’s both self-referential and revelatory, a delightful song that boils down to its coda: “P.S. I Love You.” A modern pop gem, You Little Fool takes all the elements of the pop encyclopedia that precede it and crafts a little Costello masterpiece, a biting little story with soaring production.

Things wrap up with the gorgeous Town Cryer. Building from a simple but lovely pop song to a lush production, it’s a smart bit of big band jazz blended with 80s pop. Costello turns in an especially fine vocal managing to create a bit of aching self-pity without becoming maudlin. Bonus points for creating the phrase “tragically hip” a phrase that somehow feels perfectly at home on this album.

Complicated but earnest, smart without being smug (something Costello doesn’t always balance), comprehensive but not overwhelming, Imperial Bedroom is a wonderful musical statement. With and without the Attractions, Costello continues to churn out wonderful music thirty years later. Given the many gems in that catalog, it’s a testament to Imperial Bedroom that it remains his single most enduring statement.

Song of the Day, June 16: Watching the Detectives by Elvis Costello

CostelloDetectivesToday’s song is Watching the Detectives by Elvis Costello. It’s a standout track from his powerful debut album My Aim Is True. Like many of his punk-era peers, Costello chose to dabble in reggae, using the slinky rhythms to underscore this tale. Unlike most of them, however, he both masters the form and makes it his own. With a backing track that emphasizes the space between notes as much as the notes themselves, Costello and his bandmates weave a tightening musical net. The lyrics tell a tale of betrayal and murder that’s dark even for Costello, and the well crafted music amps up the tension line by line.

Enjoy this potent  reggae noir track today.

Song of the Day, January 7: Different Finger by Elvis Costello and the Attractions

CostelloTrustFingerToday’s song is Different Finger by Elvis Costello and the Attractions. It appears on Costello’s fifth album, Trust, a benchmark in his early career. It was his last album produced by long-time colleague Nick Lowe; it also demonstrated a much more eclectic musical palette, presaging his work through the rest of the 80s.

Different Finger is one of Costello’s earliest flirtations with country stylings, hinting at his next album, the country-tinged Almost Blue. Short and pithy, this song is a perfect vignette of infidelity set in a brilliant, fragile musical frame. The Attractions remind us that they can do so much more than rock, and Costello’s vocals show a subtle nuance that is often overlooked in his classic work.

Please put your rings on a different finger
‘Cause we’ve got so much at stake
I can’t stand those suspicious glances
‘Cause they seem to cover every move I make

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, October 23: All This Useless Beauty

UselessBeautyTaborUselessBeautyECAToday’s song is All This Useless Beauty. Composer Elvis Costello is a long-time fan of June Tabor, famously stating “If you don’t like listening to June Tabor, you should stop listening to music.” Putting his pen where his mouth is, Costello has composed a couple of songs especially for Tabor to sing, including this one. She included it on her amazing 1992 album Angel Tiger.

It’s a classic Costello song, telling a tale of faded glory, misplaced self-importance, and mysterious doings in the halls of power. The principle subject of the song is left with a tiresome life at the end of a career of propping up grandiose partners excited to have her beauty on their arms. Tabor channels Costello’s irony and wit perfectly, pouring it into her beautifully smoky voice and creating a stunning collaboration.

It’s at times such as this she’d be tempted to spit
If she wasn’t so ladylike
She imagines how she might have lived back when legends and history collide
So she looks to her prince finding he’s so charmingly slumped at her side
Those days are recalled on the gallery wall
And she’s waiting for passion or humour to strike
What shall we do, what shall we do with all this useless beauty?

Costello liked the song enough that he used it as the centerpiece of his 1996 album of the same title. A sort of reverse covers album, it’s comprised mostly of songs he wrote for others and decided to sing for himself. An odd conceit, perhaps, but it works well, and the result is one of the strongest mid-period Costello albums. Sounding both wry and maudlin, he reclaims the song as his own while taking nothing away from Tabor’s powerful delivery.

Enjoy both the writer’s reverse cover and Tabor’s masterful original today.

