Wednesday, August 5, 2015

This Year's Twaddle: Prior Post Part 2 (Sort of)

Elvis Costello's name comes up often when discussing artists who even the diehardest fans, myself included, have stopped listening to with any consistency, though I think most have held out much longer than our friend RichD has, as you can see from his comment on yesterday's post.

"In my my my musical taste-buds...something happened to me and Elvis Costello after Armed Forces. I loved Armed Forces! But after that...well, my brain started to perceive his voice as...what? I don't know...something stinky. Foul"

A certain something was lost when Bruce Thomas left and the Attractions became The Imposters. Not just the brilliant bass playing. It was as if Thomas' departure opened up a big ol' box of hats and suddenly Costello had the freedom to try all of them on.  Problem is, Bruce Thomas now seems like the guy who might have said, "Yo El! That hat looks stupid on you. Don't go outside." From the sound of Costello's post-Bruce Thomas work, he didn't listen.

Starting with 1989's label change from Columbia to Warner Brothers and the release of "Spike," each release from Elvis Costello became increasingly more unpleasant and demanding and at their worst, completely joyless. The last two on WB with Thomas, "Brutal Youth" and "All This Useless Beauty" are as good as anything in Costello's career, even though both were slapped together from old and new material. I happen to like "The Juliet Letters," "The Delivery Man," and "Secret, Profane & Sugarcane" and I truly adore the Bacharach collaboration "Painted From Memory," the Allen Toussaint collaboration "The River In Reverse" and the record no one believes exists "Momofuku," an absolute return to rocking form. But I'll be the first to admit, these records can be a chore.

Yesterday's comments weren't the only inspiration for today's follow-up. I listened to Costello's "National Ransom," his 2010 release produced T-Bone Burnett. It made me angry. I didn't like it when I first heard it five years ago. But I found a vinyl copy and went into it fresh, even excitedly. It's crap. It sounds like crap, as if you were listening to the whole thing with dust on your stylus. E.C's vocals sound forced and uncomfortable and the songs themselves try way too hard. Even "The Juliet Letters," a recording made with a string quartet, sounds more sincere and Costello-like than the scrambled mess that is "National Ransom." This record, for me, exemplifies the reasons for Costello's once loyal fanbase, to take a hike, though of course, as RichD has proven, it happened many years prior for some.

These aforementioned records, even with the many highs, suffer from being incredibly pretentious. (I won't even mention the classical releases or the Mingus records.) I love the man, and yet I completely understand why many fans have become estranged. Listening to Elvis Costello records have become work. It's a job you don't want to go to, but know you have to.

Another friend challenged me to come up with Costello's 10 Best Songs since 2001. (Talk about a job you don't want to go to.)

In random order, I chose these.

When It Sings
River In Reverse
Song With Rose
No Hiding Place
Country Darkness
Heart-Shaped Bruise
Sugar Won't Work
American Gangster Time

Look them up, if you care. Something tells me, most of you don't.

For your listening pleasure, here is the song that annoys me most from "National Ransom." Try staying until the whistling, and then you're free to throw a coffee mug against the wall.

I refuse to give up on Elvis Costello, just as I have refused to give up on McCartney, Bowie and so many others legends who seems to get tossed aside so casually, as if they were only as good as their last release. Their brilliant contribution to music far outweighs their missteps, though I may never forgive the Stones for "Dirty Work" and "Voodoo Lounge."


William Repsher said...

I won't ever give up on artists of that level. I'd say from his debut through Blood & Chocolate or so, he was on top of his game, with whatever stumbles and off-kilter albums that includes (cough, Goodbye Cruel World, cough). What put me on a lower trajectory with him were two things. His ballad singing. He has a massive voice, which I realized when I heard him live. It just seems so ill suited to so many of the ballads in his repertoire. And the excessive word play, which I could see happening on Blood & Chocolate, just putting out way too many lyrics for each song, like he was trying to match "Visions of Johanna" every time out in terms of lyrics alone. He was much better off with the 2-3 minute punches instead of the rambling 5-7 minute diatribes. (Try tackling "I Want You" at a karaoki bar.)

