Tag Archives: Steve Nieve

18th Favorite: Get Happy!!, by Elvis Costello and The Attractions

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Get Happy!! Elvis Costello and The Attractions.
1980, Columbia Records. Producer: Nick Lowe.
Purchased, 1998. (Rykodisc Reissue.)

IN A NUTSHELL: Get Happy!!, by Elvis Costello and The Attractions, is jam-packed with 20 songs that sound like 60s Motown and Stax records filtered through white British punks. The band is superheated, its muscular rhythms pumping behind Costello’s deft wordplay. Bassist Bruce Thomas is a standout, but everyone contributes to the party vibe. And even when the lyrics get downhearted, you’ll still Get Happy!!

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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My dad (r.) and me (l.) ca. 1969.

My dad died earlier this month. He was 78. He hadn’t been well for several years, and his last few years he spent trapped: confined, physically, to a wheelchair; and wandering, mentally, through the labyrinthine horrors of dementia. His death was seen by all of my family members as a blessing, as something that I thought should have rightfully taken place years earlier, something he should have been able to choose for himself at the onset of his afflictions. However, this was not to be the case.

He was a man from a bygone era. He was a child of the 40s, even though he came of age in the American Rock ‘n Roll 50s. He would have been a contemporary of Richie and Fonzie and the rest of the gang down at Arnold’s Drive-In, but he was not a Rock ‘n Roll guy. Sure, he loved fixing up old cars, the classic American 50s teen boy pastime, but his music was the swingin’ Big Band sounds of his youth: Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey. (Similarly, I clung to the 70s Classic Rock sounds when I was a teen, ignoring the new stuff around me.) Even in his formative years, he didn’t necessarily go along with the crowd.

The 1950s and 60s were some times of incredible industrial and technological advancements. It was a time of “better living through chemistry,” when science was going to save the “free world” from the commies, JFK promised a “New Frontier,” and the country was still unaware of some of the unintended consequences of such advancements: thalidomide babies, dioxin poisoning, lung cancer.

But despite the advancements of the day, my dad wasn’t terribly concerned with keeping up with the latest trends. He didn’t need the best Hi-Fi technology, or the latest in automotive trends to be satisfied with his life. He had a self-directed outlook, a type of self-possession that allowed him to make decisions with few external influences. Of course, this led to some wrong decisions, and it didn’t diminish the anxiety and guilt he felt over his decisions after the fact (he was the king of the land of “I Should’ve”). But there was something to be said for a man who recognized the inherent bullshit of the marketer’s “New and Improved!” sloganeering, and recognized, too, that so many people around him easily allowed that messaging to permeate all aspects of their lives. He was a skeptic of “New and Improved,” whether it was technological, cultural, societal or commercial.

But he was not a thickheaded dope who would cling to his beliefs in the face of evidence to the contrary. He was a smart guy. Also, he was very attuned to the people around him. The well-being of his loved ones and the feelings of those around him – whether he knew them or not – were very important. So while he may have been nostalgic for the old ways, he didn’t value the past over knowledge or humanity.

Sure, he may have griped in the 70s and 80s about the pointlessness of these new computers and computerized machines, but as a tool and die maker, when he got to use his first computer-aided machine (the one with the instruction course in Chicago, for which he had to take his first airplane ride ever, as a 37 year old) he recognized its value and acknowledged its advantages over the old machines. And even though he’d expressed the typical late-20th-century, straight, middle-American homophobia into his adulthood, when he saw his own loved ones fall in love he warmly welcomed their sweethearts into his home and life regardless of their gender and orientation. He was more comfortable opening his heart by reassessing his beliefs than using them to build a fortress around it.

Over the years I heard him reassess his thinking on little things, like Thai food, and big things, like race and gender. But at no time was I more aware of his ability to re-examine his beliefs and consider a different perspective than when my wife was expecting our first child, my dad’s first grandchild. I lived far away from my parents at the time, but when I’d call and tell him about all the late-90s preparations we were making – attending birth classes, hiring a doula, getting a gliding rocking chair with a gliding footrest – he seemed interested in all of it; this despite the fact that he’d matured in the Mad Men era of American men, when there were many, many issues about which a man was not expected to care, one of those being childbirth.

My dad got phone calls at work to let him know his kids had been delivered, just as he might have been notified that a new bathtub and sink had arrived at home. The difference would be that he’d be expected to work hard to remodel the bathroom when he got home, whereas the kids were to be almost entirely his wife’s concern, at least until they went to school. But when I discussed my own activities around the upcoming birth, he never mocked me, never said I was foolish, and never expressed a wish for a bygone era of indifference and inaction to return. When I told him about the experience of watching my child being born, he did say he was glad he didn’t see his own kids’ births, but also questioned why he didn’t choose to be at the hospital.

After my baby’s arrival, when my parents took a cross-country flight to visit their new grandson – something I was a little surprised they’d done – and he saw me changing diapers, giving bottles, and fussing over the baby’s cries and temperature and diet and routine, and when he heard and saw me exchanging smiles and baby talk and laughter with my infant, he said “Boy, things sure are different for dads nowadays.”

Happy Grandpa, happy grandson, 1999.

I said, “I’ll bet you’re glad you didn’t have to do all this stuff with your kids.”

To which he replied, with a bit of a sad smile, “It would have been okay. I’d have done it.”

He didn’t have to say more – we both knew what he meant. It was classic dad. If he saw the “new ways” were valuable and useful, he’d admit it – in very few words.

I’m thinking of my dad these days because his body recently left us. And during my experience as a new dad, from preparing for my first child through childbirth and into my new kid’s first year of life, the soundtrack to it all was Get Happy!!, by Elvis Costello and The Attractions. I’m sure my dad heard it when he came to visit. I’ve written before, a time or two, about my love of Elvis Costello. I spent the 90s diving into his entire catalogue, and by 1998 Get Happy!! was cued up.

Elvis is one of the most perfect songwriters for my taste in music. He’s close to (but obviously well-behind) Lennon & McCartney, on a par with XTC’s Andy Partridge, The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde and Steely Dan’s Becker & Fagan, and a few others. They’re all artists who write catchy melodies, have terrific lyrics and can pull it off while getting super-energetic. (Well, except for Becker & Fagan, who tend to get super-jazzy instead of super-energetic.)

And his work with his most famous backing band, The Attractions, is some of my favorite recorded music. Each of The Attractions brings a style and vigor to the songs that suit Costello’s twitchy melodies and head-cold singing style perfectly. By the late 90s I was devouring Elvis, and while my wife was pregnant the songs on this record resonated with me. First of all, the album title provided a good reminder to me whenever the situation felt overwhelming or worrisome or scary that the biggest feeling I held was one of happiness. Secondly, the songs themselves are almost entirely upbeat, danceable, energetic songs that are hard to hear without smiling. Thirdly, the lyrical content often connected with me, even when the songs clearly were not meant to be about new families and future dads.

For example, “Opportunity” is clearly not about the opportunity inherent in starting a family, but the first word is “born,” and the first verse does speak of family …

As with many EC lyrics, I don’t know exactly what they mean, but they stick with me nonetheless. His clever wordplay and economy of words (“The chairman of the boredom is a compliment collector/I’d like to be his funeral director”) are striking, even when they’re obtuse. Musically, the song encapsulates what Get Happy!! is all about: organ and bass and drums. Keyboardist Steve Nieve boops and beeps while bassist Bruce Thomas plays a clean, bouncing line throughout. Along with drummer Pete Thomas, The Attractions really carry the load on this record, with Costello’s guitar only making cameo appearances – some nice strumming in the choruses, a little twist during the fade out.

