Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Elvis Costello - My Aim Is True

I have been a fan of most of the Stiff Records artists since the mid-70’s and Costello was a big fave at the time. In fact, I met more than one friend simply due to wearing an Elvis button! His debut release was recorded with a studio backup band (Huey Lewis’ pre-News band called Clover) so it doesn’t have the “band” feel of his later works with the incredible Attractions, but there are some terrific tunes on this.

Opening with just Elvis and his guitar (he supposedly got the Stiff contract by busking in front of their offices!), the incredibly short and appropriately titled (for an intro song) “Welcome to the Working Week” is basic singer/songwriter r’n’r. Good start!

“Miracle Man” shows off his caustic lyrics and has a good groove, though I’m kinda partial to the Attractions’ later, frantic live version. In fact, I would love to hear all of these tunes done by his “real” band. They were phenomenal live and did superb interpretations of these tunes. He was a master lyricist already and could truly convey his frustrations and anger within a great tune.

He moves into more of a ballad territory on “No Dancing” and this is not one of the stronger cuts of this release. A bouncier beat is used in “Blame it on Cain” and the song is nicely crafted though again not one of the standouts. Following this is the song’s pseudo-hit, “Allison”. This is a true ballad, sweetly sentimental, melodic and lyrical. Slow, but excellent and supremely memorable.

There’s a groovy, almost soulful feel to “Sneaky Feelings”. More of a straight ahead singer/songwriter rock tune is “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” with the amazing line “I said I’m so happy I could die, she said drop dead and left with another guy”. “Less Than Zero” is the song that Elvis was supposed to sing on Saturday Night Live during the infamous episode where he switched to “Radio, Radio” at the last minute and f’k’d up their airtime. I do think he was right to say that this tune was not the correct one for US audiences. Good, but not exceptional.

My favorite from this record has to be “Mystery Dance”, an upbeat 50’s styled rocker about the mysteries of your “first time”. Wonderful teen angst lyrics and great playing. Back to mid-tempos for “Pay It Back”, again kinda r’n’b/soul-ish to my ears, anyway, but more singer/songwriter-y. My other album fave is definitely the caustic “I’m Not Angry”, where Elvis obsessively denies being pissed about being dumped for another guy. This is as close as he comes to hard rock, but is still classic Costello – just excellent!

I also dig the insistent beat in “Waiting for the End of the World” and Elvis’ Dylan-esque lyrics and phrasing. Great, pounding drums on this one! I think this is probably one of his most sing-along choruses, also. As I’ve said before, it seemed like their was a British law at this time that every new wave band had to perform a reggae-inspired song and luckily most of them were good ones. Costello’s is the film noir stylings of “Watching the Detectives”. Enough of his own personality is imbued in this tune that it doesn’t fall into derivativeness.

Not the pinnacle of his career, but certainly a fantastic document of one of the best songwriters of the late 70’s.

The CD release has an entire CD of bonus tracks, from demos to live versions to “honky tonk demos”. There’s a cool take on “No Action” that sounds quite different without the keyboards. “Living in Paradise” is turned into a country & western tune with a pedal steel guitar – needless to say, a bit of a change from the Attractions! Interestingly enough, though, the arrangements haven’t changed much, just the instrumentation. He was firmly in a C&W mood at this time as “Radio Sweetheart” and “Stranger in the House” (which Rachel Sweet did a fantastic version of) attests.

The incredible “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” from the Live Stiffs album makes an appearance here, showcasing the talents of the Attractions for the first time on this release. A phenomenal take on this! I believe that “Less Than Zero” is with the Attractions, as well, making it a groovy cut. “Imagination (Is a Powerful Deceiver)” is another MAIT outtake, a nice but not overly special ballad.

The “honky tonk demos” apparently are the solo recordings that Elvis made to show his songs. Extremely interesting from a songwriting point of view – great to see what changes were made to accommodate a full band. The rest of the demos did not make it to the final album, though, and are unfamiliar to me. Always worth a listen, though!

BTW, Costello has a new TV show on Sundance where he interviews musicians, sings and plays with them and has them perform live. Called Spectacle and it is pretty cool, even when the interviewees are not stellar (I just saw one with the Police, who I could care less about, but it was still interesting.)