I've been cherry-picking his albums for years now as it's impossible to trust reviewers with an artist like this. Each album, there tends to be something that reminds me. And I don't want to push it on him that he's incapable of matching his best: that seems to be a mild generational curse for many 60's and 70's recording artists. I say "mild" because he still has a ton of respect and a respectable fan base. Many artists who came along with him at that time in the 70's are in nowhere near the same boat.

Anonymous said...

Hello all…no, please remain seated,

Nice post, and thanks for the shout-out. I’ll Spotify some of those songs tonight. Hey, who knows!

Here’s the thing about Mr. Costello. As far as my musical tastes are concerned, Elvis has fallen victim to what I would term Crooner’s Syndrome: a chronic but non-fatal condition that causes a singer to become overly in love with the sound of his own voice. The syndrome manifests itself in an uncontrollable tendency to draw out notes well beyond the melody’s natural boundaries and, most disturbing of all, the affectation of vibrato where none exists naturally in the afflicted host animal. In its terminal stages, it eclipses whatever merits the underlying song may have.

Disturbingly, this syndrome has infected some of my most favorite, all time musical heroes. To varying degrees the following folks have displayed occasional, acute outbreaks of the condition: Keith Richards, Richard Thompson and (tragically) Lucinda Williams. Actually, Lucinda has a rare variation of the Syndrome in that she tries to sound like Mick Jagger circa 1970-1972. Think I’m kidding? A/B the following songs: “Real Live Broken Fingers…” and “Loving Cup.”

I once read somewhere that Roy Orbison was in love with the sound of his own voice. I would be, too, if my voice sounded even a tenth like his. But if your voice doesn’t have the tone, timbre, power, and vibrato of Roy’s…well….listen to the nice man in the control room. Or Bruce Thomas.


soundsource said...

Van Morisson.

Anonymous said...

and yet . . . first, the woman in the Pogues and now Diane Krall. Not fair, man.

Shriner said...

I'm one of the ones who continually complains that everything post Bruce Thomas is forgettable (Painted From Memory excluded).

I keep trying each new album and it gets a collective shrug from me. The last EC-related thing I *loved* was the "Beyond Belief" Tribute CDs that came out this year (IIRC). *That* was great. And I don't know if it's because it (mostly) covers things from Spike and earlier... But all that did was remind me of the EC material I really loved.

Am I getting old? Sure. Is EC getting old? Undoubtedly. Have my tastes changed in regards to his music? Probably so.

That said, I do appreciate the man and his muse. I just think we've gone in different directions. It's not you, it's me. ;-)

Michael Giltz said...

I'd venture that if Elvis Costello tried to keep doing the angry rocker same old same old, it would be a lot less appealing than his restive, post-Thomas career. I admire that eclecticism and desire to push himself. And Sal listed a handful of very good to great albums.

The Juliet Letters album is strong but his live shows with the string quartet were terrific; I feel like he finally nailed the arrangements and singing with strings when I caught him. I know there's a live DVD and I'd gladly substitute a live version of the album for the recorded version.

Painted From Memory is just great, a marvelous collaboration.

As is River In Reverse.

Three more really good albums from an artist who -- like virtually every artist in history -- had a peak of creativity that lasted ten or 15 years. That's how it usually works whether you're writing a novel or painting or making movies or recording music. It's a precious few that have sustained creativity throughout their careers like Picasso or Dylan.

So leave him alone!

Dayn said...

I'm with's me. I was gobsmacked by EC back in the late 70s / early 80s but since then I have not been able to listen to him on a regular basis. Some (very few) songs since then moved me but not one album has moved me anywhere close to his work before '82. I still have huge respect for him, but I don't like listening to his more current work.

Noam Sane said...

There are great points made here, both from Sal and our esteemed commenters. As one who bailed out at Punch The Clock, I'm basically on board with the general sentiments here. Imperial Bedroom is a half, maybe 2/3 of a great album, but even as that album progresses you can hear him getting more full of himself. He has a great voice, but not a crooner's control or range, and I wish he would realize that. Rich D nailed it.

