Tag Archives: Elvis Costello

What to Listen to Now: Painted From Memory

If you have time to go through your stacks, pull out this disc.

One of the most evocative songs of the ‘60s is “Anyone Who Had a Heart” performed by Dionne Warwick. The song, released in 1963, was written by Burt Bacharach (music) and Hal David (lyrics). The two were to write a number of other songs performed by Warwick, including “Walk On By,” “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” and “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” (cheesy, but infectious).

The Bacharach/David partnership, which was to result in an array of music that is known for its performance better than authorship (e.g., they wrote “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”).

Fast forward to the mid-90s. Bacharach and Elvis Costello collaborated on a song, “God Give Me Strength,” for a movie, Grace of My Heart, starring Illeana Douglas (a character loosely based on someone like Carole King) and Matt Dillon (think Brian Wilson), released in 1996.

Then, two years later, Bacharach and Costello put out an album, Painted from Memory, which includes “God Give Me Strength,” as well as 11 other songs that the two collaborated on.

While it might seem somewhat bizarre that Costello would work with Bacharach, it is worth knowing that even back in ‘78, when he was still sardonic, Costello performed “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself,” a David/Bacharach composition that was first performed by Dusty Springfield in 1964. The Warwick version was released in ‘66. And the White Stripes rendition of “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself” was released in 2003.

Costello has shown a tendency to perform against type during his career. Consider, for example, that sandwiched between the albums Trust (‘81) and Imperial Bedroom (‘82) is Almost Blue (‘81), an album recorded in Nashville of country covers. (Remember: this is 1982, long before something like that was considered to be not at all stretching any bounds.)

In 1991 there was G.B.H., the soundtrack for a British TV show about left-wing politicos in the Age of Thatcher; in ‘93 he released The Juliet Letters, which he performed with the Brodsky Quartet, a classical band of musicians, arguably as far from the Attractions as one could imagine.

While Costello has proven himself to be nothing if not productive, turning out albums at least every couple of years in this early period, what is somewhat interesting to note is that after Painted from Memory came out in ‘98 there wasn’t another record until 2001, For the Stars, on which he teams with a mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter for a series of songs including the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)”, the Beatles’ “For No One” and “This House Is Empty Now”–which appears on Painted from Memory. Clearly, he recognized that it is such a good song that it bore repeating sooner rather than later.

While it might be difficult to argue that Painted from Memory is Costello’s best album, it wouldn’t be hard to maintain the position that his voice has never sounded better on a recording.

Painted from Memory is, in some ways, a fully realized sequence of songs that perhaps had its genesis in “Alison.” But the cool, sophisticated arrangements of Burt Bacharach takes this to an entirely different place.

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New (Old) Costello: Suspect My Tears

Video: Elvis Costello & The Imposters -- “Suspect My Tears”

Elvis Costello & The Imposters - Suspect My Tears

Directed by Mustashrik. From Look Now, due October 12 on Concord Records.

“Suspect My Tears” is ostensibly by Elvis Costello and the Imposters. Elvis is certainly front, center and foremost on the orchestration, for a full-throated orchestration it is. And, no doubt, Nieve, Thomas and Faragher are playing their instruments on the performance.

But the real sound comes from Burt Bacharach, the man with whom Costello collaborated on 1998’s Painted from Memory.

Now look at that date for a moment: 1998. That’s 20 years ago. A life and then some in professional music. When the two created that album Costello was 44. Bacharach 70. The two, remarkably, still have it.

When some people hear the strings, hear the back up vocals that might sound completely suitable for a Dionne Warwick single, hear the torch-song-like singing, their reaction might be: Costello has lost it.

But so far as “Suspect My Tears” goes (I’ve yet to hear the entire Look Now so I can’t comment on the other cuts), it is simply that Costello has gone back to a type of music that has the sort of emotional resonance that arguably has its roots in “Alison.” That song appeared along with “Welcome to the Working Week,” “Mystery Dance” and “Waiting for the End of the World” on 1977’s My Aim Is True. Arguably “Alison” is an anomalous cut on that disc, yet its lyric stands as the title of the whole thing.

So maybe Elvis is going back to his roots in some ways.

Costello has created a body of work over the past 40 years in a way that few of his contemporaries have. For example, take Graham Parker. He and the Rumour put out the same hard-driving “Pump It Up”-like music when Costello was with the Attractions. And Parker had and has the same lyrical gift that Costello has and a seemingly similar sensibility or worldview. Yet Costello has created everything from works with a string quartet to the soundtrack for a British TV show to country music to some of the most resonant rock of all time. Parker went solo, minimal, and then back with the Rumour (and now the Goldtops). Parker is an acquired taste that once imbibed continues. Costello is someone who seems to be constantly changing in some ways, yet clearly consistent. There seems to be more musical relevance and endurance, but the relevance is timeless.

“You’re not the only one who can turn it on
“When you need it
“I’ll cry until you suspect my tears.”

People don’t seem to write too much music about heartbreak any more.

So this is a rare thing. A rare, sumptuous, beautiful thing.

And if those adjectives aren’t the sort of thing that you associate with Costello, if Painted from Memory doesn’t strike you as the work of two brilliant collaborators, then God Give Me Strength.

Elvis Costello: web, twitter, amazon, apple, spotify, wiki.

Riot Fest 2018: Whole Lotta Shakin’

I’ve been attending big music festivals in Chicago every summer since 2005, but it’s been many many years since I arrived anywhere near early enough to see the opening wave of bands. There’s always bands I’d kinda like to see who play before 2:30pm but 3-day music festivals are work and you have to make sacrifices for your health and sanity.

Riot Fest scheduled Liz Phair to play at 2:10 on Friday this year. That’s early. Especially for a Friday. And even more so since I no longer live in Chicago. But I love Liz Phair, and it’s been a while since I’ve seen her in concert. In fact, I had tickets to see her in Detroit on Thursday but once the Riot Fest lineup was released, I decided to skip it. But that made it mandatory to arrive in Douglas Park in time.

I didn’t need to worry. Getting in to the park this year was easier than ever before. In fact, we made it inside with plenty of time to see festival opener Speedy Ortiz, who coincidentally is opening up for Liz Phair on her current tour. They were fun and cool. And their 30-minute set flew by.

The best thing about Riot Fest is that it’s got a small enough footprint that you can run around from stage to stage in no time. Five or ten minutes is all you need to get from one to the another. Unfortunately, this also means there’s soundbleed from other bands if you’re not standing directly in front of the stage. But it’s great to be able to skip around and get a sampler platter of everything that’s happening.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”)

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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.

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