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Bulldog 11-01-2008 06:23 AM

Bulldog's Armchair Guide To Elvis Costello

To give you a nice, short introduction, Elvis Costello (real name Declan MacManus) is without a shadow of a doubt one of the most important artists in music to me. Put simply, if it weren't for him I wouldn't be who I am today, so the thread that follows this post should be a fitting and deserved tribute to him. On top of that, for a guy who's been so prolific down the years, he does unfortunately get very much overlooked by the majority of music fans, despite boasting a relatively consistent and stylistically-varied a back-catalogue that easily puts him up there with the truly great talents in the industry. If you want to find out why, read on.

You'll find an index of every album reviewed along with the link to a sampler regarding it in the index section that starts here.

Here's the run-down of the contents of this thread...

1977 - My Aim Is True 8/10
1978 - This Year's Model 8.5/10
1979 - Armed Forces 6/10
1980 - Get Happy!! 9.5/10
1981 - Trust 10/10
1981 - Almost Blue 6/10
1982 - Imperial Bedroom 10/10
1983 - Punch the Clock 4/10
1984 - Goodbye Cruel World 2/10
1986 - King Of America 9/10
1986 - Blood and Chocolate 9/10
1989 - Spike 10/10
1991 - Mighty Like a Rose 9/10
1993 - The Juliet Letters [w/ the Brodsky Quartet] 7/10
1994 - Brutal Youth 7/10
1995 - Kojak Variety 5/10
1996 - All This Useless Beauty 8.5/10
1998 - Painted From Memory [w/ Burt Bacharach] 7/10
2002 - When I Was Cruel 8/10
2003 - North 4/10
2004 - The Delivery Man 8.5/10
2006 - The River In Reverse [w/ Allen Toussaint] 9/10
2008 - Momofuku 6/10
2009 - Secret, Profane and Sugarcane 7.5/10

*Glossary of ratings*
1-3/10 = Not worth the jewel case it comes in.
4-5/10 = Strictly for completists only.
6-7/10 = Solid, but not truly brilliant.
8/10 = Very good.
9/10 = Fantastic.
10/10 = Essential.

Akira 11-01-2008 08:47 AM

Looking forward to this one, so you better make it good, lol.

Only have three Costello albums and I'm not overly familiar with them. He's always been an artist I've been meaning to listen to more of.

Bring it on!

Bulldog 11-01-2008 02:16 PM


Originally Posted by ToeAndno (Post 538282)
Looking forward to this one, so you better make it good, lol.

Only have three Costello albums and I'm not overly familiar with them. He's always been an artist I've been meaning to listen to more of.

Bring it on!

I'll do my best mate :thumb: I'm going out on the town in the next hour or so, so I'll have to leave the first review 'til tomorrow

Bulldog 11-02-2008 11:07 AM

My Aim Is True
1977, Stiff Records, Pathway Studios

So, let's get this done chronologically then!

Elvis Costello's debut came after a few years of knocking about the country in his pub-rock band Flip City and failing auditions for a solo recording contract under the pseudonym D.P. Costello. On the basis of a demo tape he was signed to the fledgling Stiff label in 1976, after which he entered the studio with label-mate Nick Lowe in the producer's chair and Clover (Huey Lewis' pre-the News outfit) as his backing band.

The result of the Pathway Studios sessions which followed is basically what one would expect of anyone's debut album, i.e one which makes no effort to disguise the influences behind it (good ol' Buddy Holly and the Beatles being the most obvious on show here, certainly to these ears) and is basically the inauguration of a just-turned-professional musician finding his feet in the industry. What results is a very decent, non-too-challenging rock 'n' roll album which is delivered with the energy of the punk scene and the general sway of the times. Also, given the tightly limited budget for the album sessions, we're presented with a very garage rock-sounding album.