I love “Opportunity” for its melody, its sound, Costello’s voice – and also my reminiscences of impending fatherhood. But it’s one of the more mellow tracks on this album of 20 tracks, (which Elvis promoted in America with a pretty funny TV commercial.) The record in full is an upbeat salute to 60s Motown and Stax records, with the band speeding ahead, full-tilt on catchy, danceable numbers like the opening track, “Love For Tender.”

Bruce Thomas is a phenomenal bassist, and as a bass-playing hack myself, I find him astonishing. He pumps these songs full of life, like at 0:40, his fast walking bass line in the pre-chorus. This song uses Costello’s considerable metaphorical skills to position himself as the banker of love to someone who won’t make a withdraw. I love the backing vocals, which Elvis provides himself, behind the chorus, and I love the energy of the entire song, up through the four-note finale. It’s clearly an homage to 60s soul, and songs like “5ive Gears in Reverse,” and “I Stand Accused” also carry the Stax/Motown torch. (The latter is actually a 60s British Invasion song that the band perks up, with Elvis coolly spelling out the title at the very end.)

Another soul-sounding treat is the wonderful “Temptation,” whirling organ and all.

This song actually features some of Elvis’s subtle guitar work, but once again the star is the backing band. Nieve’s organ, Bruce Thomas’s Duck Dunn-esque bass, Pete Thomas’s ahead-of-the-beat drumming … The lyrics are straightforward temptation-based. It’s a dance-fest of a song, just like the band’s furious reworking of an old Sam & Dave slow number, “I Can’t Stand Up (For Falling Down).” The album is chock-full of hyper energy, found in songs like the straight ahead stomp of numbers like “Beaten to the Punch,” and “The Imposter.” (The band could definitely pull off these numbers live, too!)

Elvis and the band do slow things down now and then, and my favorite of these mellower pieces is the atmospheric one-man-band piece “New Amsterdam.”

Elvis plays all the instruments on this fine waltz, keenly strumming his acoustic guitar and adding some sturdy bass lines, and displays some clever wordplay as well. It’s another song about his difficult love life, in which he wonders if he can “step on the brakes to get out of her clutches.” His inventive wordsmithing is also on display in the ballad “Motel Matches,” in which Elvis’s lady friend’s duplicity, and presumably, affections are given away “like motel matches.” “Secondary Modern” has perhaps Elvis’s strongest vocal performance. And in the album closer “Riot Act,” Elvis defends himself against an unwarranted onslaught from what he claims was a slip of the tongue.

These slow songs are all terrific, but it’s the energetic, upbeat ones I’m drawn to, particularly those featuring Bruce Thomas’s bass, such as “B Movie.”

The song has a weird, echoing drum sound, has a little out of time piece just after each verse, and one can actually hear a little guitar throughout. Bruce’s bass line keeps the song bouncing along, and the lyrics are standard Elvis complaints. This is one of a few songs that stretch out the album’s musical theme, straying from the 60s R&B template. Another is the ska song “Human Touch,” a plea to escape the modern world that “looks like luxury and feels like a disease.” “Possession“, with its clever couplet “You lack lust/ you’re so lackluster,” and “Black & White World,” which the band played on the BBC, where pianist Steve Nieve was forced to pretend to play guitar, are a couple super-catchy mid-tempo songs.

But it’s the upbeat, 60s stuff I really, really love – even when I don’t know what they mean. For example, “King Horse.”

It opens with a regal piano riff, then features Elvis singing along to Bruce’s bass. There are terrific harmony vocals, provided by Elvis himself, throughout. The tension builds through each verse, then is released with each chorus by Pete’s introductory snare roll. The lyrics are a pastiche of phrases around relationships that, to be honest, sound great but make no sense to me. But he clearly knows we’re all King Horse. At least the lyrics to “Clowntime Is Over” make sense, even if the tempo change throughout the song doesn’t.

“Men Called Uncle” has a looping melody, with a plea to a woman to give up the older men in her life.

It opens with a great piano, and Bruce’s bass again keeps the song pumping along. The songs on this album just make me want to dance and sing along. I often listen to the SiriusXM 60s soul station, listening for great numbers that I’ve never heard before. That’s what this album is like: it’s one catchy, bouncing, soulful song after the next.

My favorite song on Get Happy!! is “High Fidelity,” a song I was SHOCKED was not included in the soundtrack to the 2000 film of the same name.

Elvis’s voice is scratchy and torn, sounding like the end of a long night spent on stage, howling out hit after hit. The chorus has great harmony vocals, the lyrics

Me and my dad. September 2018.

are again about a woman who done him wrong; he’s wondering if her new lover expects High Fidelity, as he once did. It’s fun and catchy and epitomizes everything I love about the record.

Get Happy!! is an album in which Elvis Costello and The Attractions tried something new, moved away from the new wave, post-punk sound and embraced a different way of making songs. It worked perfectly. Humans are at their best when they learn to reconsider their beliefs and actions, to peek into what else is out there and incorporate it. This is what my dad did, and it’s one of the things I’ll miss about him. But Get Happy!! will always remind me of him.

Track Listing:
“Love for Tender”
“Opportunity”
“The Imposter”
“Secondary Modern”
“King Horse”
“Possession”
“Men Called Uncle”
“Clowntime Is Over”
“New Amsterdam”
“High Fidelity”
“I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down”
“Black & White World”
“5ive Gears in Reverse”
“B Movie”
“Motel Matches”
“Human Touch”
“Beaten to the Punch”
“Temptation”
“I Stand Accused”
“Riot Act”

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46th Favorite: This Year’s Model, by Elvis Costello and The Attractions

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This Year’s Model. Elvis Costello and the Attractions.
1978, Radar Records. Producer: Nick Lowe.
Purchased, ca. 1997. (Rykodisk)

IN A NUTSHELL: A record all the critics love – but don’t let that stop you from listening! It’s the first appearance by The Attractions, a wonderfully talented rhythm section, and they do not disappoint. Elvis spits out his cleverly crafted lyrics (mainly about his troubles of the heart) with disdain – and a bit of self-conscious humor – and never stops the party. I won’t tell you it’s awesome – I’m no authority, after all – I’ll just tell you I love it!
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In 1974 I was in second grade and my teacher was Mrs. Miller. She was approaching retirement when I had her, which means she had been teaching second graders since before World War II. She was chubby and severe-looking, with gray hair pulled into a bun and little granny glasses perched on her nose, looking not unlike Calvin’s nemesis, Miss Wormwood, from Calvin & Hobbes. Sometime early in the school year she made a statement to the class that I knew to be incorrect. I don’t remember what it was, but I do know that I raised my hand and pointed out her error. She replied, “Do not correct me. I am the teacher, and the teacher is never wrong.” My little seven year old self fumed and thought: “Bullshit!”

For a long time I’ve had a bit of a problem with Authority Figures. It’s nothing that’s very radical. I’m not an Anarchist, I don’t have a manifesto. I’ve never been fired or reprimanded at a job because I couldn’t get along with my boss. I’ve never been thrown out of a sporting event for yelling at referees. I never got detention in school or arrested for mouthing off to a cop. I’m aware of how society works, faults and all, and I’m fortunate to be a member of a group for whom it is easiest to remain polite and smiling while I feign deference.

But I still don’t buy into all that “Authority” bullshit.

