Sunday, August 15, 2010

A Tribute to the Beloved Entertainer: Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello. The angry young man. The eclectic musician. The "Beloved Entertainer," a name he gave himself on his album "Spike," for one of the more interesting album covers I have seen. For those that know me, and I doubt anyone who reads this blog doesn't already know me, Elvis Costello has become my all-time favorite musician. His pop sensibilities mixed with a punk attitude make for some really great beats and hooks. What sets him apart are his lyrics, the man practically goes through a thesaurus for each song. His love for wordplay and puns can be a little corny at times but even when his lyrics arent the best, his music picks him up. So for this little tribute, Ive decided to list off my top 5 Elvis Costello albums, in chronological order.

1. This Year's Model - 1978

This album, though many of the songs where written during the production of his first album, My Aim is True, its the backing band, The Attractions, that really allow Costello's words to pop and to make the Angry Young Man, of a mere 24 years old, live up to his namesake. There's a reason when Costello was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003, it was with the Attractions, as opposed to him being solo. Pete Thomas's stellar drumming ability is evident on "No Action," "Lipstick Vogue," and "Radio Radio," where he almost steals the focus from Costello's lyrics. Steve Nieve's keyboard skills, are underrated on this album and really give tracks like "The Beat," "You Belong to Me," and "Pump It Up" a lot of its new-wave sensibilities. Nieve's opening to "Little Triggers" is just phenomenal and gives the song a classic quality that we would see reemerge on albums Imperial Bedroom and Trust. Bruce Thomas's, no relation to Pete, bass line on "Pump It Up," and "You Belong to Me," can get buried under Nieve's Piano, Pete's drums, and Costello's voice and guitar but still makes itself really distinct but without drawing attention to itself. Of course, the main draw, along with Costello's guitar playing ability as evident in "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea," his lyrics are some of the best of his career. "This Year's Girl," "You Belong to Me," "Hand in Hand," "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea," every track on this album features strong lyrics that trying to pick out a week track is far more difficult than singling any particular track. However, if there is one track on this album, that deserves any mention, its the closing track "Radio Radio," the song that got Costello banned from Saturday Night Live for the next twenty-two years. Costello's scathing criticism of radio censorship and how punk bands like The Sex Pistols, were denied air time is one of the most well-written and high energy songs in his cannon, and that means A LOT. In short, this is my all-time favorite album and I cannot say it enough that "This Year's Model," is a timeless testament to Costello's powers as a lyricist and The Attractions ability to rock your face off.

2. Trust - 1981
Trust, Elvis Costello's fifth album, applies the melodies of his third album, Armed Forces, and the rhythms of his fourth album, Get Happy!!, to create this great mixture of pop and R&B that hides some of the bite of Costello's words, this was not unintentional. The album, according to most music sources, is Costello's response to Thatcher's election as Prime Minister and the rising tensions between him and his first wife. With the cover, we see Costello sporting some rose-tinted glasses, seeing a dark world (lyrics) through bright glasses (music). The opening track, "Clubland," showcases Nieve's piano-playing skills and, in fact, Nieve might be the most prevalent Attraction on this album. A track on the album, "From a Whisper to a Scream," sums up the range of this album. The whisper of Costello's voice in "Watch Your Step" and "New Lace Sleeves," proves he doesn't need to be loud to command our attention. The scream comes in "Clubland," "Luxembourg," and "From a Whisper to a Scream," showing us that even though he's branching out, he still knows how to rock. The standout tracks on this album are "Clubland," and "New Lace Sleeves." "New Lace Sleeves" in particular opens up with an amazing drum line and bass line that I could just listen to the opening moments of that song on loop. Combined with Costello's vocals that really hint at some dark undercurrents in his marriage. With Get Happy! and Trust, Costello proves that his band wasn't just limited to the new wave movement, which was winding down, but had more range than anyone thought they had, going on to the most ambitious album on this list.