Song of the Day, June 5: Almost Blue by Elvis Costello and the Attractions

Elvis Costello BlueToday’s song is Almost Blue by Elvis Costello and the Attractions. In his first five years, Costello poured out a half dozen amazing albums, showing off his talent and establishing him as the literate angry young man and the soulful punkster. He detoured with an album of country covers titled Almost Blue, a title that he borrowed for himself on his next album, the 1982 masterpiece Imperial Bedroom. After showing what he could do with other writers’ material, he stretched his musical wings and tried a wide variety of sounds on the album. This track is a late-night jazz weeper, merging Cole Porter wit with Gershwin yearning.

The result is a highlight of an amazing album and has become one of the prolific writer’s most covered songs (Chet Baker, Alison Moyet, Little Jimmy Scott, Gwen Stefani — to name a few). Costello also shows off his vocal chops, demonstrating his deep emotional range. The song is a reflection on love lost, love that was doomed from the start. His reflections are bittersweet and melancholy without being maudlin.

Almost blue
It’s almost touching it will almost do
There’s a part of me that’s always true…always
Not all good things come to an end now it is only a chosen few
I’ve seen such an unhappy couple

Enjoy this amazing song today.

Song of the Day, May 3: The Other End of the Telescope by ’til tuesday

tiltuesTelescopeToday’s song is The Other End (of the Telescope) by ’til tuesday. It appears on the band’s masterpiece, the 1988 breakup suite Everything’s Different Now. Singer and principle songwriter Aimee Mann demonstrated just how much her talent had grown since the band’s debut as she crafted a series of tender, tragic, bitter, and heartbreaking songs. She collaborated with a handful of other writers, most notably Elvis Costello on this track.

Mann’s knack for irony was not fully clear at this point, and most of the album is open and heartfelt. Costello’s knack for irony is well known and merges perfectly with Mann’s growing confidence as a writer. The result is a flawless track of regret and farewell. Costello later tweaked the lyrics and included his own version on the album All This Useless Beauty.

Shall we agree that just this once
I’m gonna change my life
Until it’s just as tiny or important as you like?
[…]
I know it don’t make a difference to you
But oh, it sure made a difference to me
You’ll see me off in the distance, I hope
At the other end of the telescope.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Album of the Week, April 21: My Aim Is True by Elvis Costello

MyAimIsTrueDeclan Patrick MacManus was born in London in 1954. His father was a bandleader and musician who often worked under the name Day Costello. Declan began singing doing backing vocals on a commercial that his father recorded. By the mid-70s he had worked in a folk duo called Rusty and a pub rock band called Flip city using the name D.P. Costello — his initials plus an homage to his father. He worked a number of odd jobs while trying to land a recording contract. He eventually landed at Stiff records, changed his name to Elvis, and hooked up with producer Nick Lowe. They worked with an American band called Clover — soon to become the News with the addition of Huey Lewis — and recorded My Aim Is True.

Title My Aim Is True
Act Elvis Costello
Label Columbia Release Date March 1978
Producer Nick Lowe
U.S. Chart  32 U.K. Chart  14
Tracks
  1. Welcome to the Working Week
  2. Miracle Man
  3. No Dancing
  4. Blame It On Cain
  5. Alison
  6. Sneaky Feelings
  7. Watching the Detectives
  8. (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes
  9. Less Than Zero
  10. Mystery Dance
  11. Pay It Back
  12. I’m Not Angry
  13. Waiting For the End of the World

The result is one of the most impressive debut albums of all time, a clear indicator of the musical diversity one might expect from Elvis Costello, and a punk but not punk album that presaged a dozen musical trends. The songs tend to be short and to the point, a trend that would last Costello through his association with Lowe.

Elvis literally welcomes us to his world with Welcome to the Working Week, a sharp jab at working class conditions and menial labor. The bite continues with the wry observations of Miracle Man, with the singer acknowledging his shortcomings while still claiming his rightful place. No Dancing feels almost rockabilly but carries more of the master’s frustrations. The opening spate of tongue in cheek observations and dark humor wraps up with Blame It On Cain, a perfect not-my-world-not-my-fault burst of energy.

The tone shifts significantly with Alison, a bittersweet ballad that shows hints of Costello’s depth and breadth. Any song that works flawlessly as an Elvis Costello or Linda Ronstadt track is pretty amazing. The key line in the chorus serves as the album’s title, a remarkable statement of positive intent in the midst of sarcasm and strife.