My questions regarding authority always boil down to these: “Who gave you Authority?” and “What is supposed to be encompassed within that Authority?” Assholes who abuse their authority generally don’t understand the correct answer to one of those two questions.

Let’s take the second question first: “What is supposed to be encompassed within that authority?” People who believe their authority allows them to act like a dick are some of my least favorite people. In 2001, I went to the Brookline, MA, building permit department to ask a question about renovating my garage. I waited twenty minutes to finally get to the front of the line. Then, the short, chubby building-permit guy, who wore a gaudy pinky ring and a hairdo from 1975, halted my question after 3 seconds by turning his back on me to turn to his secretary and ask, “Did I tell you I found another dead squirrel in my pool this morning?” He then began a five-minute conversation with her about wildlife and aquatics, while I waited patiently – sure that if I interrupted, he’d answer my question in the way that most negatively impacted me. It was a completely asshole move, and if I remembered that dick’s name I’d tell you right now. He knew he had some “authority,” and felt it allowed him to be a lousy human being to others. (And not to sound too superior, but the dude was a building-permit guy in a small town. It’s not like he was saving lives or acting heroically. The dick.) But his authority really wasn’t supposed to encompass assholishness.

The question of “Who gave you Authority?” is trickier. It may imply that as long as I get an answer that is accurate (i.e. “There’s a law in our town about building permits and how they’re attained;” “I was hired by the principal to be your second-grade teacher.”) I’ll be satisfied and accept the person’s role. However, there have been times I’ve had issues with those who’ve been given legitimate authority. For example, I was summoned for jury duty in San Francisco many years ago, and during the process of jury selection a question that was asked of every candidate was this: “Is there any reason you’d be unable to follow the judge’s instructions?” The jury was selected before I was ever questioned, so I never got a chance to answer: “If the judge instructs me to do something I think is inappropriate or incorrect, I won’t follow the instructions.” (Is that Contempt of Court? I probably have a lot of contempt for many U.S. courts – even the highest.)

That being said, in most cases I’ll initially extend extra benefit of the doubt to someone who’s been duly granted authority in some official way. However, I tend not to extend it to those who have “authority” for no other reason than they clicked on an Indeed.com link. For example, Music Critics.

According to my deep, deep research, including watching historical documentaries, arts criticism has been around since the time of Aristotle, Plato and ancient India – proving that humans have always gotten off on talking shit about each other. In its most serious and legitimate form, arts criticism can be an academic pursuit undertaken by curious researchers seeking answers to larger questions; or an intellectual pursuit by writers seeking to investigate and understand the arts and artists. I have no problem with these functions, as I’m probably not sophisticated or patient enough to unravel most of these writings, and I’m way past being interested in pretending to be interested.

AN ASIDE: I will, however, sometimes read the art reviews by the celebrated New Yorker writer Peter Scheldahl just so I can meditate over poetic prose that is, to me, as inscrutable as a foreign menu. For example, a review of a recent retrospective at The Guggenheim of the abstract artist Agnes Martin states: “The cumulative effect is that of intellectual and emotional repletion, concerning a woman who synthesized the essences of two world-changing movements—Abstract Expressionism and minimalism—and who, from a tortured life, beset by schizophrenia, managed to derive a philosophy, amounting almost to a gospel, of happiness.” To me, that’s a lot of blabberty-flabber-jabber to describe a blue square full of little black squares, but it sure sounds good. And I certainly don’t know enough to challenge his assertions.

However, from these high-minded pursuits by hyper-focused and, perhaps, hyper-intelligent minds it is a short and slippery slope to writing about arts in a manner that is pedantic, condescending and self-important. Or put more plainly – these critics can easily come off as assholes. They can be not unlike those hipster bullies I met 25 years ago in San Francisco, timid individuals shat upon throughout life who banded together to shit upon others over their culturo-artistic ideas. They can be like the record store gang in the film High Fidelity, extolling arts and artists from a position on high to other people, many of whom are eager to reflect some of that superiority onto friends and acquaintances. This desire to be an expert leads folks to, for example, assume that a record that is unlistenable must have been, based on a few words by some “authority,” misapprehended by themselves and the public at large, and so must, despite what their ears tell them, be, in fact, a work of genius. Some folks even think rock critics of the past leveraged this blind obedience by some to perpetrate ingenious hoaxes.

Sometimes, as I’ve written before, the cause of the assholery is pure, unmitigated jealousy toward someone artistically more successful than the critic. Sometimes it may just be hidden biases, such as the critic Byron Coley, who states in the really cool, funny film Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King, that the (largely unknown) band Half Japanese were better than The Beatles. I’m aware of my pro-Beatle bias, but I don’t know that Coley – who stated in an interview that he never liked The Beatles because girls liked them – is aware of his own biases. And while I have no problem with the artistic pursuits of a band like Half Japanese, I can’t really take Coley seriously when he states that the first time he heard HJ he recognized a “burst of genius unrivaled … since Coltrane …” Listen to that genius right here.

My issue with the statement “better than The Beatles” isn’t that Coley believes it. After all, the reason there’s all kinds of music is because there’s all kinds of taste. My issue is that he didn’t state “I think” before the words. Instead, he stated it as if it’s a fact, as if liking The Beatles more than Half Japanese would be akin to believing that the Earth is flat. In reality, Half Japanese isn’t better than The Beatles, and The Beatles are not better than Half Japanese. The truth is some folks like one band better, a few billion more like the other band better. That’s it.

Critics are just people, after all, and will admit they get it wrong sometimes. And as people, they may simply have different tastes than me (and some other critics.) And I don’t deny there is a place for criticism, even in the modern world of free samples everywhere. But still, I tend to not trust music critics – even (especially?) the most-respected ones. I rarely know why they’re considered authorities; and wherever that authority comes from, I don’t believe it entitles anyone to say anything more than “This is what I think is good/bad …”

What do I do, then, when I find I really like a really highly critically acclaimed record?!

This isn’t the first critically-acclaimed record on my list. But Elvis Costello is definitely one of those artists who was a critical darling before he was a big star (at least in America), causing David Lee Roth, of Van Halen, to famously quip: “Of course the rock critics all love Elvis Costello. They all look like him!!” And this record, This Year’s Model, was particularly well-received, with practically every single music magazine of the day effusively gushing over it. So I have to be careful: am I just buying into the critical hype of an artist? Has my judgement been clouded by my own desire to appear sophisticated to friends and family?

I’ve written before about my introduction to Elvis Costello. And the fact is that I’ve always liked him. He was a big part of early MTV, which I watched as close to round-the-clock as school/activities allowed. Songs like “Oliver’s Army,” “Every Day I Write the Book,” and “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding” were regularly shown, and I liked them all. At this time, in the early 80s, I was also a big fan of AOR radio, and Elvis songs were played there, as well. “Alison,” “Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes,” “Watching the Detectives.” I liked all the songs I heard – yet I didn’t start diving into his albums until the late 90s.

This Year’s Model is Costello’s second album, but the first with The Attractions backing him. And in my opinion, Elvis always sounds best when he’s backed by The Attractions: Pete Thomas on drums, Bruce Thomas (no relation) on bass, and Steve Nieve on keyboards. They play with a great energy, and they’re also technically really good. Right off the bat on this album, drummer Pete Thomas gets to shine on the opener “No Action.”