Anyway, let's have a look at the tracklisting;

1. Welcome To the Working Week
And it all starts with proper bang and all. Following the vocally harmonized opening lines the song's kicked into life by a wonderfully simplistic chord sequence and is complimented by a fittingly tight performance from Clover. A mere 80 seconds of song, it's over almost quickly as it began. The perfect choice for a curtain-raiser then. 8/10

2. Miracle Man
And from the furious opening the tempo of the album is taken down a few notches here. A very Heartbreakers-esque (the Johnny Thunders ones) band performance underpins a fittingly disenchanted and angsty lyric. The chorus alone...

Why do you have to say that there's always someone
who can do it better than I can?
But don't you think that I know that walking on the water
won't make me a miracle man?

...makes this easily one of my favourite woman trouble songs :D Sheer class. 9/10

3. No Dancing
To follow up is probably the weakest moment on the album for me. That's not to say it's bad at all, it's just probably the least intriguing part of the record. It's a well-worked piece of up-tempo, Beatles-influenced rock (the chorus owes a lot to the Lennon/McCartney original 'I'll Get You') with some great lyrics (I've always been very fond of the 'he's such a drag, he's not insane, it's just that everybody has to feel his pain' line), but for me the finished product doesn't work as well as the slower version Costello played live back in the day, which can be heard here. 6/10

4. Blame It On Cain
With it's somewhat skewiff guitar motif and the rackety performance of the rhythm section we're presented with something of a companion piece to 'Miracle Man' and another bloody fine song at that! The sentiment of the lyrics ('once upon a time I had little money, government burglars took it long before I could mail it to you') are certainly ones I can relate to! 8/10

5. Alison
And here we get Elvis Costello's first true classic of a song. An absolutely gorgeous, guitar-led slow-burner about lost love helped in no small way by some sublime lyrical wordplay, it's definitely a high point of the album. 10/10

6. Sneaky Feelings
Which leads us onto an almost jovial, toe-tapping piece of rock 'n' roll (at least musically anyhow). The word-penning behind it is a triumph as well (the 'I get you in my dreams, you should hear the things you say' line makes me smile everytime :D). 8/10

7. (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes
And the mood and style of 'Sneaky Feelings' is carried over to the following track, and a great choice for a single at that. Another terrific and stylistically simple song which is itself another disillusioned musing on male desire ('I said "I'm so happy I could die", she said "drop dead" and left with another guy' is one of the many delights therein) and another personal highlight. 9/10

8. Less Than Zero
'Less Than Zero' (which some years later gave its title to Brett Easton Ellis' novel) is another song driven both by an infectious guitar riff and some very well-written lyrics (which, as may have by my constantly mentioning them, are both strong-points of this album), with Costello interestingly using that Oswald Mosley fella as a metaphor for his own message. It's another catchy and non-too-demanding number, and another truly fine song. 10/10

9. Mystery Dance
A song which is the most clearly swayed by late 50s/early 60s rock 'n' roll, at around 90 seconds of length it simply speeds in and out with such aplomb. Not exactly one of the greatest tunes I've ever heard, definitely works well for what it is though. 7/10

10. Pay It Back
A very similar piece to 'Sneaky Feelings' this, and therefore a similarly punchy and easy-on-the-ear number. 8/10

11. I'm Not Angry
Despite the misleading title, this is easily the most angry tune on show here, populated as it is with the only guitar solos on the record, boasting one of the faster tempos on show and sounding as it does like a lyric about catching your girlfriend two-timing (I could hear you whispering as I crept by your door, so you found some other joker who could please you more). Put simply, you've gotta love it! 9/10

12. Waiting For the End Of the World
And as the album nears its end the song-structures all of a sudden get a lot more complex and ambitious. Certainly the pedal steel guitar lines from John McFee is the result of an unusual amount of studio overdubbing for a record which was recorded if not live then certainly in two or three takes per song. It takes the pace and the mood down from 'I'm Not Angry' nicely in time for the album-closer... 8/10

13. Watching the Detectives
...which is itself definitely the most musically ambitious composition that 'My Aim Is True' yields. Apparently written after Costello stayed up all night drinking coffee and listening to the Clash's debut album, it's a wonderful piece of white reggae and without doubt one of the man's all-time best. 10/10

Now, let's drag this on a bit more shall we :D


Living In Paradise: An early version of the song which would turn up on Costello's follow-up to this album, 'This Year's Model', needless to say it's not really a patch on its final rendition.

