Tag Archives: Elvis Costello

The Costello Variations

Elvis Costello at Hyde Park

So I am watching Elvis Costello & The Imposters’ performance at Hyde Park on AXS TV. It was pre-Royal Baby. No lullabies were included. An hour-or-so-long set of the hits being rat-a-tat-tatted out with the drive of Pete Thomas on the drums like a high-speed stamping press.. Accidentswillhappenican’tstandupforfallingdownhighfidelityalisonradioradio. Barely a pause. At one point, a roadie has to step back away from Elvis as he attempts to swap out a guitar. Elvis sweats. He sweats some more. The crowd stands around. Nieve fiddles around with the knobs on his keyboards. Elvis chews—what?—gum. Davey smiles like Karl Pilkington. The band plays on and on and on and on and on.

And something occurred to me.

When Elvis started the set, his vocals were cringe-worthy. He was off in pitch. Off in timing. Just off.

But what was he off of? It was off of the versions of those songs as I have come to know them from his recordings. To be sure, I have seen him live many times. But even there, the sound of the songs, by and large, had to be comparatively close approximations of what had originally appeared on the recordings. Sure, he would mix things up—adding something of a reggae approach to “Watching the Detectives”—but again, all of the audio cues had to line up in some way with what had been released on My Aim Is True.

Here’s the thing: Is it possible for Elvis (or any other artist who is performing his or her own work) to do an off version of one of their pieces? After all, what it is departing from is something that that person had done, as well, and had that person (or a producer or whomever) decided to have another recorded version, another approach that is different from the one that we have come to expect to hear, then wouldn’t the version that we now know be, in some nontrivial way, off from what we expect?

How do we know that there isn’t a deliberate effort to sound crappy? How do we know that the artist just doesn’t want to seem as though he or she has forgotten the words or that their ability to vocalize isn’t want it was some 35 years ago.

What if, say, Costello was to put out My Aim Is True: The Laryngitis Sessions? Wouldn’t a scratchy, barely-audible rendition of “Waiting for the End of the World” be as valid as the “straight” version that we’re familiar with?

We expect everything to default to a definitive version. Variants are acceptable, but only within certain parameters.

Rock and roll doesn’t necessarily work that way. But our expectations do.

Costello: On with the Show

Elvis Costello & the Imposters, Caesar’s Windsor, April 21, 2012

In 1986—I think, as that was a long time ago, after all—the year that Elvis Costello and the Attractions put out Blood and Chocolate, they went out on tour in support of the record.  I saw them at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor.

Costello took on the guise of Napoleon Dynamite—his character, which (obviously) preceded that of the film of that name—during the show.  He allowed audience participation.  There was a large roulette-style wheel set up with names of songs on it.  Spin the wheel and get your tune performed.

And now Elvis Costello and the Imposters are out on tour in support of The Return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook!!!

I have seen Costello play umpteen times.  I know that as a GloNo participant I should have that number down cold.  But it is a number sufficiently high that I had written here back in 2005 that I’d seen a show done so well that I probably wouldn’t see him again.

Guess what?  Saturday night was better by a big factor.

Napoleon Dynamite made a return appearance.

There was the spinning wheel.  There was audience participation.

There was a go-go dancer who is drop-dead gorgeous.  I’d never seen a go-go dancer live before.  She was so incredible, I don’t need to see another one again.  Not that I’d mind.  But “Dixie De La Fontaine” moved so exceedingly well, that it would be hard to imagine her being bested.

There was a hostess, “Katarina Valentina Valentine,” who brought participants to the stage.

There was a set, including a black-and-white rabbit-ear-equipped TV showing static.  (Costello claimed it was tuned to Fox News.)

Yes, there was the band up there, as well—Nieve, Thomas, Faragher—and they did a spectacular job, as this was a spectacle (no, not referencing Costello’s chat show of that name).

The crowd at the venue in the Caesar’s Windsor Casino was appreciative and engaged, yet polite and reserved: They watched the show, as a show it was.

It occurs to me that when we talk about “going to see a band play” we often say, “I’m going to a concert.”  But for the most part, that’s really not right.  Isn’t a “concert” more along the lines of what a symphony plays?  Then there is “I’m going to see a performance of __________________.”  For example, when Steely Dan was out on tour and played a complete version of a given album, that was a “performance.”

And in the case of what Costello did, it was a “show,” and he gets the whole vaudevillian aspect of what that means, all the way to talking patter when doing setups between the bits.