It starts with a vocals-only opening, a technique Elvis used frequently, then the band bursts in in a clamor. Actually, everyone is playing simple chords and notes, except drummer Thomas, who is flailing away, giving the song great urgency. Costello writes catchy melodies, which is undoubtedly a big reason why I – who grew up on 70s AM radio pop – like his songs so much. The chorus features nice harmony vocals, and after 2 quick minutes, in which Elvis claims not to miss his ex, yet sounds unconvincing, the whole thing ends. It’s very compact, and features the clever wordplay for which Costello became famous: “Everytime I phone you/I just wanna put you down.” It’s a bracing opener, which serves to heighten the poppy bounce of the next song, “This Year’s Girl.”

This song is bassist Bruce Thomas’s chance to shine. He’s one of my favorite rock bassists for his inventive lines and his use of the entire neck. After a few measures of drums and guitar, at about 22 seconds, bassist Thomas ventures way up the neck – signaling how he’ll travel throughout the song. His bouncing bass line really carries the song. This song also has another catchy melody, and keyboardist Nieve fills in some cool sounds in the background, like at around 1:20. In the chorus there are nice harmony vocals, that Elvis supplies himself via double-tracking. (No one but EC is credited with vocals on the record.) The lyrics describe the fantasy created by pin-ups, the disconnect between the reality and the effect of them. At 3 minutes, bassist Thomas gets to play a little lead bass on the fadeout.

Elvis Costello and The Attractions are a high-energy band, and they keep This Year’s Model cranking along with the next song, a 60s-inspired, organ-driven “The Beat.” The melody isn’t as strong as some of the other Costello songs, and the lyrics are typical Elvis-freaked-out-by-women (which he tends to deliver with a tinge of self-conscious humor), but the performance of the rhythm section is nonpareil, especially Bruce Thomas’s bass in the slow section, after 2:10. He really gets to shine on the next cut, too, a track that’s become a favorite “Jock Jam,” featured at US sporting events to get the crowds, well, pumped up: “Pump It Up.”

The video captures perfectly the odd, twitchy persona that Elvis and his band brought to MTV fans of the early 80s. Ill-fitting suits, crooked teeth, herky-jerky movements … they didn’t look, or sound, like Triumph or .38 Special, or other AOR bands of the day. But “Pump It Up” is irresistible, with – once again – Bruce Thomas’s bass carrying the load. Elvis has a few nifty bent chords in the beginning, and then on top of the ping-pong bass and Pete Thomas’s ahead-of-the-beat drums he spits out lyrics that I once read were about masturbation, but that seem to me more of Elvis’s standard “what’s the deal with me and the ladies?” frustration. Keyboardist Nieve (who never played in a rock band, and didn’t listen to rock music, until he joined The Attractions at age 19) is the master of the little background fills that help drive a song. I like how the last verse modulates up a step, and “Jock Jam”-y as it may be, I still find it satisfying the way the song builds, then hangs on a note, before the tension is released with Costello’s shouted “Hey!”

Those may be (without giving it much extra thought) my four favorite songs to kick off an album. (Then again, considering this is only #46, that’s probably not true. But I do love them!) But the band settles things down with the next song, the New Wave country of “Little Triggers,” featuring some of Costello’s best wordplay about another woman who done him wrong.

I typically find Elvis’s slower songs less interesting than his upbeat ones, but this song – with the rhythm section’s disdain for typical country swing, Nieve’s piano fills and Elvis’s expressive voice – is one that I enjoy. He also slows things down later on with “Night Rally,” a type of march about (I think) the unrecognized influence of pop culture. Costello has a number of different styles on the record, but they all have that New Wave influence. “Living In Paradise” is almost a calypso song, with more outstanding B. Thomas work. “You Belong to Me” sounds almost like a 60s Motown record, with a nifty guitar riff and ringing organ. “Hand In Hand” opens strangely, and features Elvis’s tremolo guitar and Nieve’s cool doodles, then turns into a 60s girl-group style pop song.

Another favorite of mine on the album is the driving word barrage and rhythmic gem “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea.”

It opens with a drum fill that Pete Thomas admits he lifted from Hendrix drummer Mitch Mitchell’s performance on “Fire.” This song really drives home the fact that The Attractions are simply a rhythm section: drums, bass, keys. Costello also plays mainly rhythm guitar, although in “Chelsea” he throws in a cool riff, but the band is basically Elvis singing to a rhythm section. Again, B. and P. shine (Bruce’s slide at the beginning of each chorus a particular favorite of mine!), but Elvis’s mush-mouthed, frantic delivery is what steals the show. The song’s about his disdain for London’s high-end fashion scene, in the Chelsea district, but includes a double meaning (as many of his lyrics do), as England also has the famous Chelsea Asylum.

The Attractions make every song energetic, whether it’s the frantic, borderline falling-apart “Lipstick Vogue” (including more clever lyrics about a woman who done him wrong) or the 60s-inspired pop masterpiece, “Lip Service.”

I like the structure of this song, the chord change in the pre-chorus (“Everybody is going through the motions”) and the riff the bass and guitar play in the chorus. Once again, Elvis is lamenting his love life. It’s a cool-sounding, sing-along song.

Every now and then I have to admit that someone in authority is correct. My mom was right: I should’ve worn a hat. That professor was right: I should’ve gone to the recitation. And while I still question the “authority” of music critics, I also have to agree that This Year’s Model is an incredible work. It’s The Attractions’ first and they play like they really want to keep the job. It’s Elvis at his fiery best. It’s a lot of what I look for in a record, even if I might not admit it to you if you’re a music critic!

Track Listing
“No Action”
“This Year’s Girl”
“The Beat”
“Pump It Up”
“Little Triggers”
“You Belong To Me”
“Hand In Hand”
“(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea”
“Lip Service”
“Living In Paradise”
“Lipstick Vogue”
“Night Rally”

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56th Favorite: Blood and Chocolate, by Elvis Costello and The Attractions

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Blood & Chocolate. Elvis Costello and the Attractions.
1986, Columbia Records. Producer: Nick Lowe and Colin Fairley.
Purchased 1999.

bloodchocolatealbum

56nutshellIN A NUTSHELL: Often referred to as an “angry young man,” Elvis Costello has never been angrier than on this collection of 11 rough, bitter and spiteful tunes – and they sound TERRIFIC! The Attractions play loud and straight, offering little adornment, and Costello sings of the women who done him wrong and the ugliness around him, the only state his vengeful eyes can see. It’s a bit overwhelming, but the tunes are great and his vocals are, too!
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I have been bobbing in a great sea of anger for months. All of America has.

You see, a giant, orange, talking turd has recently spent a year tapping cute-cat-1into many white Americans’ hatefulness, bigotry and low self-esteem to cause a flatulescent release of their previously (mostly) un-vented anger. What were they angry about? Well, the temerity of America to elect an African American as president – twice! And this anger drove them to ensure that no smart-ass woman was going to follow him there. “We’d rather have a childish business failure who is clearly lying to our faces – as long as he’s a white man,” they said. (I’d typically find links to references for all these claims, but if you’re reading this and don’t believe what I’m saying … well, my links won’t help you.) This stinky piece of shit will soon be president.

While this was happening, a large group of intellectual people who have difficulty disguisingcute-dog-1 their condescension toward the less well-educated whites around them (but who make a bit of an effort if the dimwit in question is a person of color) were filled with rage over the phony “journalists” on TV and interwebs and newspapers who realized that they’d get better election-year ratings and more “likes” if they pretended that debunked stories of one candidate’s email servers were the equivalent of the enormous totality of evidence that the other candidate was profoundly disturbed and unworthy of the presidency, thus keeping the race close.