Stranger In the House: One of a couple of country-influenced songs recorded during the Pathway sessions, this slow-burning, sorrowful ballad, while actually a very good song, just doesn't fit on the album it was to be on.

Radio Sweetheart: Originally highlighted as a potential single during the early stages of making 'My Aim Is True', it is indeed a great, upbeat piece of country rock but, for that reason, wouldn't have sat comfortably alongside its would-be bedfellows on the album.

So, summing up then...

A great album although not quite a classic to me (and definitely not an indication of what was to come over the next decades). For anyone new to Costello though it's easily your best bet as a starting point.


Bulldog 11-02-2008 05:48 PM

A few of the songs I was on about earlier in case anyone's curious;

Sneaky Feelings

Blame It On Cain

Waiting For the End Of the World

Watching the Detectives

Bulldog 11-03-2008 03:43 PM

On with the thread!

This Year's Model
1978, Radar Records, Eden Studios

Almost as soon as My Aim Is True was released to rave reviews, Costello was back in the studio to record the songs he'd written and performed on that album's promotional tour. He did this with the aid of the band he'd formed for the tour; the Attractions (consisting of drummer Pete Thomas, bassist Bruce Thomas and classically-trained pianist/keyboardist Steve Nieve). The adoption of the Attractions as a backing band would ultimately (in my opinion at least) result in some of the most undervalued and breathtaking records of the next 10-odd years. This Year's Model isn't necessarily one of those records for me - there was much better to come from a truly talented singer-songwriter and a white-hot backing band.

That's not to play down this album though; it still is one of the highlights of a very large discography and the sound of Costello developing as a lyricist and performer. On top of that, as I've already mentioned, we hear the merits of the Attractions committed to tape for the very first time on a much more punk-influenced record than the work which preceded it...

1. No Action.
...and that sound is no more obvious than in the breakneck pace of the opening track. In essence it's a short, razor-sharp, punk-ish song propelled by Costello's typically simplistic guitar style and Pete Thomas' typically not-so-laid-back drumming. 9/10

2. This Year's Girl.
For the near-title track we're given our first true taste of the new-wave Costello was about to be renowned for, revolving as it does around the very prominent organ-playing of Steve Nieve. It's another very fine song indeed which just kind of rolls along to its conclusion. It's also one of my personal favourite lyrics from the man starting with;

See her picture in a thousand places
'cause she's this year's girl.
You think you all own little pieces
of this year's girl.
Forget your fancy manners,
forget your English grammar,
'cause you don't really give a damn
about this year's girl

Basically, it's another real winner of a song. 8/10

3. The Beat.
Following on from that we get our first example of the sublime, finger-picking talents of Attractions bassist Bruce Thomas. His bassline (one of many which puts him among my favourite ever bassists) underpins another finely crafted and fairly memorable new-wave song. 9/10

4. Pump It Up.
Easily one of the album highlights and indeed a career highlight for Costello. A powerful song driven by another wonderful Bruce Thomas bassline as well as another pretty cheeky (for want of a better phrase) lyric from its writer ('pump it up when you don't really need it, pump it up until you can feel it' makes for a pretty damn infectious chorus). 10/10

5. Little Triggers.
One of a few more musically gentle and down-tempo numbers on the album, it fits surprisingly snugly with the rest of the tracklisting (the dissatisfaction and angst in the lyrics certainly aren't exactly out of touch with its bedfellows). 7/10