We ease back into that world with the lithe Sneaky Feelings, a lovely warning about commitment. It’s followed by Watching the Detectives, a noir ballad that would do Richard Thompson or Warren Zevon proud, its lyrics would be creepy no matter how they were delivered. The minor key, reggae influenced tune serves to amp up the chill, creating one of Costello’s early masterpieces.

Things continue in a strong vein  with my personal favorite, (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes. It opens with a line that is classic Costello and in many ways serves as the manifesto of his early career: “I used to be disgusted but now I try to stay amused.” Clocking in at only 2:46, the song is also a perfect example of leaving the audience wanting more.

Less Than Zero gave its name to a mediocre book and awful movie about 80s teen angst but deserved so much better. Costello’s first single, it was the world’s introduction to his spiky worldview as he dissects America’s obsession with the past, dysfunctional family dynamics, and modern malaise in three minutes of snark with a smile. Mystery Dance is another pseudo-retro track, with Costello channeling the vocal energy of Buddy Holly, whose image he mimics on the album’s cover. A delightful bit on adolescent lust and fumbling, it’s a brilliant snapshot with perfect musical backing.

The ending trio starts off with Pay It Back neatly balancing between promise and threat and moves into the brilliantly ironic I’m Not Angry. Costello wraps things up with a literal ending, Waiting For the End of the World. In many ways, it’s a short wait, as his distinctive brand of punk slammed into singer-songwriter tunes helped usher in a whole new era of music. Slamming out a little better than an album a year through 1983, he showed off the range of his talent and challenged others to do the same.

Song of the Day, March 12: Pidgin English by Elvis Costello and the Attractions

Elvis_Costello_PidginToday’s song is Pidgin English by Elvis Costello and the Attractions. After blasting onto the scene with My Aim Is True, Costello hooked up with the Attractions for four more powerful albums which reinvented pop through a punkish aesthetic. Country detour Almost Blue followed and then he was ready to emerge with Imperial Bedroom. The first disc on which he fully embraced his eclectic talents, influences, and interests, it’s a wonderful set of songs tied together by his biting, literate lyrics.

Pidgin English is his nod to pop psychedelia, with lush, swirling instrumentation (including a sitar) and an updated wall of New Wave sound production. The song is so beautiful that it would be easy to miss the bite of the lyrics, making them all the more powerful. A somewhat inverted love song with a nasty back story, it’s classic Costello. Can you simply remember how to declare your love?

Silence is golden
Money talks diamonds and ermine
There’s a word in Spanish
Italian and German

In sign language, morse code
Semaphore and gibberish
Have you forgotten how to say it
In your Pidgin English?

Costello anchors the song with a fading coda of “P.S. I Love You,” lending it a potential optimism he would explore more as his career progressed. Buoyed by the musical setting, it works deliciously.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, August 25: I’m Not Angry by Elvis Costello

Today’s song is I’m Not Angry by Elvis Costello. It’s one of the many standouts on his debut album, 1977’s My Aim Is True. A perfect example of his more energetic early material, it belies its own title with both a hiss and a roar.

I’m not angry, I’m not angry anymore.
Ooh, I know what you’re doin’.
I know where you’ve been.
I know where, but I don’t care,
’cause there’s no such thing as an original sin.
I’m not angry, I’m not angry anymore.

Today is Elvis Costello’s 58th birthday. Wish him many not angry returns of the day and enjoy this classic song.

Song of the Day, July 4: Just A Memory by Marti Jones

Today’s song is Just A Memory by Marti Jones. Another of her stunning cover choices, this Elvis Costello tune appeared on her second solo album, Match Game. It’s classic bittersweet Costello, originally appearing as the B-side of the single New Amsterdam and eventually anthologized on Taking Liberties. Jones takes the razor-sharp observations and clever wordplay and wraps them in her beautiful voice, generating an authentic ache.

Layin’ about, lyin’ in bed
Maybe it was something that I thought I’d said
With the tempo of today and the temptation of tomorrow
I don’t know if I could give you anything but sorrow
[…]
Losing you is just a memory
Memories don’t mean that much to me

Enjoy this wonderful performance of a lovely song today.

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