3. Imperial Bedroom - 1982
Imperial Bedroom: The title says it all. Its grandious and it sounds like Costello is very comfortable in what seemed like a far-cry from his first trilogy of albums. To make this album, Costello recruited Geoff Emerick, the sound engineer that worked with The Beatles on Revolver, Abbey Road, and Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. I'm about to say a piece of musical blasphemy...are you ready? I think this album is far better than any of three Beatles albums I just mentioned. I await your hate mail. Anywho, the album opens with a track that sets the mood for the album, if the Picasso-style cover art didn't already: "Beyond Belief." There's an airy quality to Costello's voice in the opening tack along with some sound techniques that conjure what would happen if New Wave tackled Psychedelia. I know I'm pretty much professing my love for Steve Nieve when it comes to this retrospective but the albums I've chosen so far really use him more than I thought first time around. He's fantastic in "The Loved Ones" with the speed at which he hits the keys or in the way he portrays melancholy in "The Long Honeymoon," or the fact that he conducts a freaking ORCHESTRA for "...And in Every Home." The only track that sounds like the Angry Young Man at first is "Man out of Time," opening up with an amazing wail and then soundly breaks into this beautifully composed number with some great abstract lyrics. Even if the lyrics for that song make absolutely new sense, the chorus "To murder my love is a crime/ but would you still love a man out of time," and the tender way Costello sings it still makes you feel something. Every instrument imaginable is on this album: horns, strings, accordions, up to a forty-piece orchestra on "The Long Honeymoon." One song that reminds of another album I reviewed earlier on this blog, Frank Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours, is "Almost Blue." Costello sinks to the lower parts of his register and that sets the mood for the song along with Steve Nieve's piano and even Bruce Thomas's bass present a truly saddening but beautiful song. "Pidgin English," "Little Savage," and "Human Hands," are all fantastic tracks and this album as a whole is simply masterful When originally marketing the album, Columbia decided to display the album's cover with the slogan, "Masterpiece?" The album was widely praised but sadly the sales didnt match the enthusiasm of the critics. While it may not be my favorite Costello album, it is one of his bests. Costello's Imperial Bedroom, in its title, foreshadowed Costello's next great album

King of America - 1986
After two widely-panned pure pop albums, Punch the Clock and Goodbye Cruel World, Costello decided to do something rather radical, explore country and Americana music. Granted he did explore it on the album Almost Blue several years before, but that was a cover album. Here Costello not only works with T-Bone Burnett, a music producer that specializes in Americana who produced the O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Crazy Heart soundtracks, but he dumps the Attractions, save for one track. He strips out a lot of production that plagued his last two albums and plays all the tracks live in studio. One of the new additions to Costello's creative team comes in the form of his second wife, Cait O'Riordan, the former bassist of the Pogues, who helped co-write the second track, "Lovable." This is one of his most introspective and insightful albums. The album opens with "Brilliant Mistake," which shifts from third to first person and gives the album its title. "I wish that I could push a button and talk in the past, and not the present tense," I don't know why but this is a lyric that sticks for me. But there is still enough acid in his lyrics that make us remember this is Costello, just a bit more older and worldly. "Lovable," seems to be directed at his ex-wife, using a lot of wordplay to in the lyrics to be the antithesis of the song title. All the tracks on here are hidden treasures that usually aren't mentioned among Costello's greats. The only tracks that I don't much care for are the covers on this album: "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood,"and "Eisenhower Blues." Costello almost sounds like a concerned father in "Our Little Angel." "Glitter Glutch" seems to be about Costello's ex-wife again or at least or family, vultures after his money. "Indoor Fireworks" seems to be about how the spark of love in his first marriage seem to die out. "Jack of All Parades" keeps a light atmosphere but the lyrics follow the theme of a collapsing marriage. I think that's where the expression on Costello's face comes from on the album cover. He's acheived so much in his career but at the same time, he's suffering and dealing with personal issues and world issues like in "Little Palaces" and "America Without Tears." Of Costello's genre jumping albums, this is my favorite. He shows far more depth than we had chance to see before in tracks like "I'll Wear it Proudly," and "Sleep of the Just." Of course Costello couldn't introvert all his emotions for long, in the very same year, he releases the final album on this list.

Blood and Chocolate - 1986

Blood and Chocolate. The title alone tells us that we are in for a rich, gory record. The opening track, "Uncomplicated," tells us that this is the Costello we fell in love with on This Year's Model, a Costello not bogged down with production values but delicious biting lyrics and uncomplicated punk sound. To return to his punk roots, Costello brought back Nick Lowe, the producer on his first four albums, and the Attractions and they help to turn Costello from the quiet suffer from King of America to the incredibly angry divorcee in tracks like "I Hope Your Happy Now." "I Hope Your Happy Now" is the most-played song on my Ipod, it sports some of the most sharp and pointed lyrics Costello has ever written...let that sink in. If there's any song to match, the bile that Costello spews in that song, it's "I Want You." "I Want You" starts out with a soft acoustic guitar and sweet lyrics, making us think we're in for a sweet love song, but then the guitar goes electric and creeps along and digs in along with Costello's vocals, are then joined by Nieve's organ that sounds like it would come out of an old Hammer horror film. This song goes on for six minutes and every moment drips with venom, but there are points where there are hints of sadness and then he brushes them off to get back to his message: "I want you/The truth can't hurt you/It's just like the dark/It scares you witless/but in time you'll see things clear and stark." This song is creepier than "Every Breath You Take," but it is one of Costello's best songs. I could recommend it on those two tracks alone, but the rest of album is equally great. "Tokyo Storm Warning" is a six minute travelogue into the bizarre (ala "Stuck inside a Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again). "Home is Anywhere You Hang Head" gives us an idea of Costello traveling while his marriage was falling apart from bar to bar, drowning his misery. The closing track, "Next Time Round," Costello is essentially saying, "I'm done, after this song I've worked it all out of my system. Bon Voyage, Bitch!"