6. You Belong To Me.
Another song heavy on the influence of punk and new-wave scenes of the time, it's a neat, musically upbeat tune, focusing again Nieve's organ and Costello's guitar but it's not really anything truly extraordinary and maybe the weakest part of the album. 5/10

7. Hand In Hand.
Not exactly one of my favourite songs this, and for me it rounds off that slightly weak middle section of This Year's Model. There's nothing wrong with the somewhat heavy-handed drumming style, the reined-in bassline, the flourishes of the organ or the singing, it just doesn't really do much for me. 4/10

8. (I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea.
But it doesn't exactly detract from the rest of the record's overall quality as right afterwards we're handed another sublime tune, this one in the form of the bass-driven punk stylings of '...Chelsea'. Another fairly ambitious and reasonably fast-paced recording, it's definitely one of the pivotal moments here... 9/10

9. Lip Service.
...and sits nicely before the furious 'Lip Service'. Over some wonderful performances from the Attractions Costello sings one of his most gloriously angry lyrics yet (eg the refrain in the chorus of 'lip service is all you'll ever get from me'). 10/10

10. Living In Paradise.
And then there's this little nugget just 'round the corner from it. More bitterly cynical wordplay in the lyrics, another great performance by the backing band, just another really good (though not quite spectacular), well-written and performed mid-tempo song. 9/10

11. Lipstick Vogue.
One of few punk-ish tunes of the day that I've heard which doesn't place emphasis on the guitar but instead Pete Thomas' virtuoso drumbeat. Short, sharp-as-nails, another one of my personal favourites on the album. 9/10

12. Night Rally.
The penultimate selection on the tracklisting features one more of the tighter performances from the Attractions underpinning a harrowing lyric considering the Neo-Fascism which the history books tell me was doing the rounds in Ol' Blighty in those days. It works well enough for me and builds up nicely to the closing track... 8/10

13. Radio Radio.
...which kicks into life with an explosion of noise. A brilliant performance from all concerned and another terrific lyric. Can't be bothered to go into it in much detail, I'll just let you hear for yourselves. 10/10


Big Tears: The only real outtake from the Eden sessions. It's a pretty decent mid-tempo number, featuring none other Mick Jones on guitar.

So, summing up then...

It's a genuinely fine album and, in my opinion, an improvement and a logical step onward from My Aim Is True. Whereas the previous year's effort dropped the odd hints of a punkier sound here and there, This Year's Model fully incorporates them where necessary. If you've only got My Aim Is True and you're scratching your head wondering where to go next, this is a pretty safe option. As I said earlier though, better was to come from Elvis Costello and the Attractions.


Tune in sometime in the near future for an Armed Forces review :D

Akira 11-03-2008 04:04 PM

Good good good! Keep it up.

I've got those two albums and was impressed with them, though I still wanna spend more time with them.

Demonoid 11-03-2008 04:37 PM

Now You've Done It!
A perfect opportunity for me to get more costello. I'm still rotting with my compilation...Liking some of the tracks you've put here.
I'll get back to you after giving any of his first two releases a complete listen. Nice review, keep em comin!

Bulldog 11-04-2008 05:10 AM


Originally Posted by ToeAndno (Post 539684)
Good good good! Keep it up.

I've got those two albums and was impressed with them, though I still wanna spend more time with them.


Originally Posted by Demonoid (Post 539704)
Now You've Done It!
A perfect opportunity for me to get more costello. I'm still rotting with my compilation...Liking some of the tracks you've put here.
I'll get back to you after giving any of his first two releases a complete listen. Nice review, keep em comin!

Cheers guys. I'll probably get bored of sitting 'round my flat pretending to work, so I imagine the next review's gonna pop up later today

Son of JayJamJah 11-04-2008 07:57 AM

Off to a great start, and I agree with a lot of your song ratings. "watching the detectives" is great. I am surprised by a 6\10 for "No Dancing" and a 10\10 "Allison" I happen to like No dancing quite a bit. Still really cool start to the discography, what aa artist this should be a fun hobby for you.

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