The outcome of this election has also caused tremendous anger within myself. Anger at fellow cute-cat-2whites who have now made me feel like I should apologize to every woman and every person of color and every immigrant I know or meet, or perhaps wear a sign that says, simply, “Did Not Vote for Hateful Orange Turd.” Anger at whiny, entitled “millennials” whose mommies never told them that their snowflake-specialness and wall of participation trophies wouldn’t be enough to ensure a perfect candidate ran for president every time. Anger at the entire American process which is patently undemocratic, and the Myth of the Constitution that is taught in schools, and so perpetuates the dysfunction of the system. And anger at myself for getting so angry. I really shouldn’t allow myself to get so angry that I’m in the state I am now: questioning the value of long friendships and family connections; questioning the worth of the u.s.a. as a place to keep my kids safe and among decent folks; questioning whether it’s even worthwhile counting down my favorite albums.

As a child I was taught that getting angry was a bad thing. cute-bunny“Well, getting mad won’t help!” my mom often told me at times when it was most unhelpful – for instance, when I thought a teacher gave me an unfair grade; or when the baseball game I was looking forward to playing in was rained out; or if someone at school said something mean to me. Each hurdle in life was to be faced with a smile, and if you couldn’t overcome a hurdle without anger, well, then it was probably better to just accept the fact that you weren’t crossing it and learn to adapt to life on this side of the hurdle. With a smile.

I would try to follow mom’s guidelines, but I still found myself getting angry in certain anger-inducing situations. And so, since I wasn’t supposed to get angry, I started feeling bad about myself for not being able to control my anger. Finally, after a game of intramural basketball cute-dog-2(of all things) in college, I decided to change. After a particularly troubling loss, a referee told me, “You’re good, but you’d be a hell of a player if you didn’t get so angry out there. When you play angry, your game gets worse.” This sweaty, pot-bellied, middle-aged man in Sansabelt poly-stretch pants couldn’t have known, but the best way to reach me with any message is to wrap it up in flattery of my (rather spare) athletic abilities. I endeavored to learn to let stuff roll off my back, to shrug off small slights and injustices, to transform myself into the “happy-go-lucky guy.” (I recognize now how closely the “happy-go-lucky guy” mirrored my dad’s “quiet, reserved guy.”)

cute-cat-ducksThe only problem with the “happy-go-lucky guy” is that he isn’t me! I spent 10 years ignoring anger and pretending to be “chill” about things that really upset me, while still feeling the anger rise within me, and having it burst out in weird, unexpected ways, just as it did in my dad’s “quiet, reserved guy.” And then, afterwards, I’d still end up feeling guilty about it. I was right back to where I was as a child! It took a good psychotherapist and a good girlfriend and several years of living to reach the point where I am now: still unsure of how to best relate to feelings of anger, but at least conscious of them, and their effects on me. The biggest change since the “happy-go-lucky-guy” days is that I now clearly understand that the FEELINGS of anger are normal, and they are separate from, and different than, the ACTIONS of anger. This understanding has made me, I think, a better person and has clearly made me a better parent/husband/friend than I otherwise would be.

The reason this distinction helps is that – first of all – it allows me to feel okay about being angry. Anger is normal – even the Dalai Lama himself gets angry sometimes. Secondly, when these feelings are identified as separate from the actions of anger, it allows me to ask the question, “So, what am I going to do about it?” When feelings and actions of anger are mingled, chaos reigns and solutions are not easily reached. cute-polar-bearThis mingling of feelings and actions is often described as a statement of “When I get mad, I …” For example, “When I get mad, I scream at people!” “When I get mad, I break things!” “When I get mad, I stop passing to my teammates and take all the shots myself!” It gives the holder of the feelings license to act in ways that may be hard on others, or dangerous, or not conducive to winning basketball games. After all, if anger is a typical human emotion, and part of my anger is throwing a lamp at you, well, we’re all just going to have to accept a few lamps whizzing around as just part of my anger “thing.”

However, if actions are recognized as separate from the feelings of anger, this can lead to any range of actions on my part. I now have a selection of responses. I can scream and shout, I can write a letter, I can vent to a loved one, I can make some art, I can call a timeout and explain to my teammates that #40 continues to set up on the three-point line and drain his shots, and somebodyfriendhug (Bob, I’ll just give you a look, no need to name names in the huddle … for now) has to get on him and get a hand in his face!!!

I can write a blog post that references a human piece of shit who will be the most powerful person in the world. I can mock the ridiculous babies who voted for him. I can hug my family and keep them close. I can continue to support and work for the policies in which I believe. I can get together with my liberal friends, who – like me – have supported everything that the piece of shit stands against, and we can vent and chat and plan our actions and feel secure in the knowledge that it’s not we who are fucked up, it is the turd’s supporters. I can pity those ugly turd voters, for their hate and ignorance cute-cat3and childishness won’t get them what they think they want; and it won’t change who I am, or what I believe, or what I know: that – as Dr. Martin Luther King said – “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

And when my anger subsides, I can continue to choose love as my guiding principle. That will be the best “Fuck You” to those supporters of President Turd – because when I have reached that place I won’t even feel like I’m saying “Fuck You,” but those assholes will still think I am.

And I can listen to music. And it just so happens that my #56 album is one of the angriest albums I know: Blood & Chocolate. I didn’t plan to listen to the angriest album I own during the angriest weeks of my country’s existence since 1865, it just worked out that way – the universe has a sense of humor. Or maybe just a good sense of timing – it’s hard to find humor right now.

elvis-faceI’ve written before about my introduction to Elvis Costello. How I was interested in him as a young teen in the late 70s and early 80s, but never bought an album. How I saw him sing a song on a movie on TV. How I enjoyed his MTV videos, and respected his words and music, and saw him, in 1986, in one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen in my life, but still never bought an album until the late 1990s.

By the time Blood & Chocolate came out, in 1986, I already thought of Elvis Costello as a has-been. Sometime in my freshman year of college, I had heard his remake of “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” and I thought “Okay, he’s done. As soon as an artist starts pilfering old hits, it signals the end of the line.” By then, songs like “Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes” and “Watching the Detectiveselvis1 and “(What’s So Funny About) Peace Love and Understanding” seemed like ancient events.

At the beginning of my sophomore year, my girlfriend’s little sister announced, “Elvis Costello’s new record is called Blood & Chocolate! Isn’t that such a cool name??!” I remember thinking, “That poor kid. Doesn’t even realize he’s a has-been. She should get into a hot new band, built to last, like Night Ranger.” However, I did think “Blood & Chocolate” was an excellent name for an album, immediately conveying the basic duality of human relationships.

Costello writes, in his autobiography of 2015, attractions-1that the album was recorded while The Attractions were not getting along with each other. The band was angry about their limited participation in his most recent album, King of America. Costello was struggling with the realization that The Attractions weren’t capable of playing some of his newer songs properly. The tension was palpable. Producer Nick Lowe captured it by recording the band playing at near-concert volume, and using limited overdubs to make the sound on the record immediate and loud – like a cry of pain when you smash your thumb. In the autobiography, Costello compares the songs to “freshly inflicted wounds,” and “blurred and unfortunate Polaroids that people used to keep to document their worst desires and unhappy love affairs before we had the blessings of phone cameras.”

The tone of the album is set immediately on the clattering chords that open it, sounding almost like a cranky child banging on a guitar in frustration.