If you've managed to make your way to the end of this post, I'm really thankful that you've gone on this retrospective with me. Even if sometime in the future, my love for Costello's music begins to die out, he still has acted as a catalyst in my music taste; introducing me to Jenny Lewis, Joe Jackson, The Pogues, T-Bone Burnett, etc. I hope if you haven't already given these records a listen, my blog has peaked your interest enough to do so.
This is the Red-Headed Step-Child and I think I'll leave you with one of my favorite performances from the Beloved Entertainer.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The 1001 album challenge

Oh. Dear. God.
Two months, two mother-flipping months. I am the laziest blogger ever.

I'm not sure why it is, maybe its because I'm writing most of my personal stuff in my journal and it just suck all the potential material for the blog into that. I've had an idea to put my pile of shame list on here of albums and movies that Ive yet to hear and see but I think I would just be hit with a wave of hate had I done that...granted I dont think enough people read this to send my hate mail. Before writing this I had two ideas, one was my feelings before heading off to college, the other was talking about my progress in my 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die challenge. Its an expansion on my evolution of musical taste post of sorts. Ive felt that my taste has always been a bit limited and I wanted to expand into genres, sub-genres, and bands that I hadn't heard before. Many of you would say, "Well, you can still do that without listening to 1001 albums." True, but I'm a competitive person and I need some sort of motivation to keep me going. Perhaps if I had a blogger that challenged me to a blogging contest, I would write for this blog more often.

So far I've listened to eighty-one albums, the latest one being Santana's Abraxas. I'm currently listening to my number eighty-two: The Smiths - Meat is Murder. Of the eighty-one so far, I listened to forty of them before officially starting the challenge. Of the 1001 albums listed in the the book I've picked out about 300 to start out listening to, artists and genres I've always been meaning to listening to but have never really motivated myself to: Iggy and the Stooges, Radiohead, Neil Young, 2Pac, Frank Sinatra, I could go on and on.

I've decided to share of the eighty-one albums I've listened to so far to pick out five of my favorites so far, in no particular order.

The Pogues - If I Should Fall From Grace With God
The Pogues are a band that formed in England in the mid-to-late 80s with a very bold, new concept: irish folk with a punk twist. Their first album, Red Roses for Me, was overwrought with production values and relied too heavily on the booze imagery. Their second album, another one of my favorites, Rum, Sodomy, & the Lash, was a stripped-down album with little t0 no production punch-ups. This was in part due to the producer, Elvis Costello, who wanted to capture the Pogues at their rawest state. It's a stellar album, but if you put a gun to my head, I would say I prefer their third album: If I Should Fall From Grace With God. Under the direction of Steve Lilywhite, the album clicks along with not just Irish influences, but Middle-Eastern, Spanish, and Jazz. While Shane McGowan, the lead singer/songwriter, slurs and sings slackjawed on this album, he is writing some fantastic poetry that goes along with the music so beautifully. The title track opens this album up with a kick and the first four tracks are all stellar songs that I play over and over. You cannot, I mean CANNOT, discuss this album without talking about track 4: Fairytale of New York. This song is in every word an epic and in only four minutes and a half minutes time. Its a beautiful duet between McGowan and Irish pop star, Kirsty MacColl. It's the anti-Christmas song about two Irish immigrants falling apart one Christmas in New York City. Everything about the song is perfect, the vocals, the intro, the sweep of the music. I would recommend the album solely on that track alone. However, the album as a whole is amazing. It's a must-have for lovers of both Irish-folk and Clash-style punk.

Peter Gabriel -
Peter Gabriel III: Melt
The former frontman of Genesis broke off with the band in the mid-to-late seventies and started a solo career that allowed him to do everything he wanted to do with the band in such albums as The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway without being constrained to them. While he had hit songs on his first self-titled album like "Solsbury Hill," he really hit his stride with his third album, released in 1980, commonly referred to as Melt. The album's opening track, "Intruder," involves sounds I had never heard used in music before, a sound of a creaking metal coil that just sends chills down my spine far more than the opening sound of "Thriller." Gabriel plays with world music with songs like "Biko," and "Games Without Frontiers." He also brings some great rocking songs with "Through the Wire," and "I Don't Remember." Progressive rock would not be the same without Gabriel. his taste for the unconventional and the theatrical, and his great lyrics would be further recognized with the critical and commercial success of his fifth album, So, but here is where he is at his best. Seek this album and out and trust me when I saw Melt will blow your mind. (You thought I was going to say "melt," didnt you. Well sadly, as much as I love wordplay and referencing the title like a 2nd rate critic, it doesnt really make sense.)