You're right Sal, the later stuff Is work to listen to, and I already put in an eight hour day.

We must not forget The Basher, who seemed able to tamp down the wretched excess.

I was just looking through some old Consumer Guides the other day, and RG summed things up well, as he often does - Elvis is doomed to be remembered as fatally self-conscious.

One spark of the old EC that I did find was "My Mood Swings" off the Lebowski soundtrack. But that's, like, just my opinion, man.

Eric said...

blood and chocolate was a great album as was the phone with shipbuilding on it I think when he hooked up with los Lobos was the beginning of the end

Paul said...

Man, I've lost sleep and work time over these last two threads...Elvis, well, I never loved him so much that I came to really hate his later stuff, though I did buy the T Bone record hoping to catch a glimpse of contemporary greatness. I struggle every time I throw this on as it never catches and something in his voice doesn't grab me. That said, I was thrilled about the New Basement Tapes, hoping that Marcus Mumford wouldn't wreck the album and that Elvis would serve as leader of some hot, young musicians. Man, Mumford's songs are some of the very best on the disc and every one of Elvis's are my least favorite.
Irrational hatred? The Talking Heads. Completely insane. I live in the Bay Area and one of the last radio stations that plays modern and "classic" rock is KFOG. The one artist it seems to play when it knows I'm in my car or have time to listen is damned David Byrne and his band. I want to drive into on-coming traffic. Sorry, and I'm probably wrong about my absolute dislike for the TH but that's the point of this thread, right?


dogbreath said...

The one's that still do it for me, like so many others it seems, are his early works from the punk/new wave era which do still give me the same buzz as when I originally ran home clutching the Stiff and Radar label albums. But I still listen with interest, if not passion, to Declan's new stuff and he is married to a gorgeous & talented wife so he must be doing something right.

Anonymous said...

Going to see him tonight with the Imposters. I will have seen him four times with four different configurations of musicians including The Attractions, The North Carolina Symphony Orchestra and The Sugarcanes. What strikes me about his recording career is his sheer love of all kinds of music and his ability to attract the best names in the business be it producers or musicians. He is certainly doing something right. Yes he made the switch to crooner starting with Couldn't Call It Unexpected on Mighty Like A Rose. he would belt this acapella and unmiked at concerts. I wasn't impressed , but I won't second guess his choices if he won't second guess mine. At least he is still growing as an artist rather than repeating the same records over and over again. No, I don't like everything he has produced in recent years, but there are some gems hidden in there and I will still buy the next record.

buzzbabyjesus said...

I bought his first one, which I loved. Saw him twice on the first tour with Rockpile and Mink DeVille. Starting with "This Year's Model" it seemed like what I liked best receded and something else began to emerge. I stayed with the program through "Armed Forces", by then I became more interested in X and Black Flag.
I bought a shitload of EC from Sal at his shop, but I can't imagine listening to any of it.

Anonymous said...

i suggest you give a listen to EC's recent recording with The Roots ...

Sal Nunziato said...

I've listened to EC & The Roots, Anonymous. It made my year-end Best Of list.

Sal Nunziato said...

I've listened to EC & The Roots, Anonymous. It made my year-end Best Of list.

buzzbabyjesus said...

I have EC and The Roots. Sugar Won't Work is a great song. Someday I'll have to listen to the rest of it.

Bruce Kelly said...

I haven't read the comments yet so apologies if this is repeating something someone else wrote, but the opening thesis which by my reading means Bruce Thomas is to Elvis Costello as Bill Berry is to R.E.M. is a thought that had never occurred to me. One reason is that we know Berry was not only the drummer but a writer for R.E.M. But still maybe a band needs a member to tell the leader(s) "this is crap."

I think more likely both R.E.M. and Elvis had had their run of great songs, particularly great melodies. They could still come out with a good, even great, one now and then, but as with almost all musicians (or I think artists of just about all types and genres and media) the days of youth when for the best of the best brilliancies just poured out (think Springsteen 74-80) had run their natural course.