The music.  Here I go back to This Year’s Model and Trust and Imperial Bedroom and Punch the Clock and. . . .

Costello has a fulsome catalog.  A rich variety of music.  But in this case, it was a show of the rock and roll done slow (e.g., “Allison”) and fast (“Radio, Radio”) and all tempos in between.  It was the stuff of then.  And for many of us, then was better than now.

But it didn’t seem like a revival tour, a retro act.  It seemed very much of the moment.  It seemed like this year’s model.

But it wasn’t.

But it was damn good.

And I sure as hell hope that in 2019 I don’t write “this could be the last time.”

The Police – Live in Chicagoland

The Police 2008 World TourThe Police with Elvis Costello at Allstate Arena

Saturday, May 10, 2008, Rosemont, Illinois

Twenty five years ago, Sting unleashed a cynical lyrical torrent on unsuspecting suburbanites everywhere with “Synchronicity II,” one family’s tale of mind numbing banality in the manicured hinterlands. The location is purposely unidentified because that’s the point of suburbia-it’s not ANYwhere at all—it’s neither the city nor the county, it’s neither cosmopolitan nor is it pastoral, it’s neither hip nor square. It simply IS.

Continue reading The Police – Live in Chicagoland

Stung: Steve Nieve’s Welcome to the Voice

steve-nieve-welcome.jpgSteve NieveWelcome to the Voice (Deutsche Grammophon)

If I had noticed that Welcome to the Voice was released on Deutsche Grammophon, I would have thought more about buying it. Or longer. But I was still in the mode of remembering when Elvis Costello introduced Nieve near the end of the recent Detroit show; he mentioned there was a forthcoming disc from Nieve, the maestro. So I didn’t notice. I didn’t stop and think. And now I have done my financial bit to support music that I’m not particularly interested in listening to. There are two reasons why this is so.

I’m not taken with the vocal stylings of Sting. And for many intents and purposes, Welcome to the Voice is a Sting-dominated recording. One might argue that the Brodsky Quartet is featured just as prominently, given their musical accompaniment, but Sting even trumps Barbara Bonney, a soprano opera singer, who sings the role of, well, the Opera Singer for whom Sting’s character, Dionysos, lusts. Robert Wyatt also sings quite a bit on the record, and when I think back to the Soft Machine selections that I enjoyed, I realize they were instrumentals. Costello does a couple of turns, as well, but comparatively speaking, they’re but cameos. So if I wanted to listen to Sting perform as he did when interpreting the work of Brecht and Weill, then I would have dug out a cassette of Lost in the Stars.

Continue reading Stung: Steve Nieve’s Welcome to the Voice

Elvis Costello: Let ’em Dangle

Visa presents ElvisElvis Costello & the Imposters at the State Theater

Detroit, May 11, 2007

So they go out on a truncated tour of portions of America—truncated by the metric of the typical 20-odd stops made on one continent, before moving on to another, which fundamentally becomes something of an endless tour, or at least a tour that segues into the next one. They go out not because it is in support of some new music, but because still another packaging of “greatest hits” has been released.

That term really doesn’t apply to the works of Costello, et. al., for the simple reason that “hits” is something of a term that more than intimates the movement of a considerable amount of commerce, and while the cadre of fans, supporters and other interested individuals can cite chapter and verse (after all, he writes the book), the oeuvre isn’t exactly the sort of thing that keeps the data miners at Billboard up late, adjusting figures; surprising, “Veronica” had more chart climbing traction than one might have imagined, and that undoubtedly is due, in no small part, to the aura of Macca.

Continue reading Elvis Costello: Let ’em Dangle

Elvis Costello: This Could Be the Last Time

You Really Got a Hold On MeElvis Costello & the Imposters

Michigan Theater, Ann Arbor, April 19, 2005

I don’t care if I ever see Elvis Costello in concert again.

No, not because of some huffiness, but because the performance that he and the Imposters put on at a sold-out Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor was so good that it is the kind of thing that can stand as a defining one. Having seen Costello several times through the years, I must admit that I wasn’t particularly interested in attending this concert. In recent years, either solo or with the band, it almost seemed as if he was always experimenting more than performing. This, one might argue, is what has made the body of work during the past 30 or so years so vital and relevant. But whereas you can listen to a disc and skip it or repeat it, shows are real-time events, and even though the price Costello commands is nowhere near some of the lesser luminaries on tour who demand astronomical sums, the commitment to attend a concert—financial and otherwise—for me overcomes, by and large, the desire to walk out. As good a song as “Allison” may be, how many more times do you need to hear it performed live? In my case, it seems, at least once more (with the other Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds” layered in before the final repetitions of the ironic phrase, “My aim is true.”)