“Blood and Chocolate/I hope you’re satisfied what you’ve done,” Elvis sings on “Uncomplicated,” as the band slams their instruments again and again on a single note. “You think it’s over now/But we’ve only just begun.” The lyrics are a bit obscure, but their delivery indicates it to be about a fearful man who won’t accept the fact his girlfriend is gone. It’s simple to him – he wants her back. Keyboardist Steve Nieve plays some of his whirling organ riffs, familiar to Attractions fans, but other than that the song is really instrumentally unadorned. It’s a one note song in many ways, and that one note is anger.

The next song presents a more fiery, less smoldering anger that allows The Attractions to really shine. If there could be any doubts about the song’s theme, they are erased by the title: “I Hope You’re Happy Now.”

Elvis has always been fond of these songs with vocal-only openings. attractionsBruce Thomas’s busy, roller-coaster baseline propels the song, and Steve Nieve’s chiming keyboards in the choruses sound really great. Drummer Pete Thomas is perfectly sloppy and wonderful. But it’s Elvis’s furious vocal delivery, spitting venom at a lover who’s found someone else, that makes the song work. He never seems to give himself easy lyrics to sing, fitting the words in very tightly within the melody, but he definitely has a sense of humor, as in the lines “He’s acting innocent and proud still you know what he’s after/Like a matador with his pork sword, while we all die of laughter.” (Pork sword – heh.) The effect of the song is not unlike watching a customer ahead of you in line chew out a clerk and storm off. However, instead of feeling uncomfortable and awkward, I want to hear more.

Luckily, the next song is even better – and just as bitter. Elvis packs even more words into the melody of “Tokyo Storm Warning,” and this time their target isn’t one person.

It’s clear from reading the lyrics that the song is about the approaching end of the world, and his indifference to it. And hearing its references to the KKK, and imagery of bleak life around spinning-tourthe globe while the wealthy thrive makes me wonder if Mr. Costello had a crystal ball back in 1986 that projected 30 years forward. Once again, he fires these lyrics off with intensity, and heightening the rage is the fact that there are no breaks from singing – verse and chorus follow verse and chorus, with barely a break to catch breath. The song is reminiscent of a silly old falsetto 60s song, “Bread and Butter,” (which I first heard on a TV commercial) but the band elevates it under Nick Lowe’s wall-of-noise production. There’s a nifty backwards guitar line at the end, but other than that the song is simple, relentless fury.

It might sound like it’s all too much, all this anger, but the melodies and sound and Elvis’s charismatic voice keep it from overwhelming me. And he also has a different take on the emotion on songs like the cleverly titled “Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head.”

On this track, the anger turns inward, becomes sadness. It’s a nieveday-in-the-life of unrequited love, and its lyrics’ descriptions of that condition are reminiscent of The Beatles’ excellent Revolver track “For No One.” Musically, I really like the chord progression as the song moves from verse to chorus, for example beginning about 0:55, and at 1:14, as Steve Nieve’s organ subtly bolsters Elvis’s vocals, which are – as with every song on Blood & Chocolate – squarely front and center in the recording.

There are a few of these slower, more contemplative songs about misery and sadness on the album. “Battered Old Bird” is a slow burn of a song describing a horrible landlord and his wretched tenants. “Poor Napoleon” is a mid-tempo diatribe against love that tips its hand early with the opening lines “I can’t lie on this bed anymore/it burns my skin/You can take the truthful things you’ve said to me/And fit them on the head of a pin.” elvisThis album is listening perfection on those days when nothing’s going right, and fuck everybody anyway!

But there are a few respites from the rage – as there would have to be. The 60s-sounding “Honey Are You Straight or Are You Blind?” is a jaunty relief-valve of a song placed mid-album to let the listener, perhaps, dance the anger out instead of wallowing in it. “Blue Chair” has another rolling bass line to carry it, a straightforward ode to sadness with really cool vocals, especially in the last verse, when he alters the melody.

One of my favorite melodies on the album is “Crimes of Paris,” in which, once again, Elvis’s heart was broken – this time to Mythic Proportions.

The melody ranges far and wide, and Elvis performs it brilliantly,cig-girl always coming home to a sing-along chorus that references “the cigarette girl in the sizzle hot pants,” which conjures great imagery of a woman content to serve the men around her. In reading all the lyrics from the album, trying to tease out what it is that has piqued Elvis’s anger and caused it to rage so deeply and with such strength, I get the sense that much of it has to do with women who aren’t “cigarette girl”-ish enough. He’s been burned by women who don’t see their relationship in the same way he does, who’ve acted on their displeasure to seek out new romances, leaving him behind to write great songs with clever lyrics about it all. He can’t get over it. He won’t get over it. He explains it pretty clearly on one of my favorite songs ever, the emotionally haunting “I Want You.”

I first heard this song when I purchased a “Greatest Hits” album of Costello’s. Without listening closely to the words, it sounded sort of like a love song, similar to John Lennon’s epic Abbey Road piece, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” My good friend and Beatles fanatic Dr. Dave had recently gotten engaged, so – as I often did – I decided to celebrate by sending him a CD of songs. “Hey,” I thought, “I’ll put this Elvis Costello love song next to Lennon’s song, and it’ll be cool because they have the same title, which is repeated frequently throughout the piece!” Then I listened to the lyrics and realized, “This isn’t really a celebration of love …”

The song opens with an acoustic love poem, sung troubadour-style, elvis-guitarthat ends (0:48) with the word “breath” sung on an unexpected note, followed closely by a startlingly discordant chord. The song builds over the next 6 minutes, adding instruments every few lines, intensity increasing as Costello again fumes over a woman who chose to be with another man. His imagery throughout conveys with withering directness his deep feelings of hurt and, what else, anger. “It’s the stupid details that my heart is breaking for/It’s the way your shoulders shake and what they’re shaking for/It’s knowing that he knows you now after only guessing/It’s the thought of him undressing you or you undressing.” After each sordid detail he reminds us “I want you.” It’s another vocal masterpiece, but Elvis’s guitar is nice in subtle ways as well. He makes great use of his tremolo bar, and plays a fittingly clamoring guitar solo midway through (3:21). By about five minutes, the song has dispensed all the wisdom it has (“The truth can’t hurt you it’s just like the dark/It scares you witless/But in time you see things clear and stark.”) and Elvis is left crooning against Nieve’s organ. It’s a song that always sends chills up my spine. (There is also a tremendous version that I highly recommend by list-member Fiona Apple, accompanied by Elvis himself.)

The album ends on what sounds like a happy note, “Next Time Round.”

At a minimum, the song could be considered … hopeful … perhaps. I mean, it does at least consider the possibility that there will be a “next time.” smashThe despondency of some of the other songs is gone, but the lyrics do reveal the bitterness that seems to have become his best friend on Blood & Chocolate. There is nice harmony singing throughout, and Bruce Thomas’s bass pumps the song along. It’s an upbeat-tempo song that leaves the listener, if not happy or satisfied, at least a little less prone to smashing one’s hand through the glass in a frame around a picture of an ex.

attractions-bandWhat a wonderful, necessary and brilliant thing, this human endeavor called “art.” Imagine if all that pain and hostility and rage inside Costello were bottled up and unexpressed; or worse yet, imagine if it had been diverted to something destructive and hateful – like becoming a fraudulent Orange Turd bent on destroying the u.s.a. Instead, he took it and made something great with it. Blood & Chocolate is a reminder that anger isn’t bad, that it is part of our lives. It’s also a reminder that we should use our anger and do something constructive with it – like working against everything the stinky turd (whom most Americans did not vote for) and his cry-baby supporters stand for. I’ve started already.