Frank Sinatra - In the Wee Small Hours
This album was a watershed moment in music and how we listen to it. Before the release of this record, most music recordings were simply popular singles or a mish-mash of greatest hits. Sinatra helped to bring forth the concept of an album that has an overriding theme or story rather than just a collection of songs that have nothing in common with one another, sans the artist that performs them. In the Wee Small Hours was recorded right after his relationship with Ava Gardner fell apart rather badly. Sinatra is swelling with emotions: dispair, melancholy, sadness, anger, and he shows it with every chord of his voice. With the opening track, "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning," he sums up that feeling anyone has right after a romance goes on the rocks. The violins and horns help to bring forth this feeling of sheer melancholy that is also summed up in the cover art for the album. The way Sinatra is drawn, fedora back, cigarette in hand, sullen face, coupled with the shades of blue in the background just tells you that had told listeners to "Swing Easy!" was nowhere to be found on this album and the album is much better for it. Tracks like "Glad to Be Unhappy," "Can't We Be Friends," and "It Never Entered My Mind" are brimming with cynicism and sarcasm that only come with a broken heart. He also displays this beautiful sadness in tracks like, "I Get Along Without You," and "Mood Indigo" that I have only heard in one other album, Johnny Cash's American IV: When the Man Comes Around. It doesn't matter where your music interests lie, Sinatra presents the quintessential break-up album that you will return to again and again in the wee small hours of the morning.

Jay-Z - The Blueprint
As many know, I am quite possible one of the whitest guys people in the Cincinnati area. I cannot dance and until I started the challenge, I did not have a single rap album in my Itunes...unless you count the Beastie Boys. Sadly a lot of my peers don't recognize them as legitimate rap but Jay-Z's The Blueprint is a good place to start. The opening track, "The Ruler's Back," is a declaration like no other. I think one thing that kept me away from rap was the hubris and arrogance that is associated with the genre but "The Ruler's Back," in all its pomp and circumstance, complete with triumphant horns, is totally justified. Granted, you have classic examples like "Girls, Girls, Girls," that are seen as demeaning women but it's Jay-Z's list of relationships come and gone that lets you see the extravagance of the life of a successful rapper. This wouldn't be notable without the contrast the album provides with two visions of New York. Jay-Z tells the story of two New Yorks: one of excess and one of poverty. With the title track, he presents the latter, with tracks like "All I Need," he presents the former. The lyrics rival any of my favorite songwriters: Costello, Young, McGowan. To me, that's where Rap excels, even though so much importance is placed on the beat of the music, lyrics are what allow a song to be timeless and can merit repeat listens. Sooner or later, a beat will get tired and old, that's when you listen to the message and you hear something that you never paid attention to before and there are examples where you find poetry. The Blueprint is such an example.

Neil Young - Harvest
Americana at its finest...sung by a Canadian. Young's most successful album, with his most beloved song, "Heart of Gold," is an amazing record from start to finish. Part of the reason I put this one on here instead of After the Gold Rush is I need to give it a few more listens to properly dissect and critique. Its an eclectic album, ranging from simple acoustics "Out on the Weekend," "Harvest," to electric rock numbers "Alabama," "Are You Ready for the Country," to the orchestral sweep of "A Man Needs a Maid" and "There's a World." The album has similarities to Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours, with several songs about love's labors lost: "Heart of Gold," "A Man Needs a Maid," and "Out on the Weekend." The title of the album makes me think that Neil Young harvested all his resources, in terms of musical style and musical artists, James Taylor and Linda Ronstandt make appearances on the album, to create a gateway album to Neil Young's other works. This album was a bit of a double-edged sword for Young; on the one hand: its his most commercially successfully album, on the other hand: its made many casual fans insesentially request songs from this album, "Heart of Gold" specifically, at live performances and neglecting the rest of his discography. Despite Young's attempt to distance himself from this album, its a great place to start if your unfamiliar with his work. The lyrics are moving and the music soothing, the album glides along providing a beautiful listening experience that is worth your time.

Those are my five new favorite albums at the moment. Depending on how driven I am to continue you this series I will keep updating with new finds and favorites that I may have. Hopefully I can post more frequently with an range of topics....yeah, sure.