Continue reading Elvis Costello: This Could Be the Last Time

Elvis Costello & the Imposters: Now I Try to be Amused

ElvisElvis Costello & the Imposters

Freedom Hill Amphitheater, Sterling Heights, MI, July 15, 2003

“He may be older, but he surely isn’t tired.”—overheard observation

Or maybe it has something to do with Diana Krall. There was Costello, looking more fit and trim than he has for years. An outdoor venue in July with the sun still high enough in the sky so that he could see the crowd without spots interfering. With the Imposters backing him (Nieve, Thomas [Pete], and Faragher). And he ripped into “Radio, Radio” and continued non-stop for over 20 minutes, playing essentially the “greatest hits” from My Aim Is True and This Year’s Model, supplemented with some other old tunes (e.g., “Every Day I Write the Book”) to some recent vintage (“Tear Off Your Own Head (It’s A Doll Revolution)”). He finished up that frenzied blast—one after the other after the other—with a twist, by doing the classic jazz standard “Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy.” Krall, again, perhaps, but still indicative of the Costello who’d throw in “My Funny Valentine” with “Watching the Detectives.” He came and he came hard.

Continue reading Elvis Costello & the Imposters: Now I Try to be Amused

Breaking Up With a Radio Sweetheart

We know musicians through a finite, bounded set of experiences. Primary are the artifacts, the recordings. Secondarily, there are the live performances that we attend. Although the attendance at a concert is more immediate and arguably more compelling than the playing of a disc, I’d like to suggest that the disc is primary because one has the opportunity to return to it again and again; a live performance, no matter how moving, exists as a memory trace that becomes fainter and fainter with time, as it is obscured by other experiences that we’ve had since the musical event.

The recording that we obtain is something that has been carefully vetted, selected, and certified (regardless of how raw it may sound). A set of people made a decision that defines (1) what the collection of compositions grouped is and (2) what version of the performance of those compositions will be released. In other words, if musicians were to perform 12 compositions in a studio, there is a decision made of, say, which two need to be left off for commercial (e.g., deemed to be not as good as the others) or technological (i.e., the density of the recording medium is limited in terms of the amount of data it can hold) constraints. What’s more, it is likely that there isn’t a single take of all 12 compositions, that the musicians have done several versions of each. In some cases, the attempt is made to improve upon a given rendering (i.e., to eliminate a flub from a previous take; to add some instrumentation for a better sound). In other cases, there are variant versions of a given composition (e.g., acoustic and electric; a capella and instrumental). Decisions are made as to how the musicians will be presented to us and so we come to know the musicians (or, more precisely, their sound) as a result.

Continue reading Breaking Up With a Radio Sweetheart

Bang a Gong, Get It On

When looking around for something to write about, I checked out rollingstone.com, figuring that there might be a hook or a bit of news that would be worth noting on this site. For example, I was pleased to see there that Elvis Costello will be releasing Cruel Smile next month, which will include live cuts from a tour that I chronicled here back on June 8.

That was the bit of news. But then there is the hook. Which is, arguably, the hook on the back of a bra. There, along the top of the page were photos of: (1) Bree Sharp; (2) Jennifer Love Hewitt (with a fetching Valley of the Dolls look designed to appeal to male libidos everywhere); (3) Eve. Not one skinny, gap-toothed signer or buff actor. Just the girls. (Not that I’m complaining, mind you.) But that trio cycles me back to Johnny Loftus’s piece here on September 4 about the change of guard at the periodical that was once all the news that fits (I promise to stop referencing this site). Now, it seems, what matters most is how snugly clothes can fit (assuming that they’re being worn).

Continue reading Bang a Gong, Get It On

Beginnings & Leavings

One of the things that we’ve talked about here at GloNo is coming up with a list of lines from songs that each of us likes for whatever reason. Which got me to think about songs that I’ve long appreciated, songs that are not necessarily widely known, or if known, not listened to in the same context as my listening involves.

While there are some songs that resonate as a whole with us, there are others that have a telling phrase that lingers even after we’re not sure of the other lyrics. It echoes in our memories, long after the cause of that memory is passed.