Track Listing
“Uncomplicated”
“I Hope You’re Happy Now”
“Tokyo Storm Warning”
“Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head”
“I Want You”
“Honey, Are You Straight or Are You Blind?”
“Blue Chair”
“Battered Old Bird”
“Crimes of Paris”
“Poor Napoleon”
“Next Time Round”

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70th Favorite: Imperial Bedroom, by Elvis Costello and The Attractions

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Imperial Bedroom. Elvis Costello and the Attractions.
1982, Columbia Records. Producer: Geoff Emerick.
Purchased ca. 1998.

album imperial bedroom

squirrel nutIN A NUTSHELL – The new wave/punk angry young man finds new ways to showcase his caustic wit in this collection of polished, orchestrated and highly produced numbers. The Attractions are as excellent as ever, and Costello’s voice is at its finest as he takes the first of many steps away from the music that defined his early career.
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f and g cast

One of the best TV shows in the history of TV shows was the short-lived and perfect Freaks and Geeks. I think the reason I love it so much is because it’s basically the story of me and my freshman year of high school. It was set in suburban Michigan, not too dissimilar from the rural/suburban Pennsylvania region where I grew up; in a public high school, like I attended; and took place in 1980, just about the same time I started high school.

bootsThe focus of the show is the journey undertaken by a high school junior and academic heavyweight, Lindsey Weir, as she embarks on new friendships with the “Freaks,” the kids in school who seem to be into nothing, except drinking and drugs and smoking and cars and loud rock music. These “Freaks” were a constant population in 80s suburban public schools, and every school seemed to have their own names for them: “Druggies,” “Burnouts,” “Burners.” At our school they were called “Treads,” which someone told me was because they typically wore work boots with big treads on the bottom (and usually with red laces, for some reason). Most of them (though not all) were in the lower-track classes, and at my school they were most rock shirtsoften found in the Smoking Lavatory. Their uniform consisted of old jeans, concert tee-shirts (or three-quarter sleeved jerseys), and a denim jacket or army coat.

Lindsey has a younger brother, Sam, who starts his freshman year at McKinley High School that same year. This is the character with whom I identify. I was a geek, and I had a few close friends, just like Sam. Each episode had a Sam storyline, and each one resonated with me. Stories such as liking a girl who doesn’t like you back, being scared that a tough Tread-girl will beat the shit out of you, or the utter agony and dread associated with gym class showers were seemingly lifted directly from my life. The writing on the show was excellent, the actors were brilliant, and these two things paired with the show’s setting (not to mention its IMPRESSIVE use of carefully chosen, era-specific music) made it the absolute perfect show for me.

velourA classic, cringe-inducing episode, titled “Looks and Books,” involves Sam trying to change his fortunes with girls, or, rather, one girl, Cindy Sanders, by changing up his wardrobe. He’s certain that his typical turn-of-the-decade duds – the jeans, corduroys, velour v-neck sweaters and striped t-shirts – aren’t doing enough to get Cindy to notice him. So he heads to the coolest store in the mall, to see if the awesomely fashionable staff can help him out:

Sam buys a “Parisian Night Suit”, and in one of the most free and wonderful performances I’ve seen by an actor, John Francis Daley, as Sam, imagines just what the suit will do for him. It’s not a dream sequence – the imaginings take place in his head. And as uncomfortable as it may be to glimpse what’s going on inside young Sam’s head by peeking into his bedroom, I hope every one of you, dear readers, has felt this way over something or someone at some point in your life:

And just as I hope you all felt as happy as Sam in the previous video, I hope you never have had to deal with the crushing, deflating, terror of real life stomping all over your dreams… as occurs – quite painfully – in this next clip, as Sam quickly realizes that not everyone immediately grasps the sophistication and strength of his new apparel:

I myself wasn’t the type to take big risks with my wardrobe, such as the one Sam takes with his Parisian Night Suit. I went along with the trends, to be sure, and in 4th grade maybe I’d break out something a little flashy.

In fourth grade I wasn't afraid of bold sartorial choices. (This outfit was not a punishment - I chose it. Even the shoes.)

But class photos from 6th through 10th grade demonstrate that – apart from dabbling in attempts at feathering my cowlick-ridden hair – I’d found a look and I went with it.

Collars and stripes were in! Every year! Apparently. Re: the hair, I know what you're thinking. I'm as dumbfounded as you are.

Earlier, I stated I hoped you readers never went through such an will rogersexperience as Sam did. But to be honest I hope something like this has happened to you because it means that – simultaneous-teeth-and-buttocks-clenching embarrassment aside – you went out on a limb and tried something outside your comfort zone. There are a million great quotes about the necessity and humanity of taking risks. There’s a very Will Rogers-y quote by Will Rogers that goes, “You’ve got to go out on a limb sometimes because that is where the fruit is.” Perhaps my favorite is by the writer Annie Dillard who said, “You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.” I didn’t jump off many style-related cliffs, like Sam did, but I did stumble off a few and find my hastily assembled wings fail me before I splatted on the pavement.risk

mesh shirtIn my freshman year I once wore to school a mesh t-shirt that we got for being on the basketball team – a style that was frequently worn by many boys in school. But I hadn’t noticed that even though the holes in the mesh were very tiny, on a silky white shirt they created a see-through effect that, when coupled with the shirt’s tight fit on my chubby frame, presented a strongly amusing appearance to many other kids in my class. (Apparently.) There were jokes galore at my expense that day – for several days, really. One boy called me Cheryl Tiegs for the next several weeks. I never wore the shirt to school again – even though as a bit of proof that I had in fact made the Freshman basketball team, it was a memento of one of my proudest achievements to that point in my life.

supermanBut this is a far different experience than Sam had. I had simply overlooked some information about a common garment. Sam made a conscious decision to take the bold action to reveal, through a wardrobe change, his secret identity as Super Hip, Super Desirable Young Man. The feelings he showed in his awkward mirror dance are joyful, human expressions of self worth, and he hoped to demonstrate to his classmates his worth as a suave, sophisticated, modern young man of style. He had a lot more invested in his decision to wear a Parisian Night Suit than I did in my mesh shirt. I had my pride on display; Sam displayed a previously concealed Self. (Not to mention a really goofy-looking, powder blue jumpsuit.)

When it comes to a musician’s “wardrobe” of styles, Elvis Costello is well-known today for being a Halloween-Costume type of performer, brodskyhaving released albums of multiple styles over the past 40(ish) years. Country-folk, New Orleans jazz, classical, jazz/pop, lush 60s-style pop, string quartet with voice … these are some of the styles Elvis has worked in over the years, and there are other records in the discography that are not really in any category. But in the early 80s, Elvis was very much a poster boy for the punk/new wave sound that the UK had been exporting to the US by way of independent record stores, college radio and videos like the ones being shown on that new channel, MTV.

elvis iconBecause of his iconic look, featured on the cover of his debut album, My Aim Is True, and consisting of short hair, big, black spectacles, an ill-fitting suit and pigeon-toed stance, I recognized Elvis Costello before I’d ever heard a song of his. I’ve written before about my first introduction to punk rock as a middle schooler, via MAD Magazine, but the basic story is that it scared the shit out of me. And Elvis was British and looked weird – not nearly as normal as other rock performers of the 70s – so I just assumed he was a scary punk rocker. To an 11 year old buying Village People cassettes, it was a commonsense deduction.

village people At some point in 8th or 9th grade I was watching a dumb movie on TV called Americathon, in which the US president holds a telethon to raise money to keep America from being sold to Native Americans. A performer called “The Earl of Manchester” sings a song on the telethon, and I remember thinking, “Wow, that’s a good song.” It was Elvis Costello, in his film debut, playing the song “Crawling to the USA.” This piqued my interest, and I began to flip through his records at record stores and department stores, wondering if I should buy. As I’ve written before, I worried what my folks would think of the smart-assed Brit, so I decided to go with AC/DC and REO Speedwagon instead.

spinningElvis became a guy whose songs I heard on the radio, and whose videos I watched on MTV. I liked some songs, didn’t think much about him, and went on my merry way. I did see him and The Attractions live in Philadelphia in 1986 as part of the “Spectacular Spinning Songbook” tour, in which audience members spun a gargantuan carnival wheel with song titles stamped on it, and the band played whatever came up. It remains one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen. But still, I didn’t rush out and buy his records.