I guess that the lines that follow were selected based on my experience growing up, when I was pretty much trying to figure out relationships. I suspect that there is a certain male orientation to this, which I point out because I’m not sure whether there is a cross-gender feeling of not exactly inadequacy, but more of mystery: A feeling that perhaps young women were more likely to have it figured out. Or maybe not. Maybe we were all in the same fog-shrouded maze, trying to find the beginning and completely mystified as to the ending.

I should also note that the selections here are evidently not socio-political in bent, that they are based on relationships, potential, unrealized and fulfilled. This is not about sloganeering, of manning the barricades, of sticking it to the Man. There is propaganda. And there is poetry. I’ll leave the White Panther approach for another time.

One of the musicians whose work I most admire is Ricki Lee Jones. Her repertoire contains a wide selection of lines to choose from. It is fairly clear by examining her lyrics that she is self-consciously writing in the sense that if you look back into your English lit. books of the 19th and centuries earlier, you’ll find that poets wrote pieces that included the word “Song” in their title (e.g., just think of William Blake). Her “It Must Be Love” from The Magazine is a song that has probably had far more airplay than any of the other pieces she’s done with the exception of one (and you all know it). The plaintive line that strikes me:

I have seen you walking in the rain

I wanted to know why you were crying

I want to fix what’s wrong

There are many songs about walking in the rain. There’s even the famous “Singin’ in the Rain.” These songs tend to be upbeat (e.g., “Walkin’ in the rain with the one I love/feel so fine”). But here there’s a more appropriate reason. When you walk in the rain and cry, your tears are obscured by the raindrops. Yet the narrator of the song knows that it isn’t just water streaming down someone’s face: There’s pain.

In the same sort of context, there are lyrics from one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century, William “Smokey” Robinson. He could turn a better phrase than Michael Schumacher can turn a corner. In a matter of just a few minutes, Smokey and the Miracles were able to tell a story, a story that was often of heartbreak, which is something that everyone growing up could certainly relate to. It is exceedingly difficult to just select one of two lines. There are far too many. One of the things that Smokey examined was the whole relationship between image and reality, between the strong front and what is behind it. If Shakespeare had written pop songs, he’d probably have written the likes of “The Tracks of My Tears”:

So take a good look at my face

You see my smile looks out of place

Look closer, it’s easy to trace

The tracks of my tears

. . .

My smile is my makeup

I wear since my breakup with you.

There’s the issue of betrayal of “The Love I Saw In You Was Just a Mirage”:

There you were, beautiful

The promise of love was written on your face

You led me on, with untrue kisses

But you held me captive, in your false embrace.

And of the one who will undoubtedly find his love unrequited, despite its depth and truth, in “(Come ‘Round Here) I’m the One You Need”:

I may not be the one you want

But I know I’m the one you need

. . .

Girl, can’t you see while you’re longing for his touch

That I’m the one who loves you so much

As he put it in “More Love”:

This is no fiction, this is no act,

It’s real, it’s a fact.

While Elvis Costello is known for a variety of things, songs of heartache/break are a fundamental of his lyrics. While “Allison” is certainly full of this, a more interesting treatment is found in “The Only Flame In Town” (which, as we make the transition from Smokey, it is worth noting, features “blue-eyed soul” singer Daryl Hall on harmony):

She’s not the only flame in town

She’s got to stop thinking that I’m carrying this

Torch around.

Note that he’s actually carrying the torch, despite the fact that he’s trying to convince her that he’s not—which is really the last thing he wants to have happen. Once again, it is all about a brave face.

Finally, a verse from a musician who is the victim of the MTV-driven success of his “She Blinded Me With Science,” Thomas Dolby. To be sure, on its own, that is nothing more than a novelty record. But it is something that fits within the context of The Golden Age of Wireless, an album that is something of an audio Thomas Pynchon novel. But with “Science” being where most people started and stopped, Dolby has been pretty much dismissed to the level of the likes of The Thompson Twins. Which is unfortunate. Listen to his cover of Dan Hicks’s “I Scare Myself” from The Flat Earth and realize that Dolby puts his audio science to good work.

The lyric in question comes from Astronauts & Heretics, from the N’awlins spiced “I Love You Goodbye”:

Some words are sad to sing

Some leave me tongue-tied

(But the hardest thing to tell you)

But the hardest words I know

Are I love you goodbye

I love you goodbye

Note, this isn’t an ending, but a departing, a leaving. Once the tears are past, once the love has been gained, leaving isn’t such sweet sorrow. As Smokey asked back in 1961 in “What’s So Good About Goodbye”:

How can goodbye be good

To a lover who really cares?