I really became a fan in the mid 90s, when I bought the Rykodiscbest of release The Very Best of Elvis Costello and the Attractions – one of at least 10 “Best of” records that Elvis has released over the years. Then I started buying – and listening constantly – to his records. Imperial Bedroom is a record that I bought after I’d thoroughly digested his first five albums: My Aim is True, This Year’s Model, Armed Forces, Get Happy!, and Trust.
elvis snl2

Imperial Bedroom is the Parisian Night Suit of Elvis’s early records. This is the record on which he took a chance and revealed his secret identity as crooner and front man for an orchestral pop outfit. Some people were taken aback – unsure what to make of this fellow who they thought they’d had pegged. Any fan who’d gotten used to aggressive, guitar-and-organ driven numbers, with lyrics spat derisively into the mic, was in for a big surprise upon hearing the 15 tracks on this new record. Unlike Sam’s Parisian Night Suit, however, most people understood the strength and sophistication of Costello’s new style.

The record opens with the subtle, splendid “Beyond Belief,” a very mellow opener, especially after five previous (mostly) rockin’ album openers.

This is another song that would be high up in my Championship Vinyl Commemorative Top Five List of Side One Track Ones. I love how it opens with elvis attract 11a faint vocalization while drummer Pete Thomas’s high-hat jangles, and Bruce Thomas (no relation) strikes a declarative single bass note. Elvis sings, softly and closely, an incredibly wide-ranging melody, with more words-per-measure than some folks put into an entire verse. The song builds gradually, with Pete double-timing the bass drum at about 48 seconds, and keyboardist Steve Nieve holding a note that turns into a swirling, calliope-esque background for the rest of the song. Meanwhile, Bruce Thomas has been striking single bass notes, and Pete Thomas is frantically pounding, and the whole thing escalates to a gunshot sound at 1:09. So we’re just over a minute into the song, and already it’s clear that this record is not going to be made up of simple verse-chorus-verse-bridge rock songs, and straightforward rock band sounds. The entire song sounds like something different, a pop song from another world. Also, the song’s lyrics are particularly clever and full of allusions and puns, and seem to describe a character drunkenly meeting a woman at a bar and leaving with her – and regretting it as it happens.

elvis guitar

Elvis’s lyrics are generally either loved or hated because of their slick (too slick?) wordplay – but I’m a guy who appreciates the puns and wit The next song, “Tears Before Bedtime,” describes one side of a deteriorating relationship in clear, direct language, and a phrase that anyone who’s argued with a partner can understand: “How wrong can I be before I am right?”

There’s so much I like about this song. It really shows off the band’s abilities. In Costello’s recent autobiography, he continually (and hyperbolically) praises elvis attractionsThe Attractions as the best band ever assembled, and they truly are talented. Nieve’s beep-booping keyboard takes center stage, but if you listen closely, you’ll hear a ska-sounding rhythm chop supporting the whole thing. This is also played by the multi-talented Nieve. At about 1:48 it’s particularly clear, until Bruce Thomas’s catchy run brings the whole band back in for the chorus. I also like how Elvis’s vocals are sung in many voices, as if he’s playing different parts. It’s very much a sing-along song for me.

There are a few songs about crumbling relationships on the album, and another one that again features a rather non-Elvis arrangement is the sweet-sounding sob story “The Long Honeymoon.”

On this track, Nieve adds a gentle accordion steve nieve to accompany a samba beat, which together with Elvis’s vibrato gives the song the feel of a sleazy 60s lounge-singer. Which – given the tale of a husband stepping out on his wife – fits perfectly! Elvis isn’t well-known as a guitarist, but he plays a great solo on this song that fits in tone and style. One gets the sense Mr. Costello was having difficulties at home while he was writing Imperial Bedroom – a fact he confirmed in his book.

The discord in his personal life is likely the source of a song in which he asks for forgiveness: “Human Hands.”

It’s a quick, bouncy piano-based number with some elvis attractions2catchy horns arranged by the album’s producer (and engineer on some of the best Beatles albums), Geoff Emerick. I love Elvis’s vocals on this one, which is once again a wide-ranging melody. It was the presence of Emerick as producer that helped guide Costello to stitch together this Parisian Night Suit of an album. Emerick’s work on albums such as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road is legendary, and according to his book (and Costello’s book) he played a significant role in coaxing Costello to trust himself and take some stylistic risks. It is in this risk-taking spirit that comes the lushly orchestrated “…And In Every Home.” The score for the orchestra was written by pianist Nieve, who attended London’s Royal College of Music. The song seems to be another one about an unhappy home

Emerick’s touch is also heard in the harpsichord backing and flanging vocals in the lovely lament about teenage love, (and the lack of information that can make it so weird and challenging) “You Little Fool.”

There are a few “classic”-sounding Costello songs on the album. elvis attractions concertThe Loved Ones” would have fit nicely on an earlier record and features a call-and-response chorus that has Mr. Emerick’s fingerprints all over it. And “Little Savage” sounds like a lost track from his 60s-themed album Get Happy! But most sound like nothing he’d done before. Take “Pidgin English,” for example, with its orchestration, multiple voices and distorted drums. This is the second song on the album to feature the words “PS I Love You” at the end, this time sounding like an epitaph – perhaps another clue to the status of Costello’s love life when the songs were written.

Besides the opening track, my favorite song on the album is “Man Out of Time.”

The song opens and closes with snippets of earlier versions of the song, when it was a raucous rave-up, but as recorded for Imperial Bedroom, it’s a grandly sweeping epic. It features wonderful keyboard work from Nieve – organs and pianos adding shading behind the verses. Elvis’s singing is again evocative and personal-sounding. I’m not sure what the lyrics are about – many have suggested it harkens to an old British political scandal. Whatever they mean, the lyrics make for excellent poetry.

elvis attractions 2So there you have it – Elvis Costello’s Parisian Night Suit. He boldly put it on and strode through the high school halls of 80s New Wave and dared the others to laugh. I’d like to think that Sam bought Imperial Bedroom in his junior year at McKinley High and was inspired to go out on some other limbs. Maybe the Parisian Night Suit wasn’t right for him, but I hope he kept trying to get the right presentation for all of his Secret Identities. Elvis Costello has made a career of it, and this first secret identity on Imperial Bedroom may have been his best.

TRACK LISTING
Beyond Belief
Tears Before Bedtime
Shabby Doll
The Long Honeymoon
Man Out of Time
Almost Blue
…And in Every Home
The Loved Ones
Human Hands
Kid About It
Little Savage
Boy with a Problem
Pidgin English
You Little Fool
Town Cryer

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