Friday, March 4, 2011

Every Elvis Has His Army

1997 was a prophetic year. I was convinced I had my life figured out. I mean, what else was there to learn? I was away from home, makin’ it on my own as they say, ready to implement a life plan that would make me the envy of 19 year olds everywhere. Sure, I was slinging sandwiches for less than a grand a month, hanging on to my failed attempt at higher education by a fingernail, smoking a pack of Winstons a day, living with the soon-to-be-ex-love-of-my-life (shocking how high school romances have a tendency to do that), and still years away from meeting my true soul mate, who showed be what making a life together is REALLY all about. C’mon though, I was NINETEEN, employed, shacked-up, had a car, and money for smokes. What could POSSIBLY go wrong?

Yeah, in 1998 the bottom dropped out. Within 12 months I was working an office job, single, back at home, re-examining the last years of my life and wondering what I was supposed to do next, but one event from 1997 stuck, in a big way. That fateful summer I went from casual listener of one Mr. Elvis Costello into knock-down-drag-out-super-fanatic-to-the-extreme, which I remain to this day, as one could ascertain from the title of the blog, and this post.

I point out the demarcation year because it paints an important frame of reference for my Costello fandom. Prior to that summer, my exposure to Elvis was limited to a cassette copy of 1991’s Mighty Like a Rose, and a CD copy of the 1994 collection The Very Best of Elvis Costello and The Attractions 1977-86 (Thank you Columbia House!). My point is, aside from the aforementioned album and collection, as far as I was concerned, every Elvis Costello album might as well have been released post 1997, and as a relatively under-knowledged listener, it pretty well seemed that the Costello catalog was more or less complete. The last original rock recording had been 1994’s Brutal Youth, which incidentally, for non-Elvis aficionados, is as good a place to start as any. Yes, there had been ‘other’ stuff, like the ’95 covers collection Kojak Variety, 96’s classically inspired All This Useless Beauty, and a few pre-Bacharach compilations with other artists, but again I was young and stupid and thought the 20 or so studio albums already in circulation was about all the Elvis I would every have a chance to hear.

Hindsight being 20-20, we now know that the prolific Declan Patrick MacManus would release 12 more studio albums, 2 live albums, 3 collections, 3 box sets, appear as an actor in multiple movies and TV shows, have his own talk variety show, receive an Academy Award nomination, and be enshrined in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame all in a span of thirteen years. Certainly, accomplishments worthy of a career on their own, even without what had come before.

That leads me to the meat of this blog sandwich. Using the year of my fandom as a deviding point, what are the absolute best Elvis albums released post 1997? As mentioned above, there are a total of 12 studio albums to choose from. We’ll blow out live performances, collections, and box sets as they are chock full of older material, and by the same token, remove cover collections, guest appearances, classical compositions, and jazz, because one cannot truly compare apples to oranges, or in this case, apples to persimmons, mangos, or other exotic fruit of your choice. We’ll stick with what can classically be called pop-rock albums, and all the sub-genres that entails.

Reducing the criteria thusly, we’re left with six albums in the eight years between 2002 and 2010. That’s the kind of sample size I can sink my teeth into. I’ll take a look at each one individually, and then do the-single-most-important-thing-a-person-can-possibly-do-with-an-internet-blog-post-anywhere-ever. That’s right, I’ll RANK THEM!!!

Mind. BLOWN.

First though, in order of chronology:

2002 When I Was Cruel- Elvis returns! WIWC was the first return to the rock genres since arguably 1996’s All This Useless Beauty, though considering the very classical underpinnings of that record, it’s really a first since the at the time eight year old Brutal Youth. Consider that for a minute. In the eight years since WIWC, Elvis has dropped five more rock genre albums after releasing arguably none in the eight years previous. So much for entering the twilight of his career… Anyhoo, WIWC was an absolute success in returning Elvis to the world of Rock and Roll. Huge basslines, two quantifiable hits in ‘45’ and ’15 Petals’ a top 20 spot on the Billboard hot 200 album chart, and 15 back-to-back sing along tracks announcing to the world that Elvis had most certainly NOT left the building, and Mr. Costello will certainly make a hell of a lot of racket when he does. Elvis worked with a “New” backup band on this one, going by the name ‘The Imposters’. For the uninitiated, the ‘Imposters’, ‘Attractions’, ‘Costello Show’, ‘Confederates’, and ‘Sugarcanes’ all feature Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas with only Bruce Thomas (no relation) not remaining in the fold, Thomas the Bruce being replaced by bassist Davey Faragher. I’ll end each summation with a list of top tracks from the album. From this one, you can listen to the whole damn thing. It’s just plain good, and varied, front to back. Some best-of-the-best cross section tracks would include 45, When I Was Cruel No. 2, Daddy Can I Turn This, Episode of Blonde, and Radio Silence. I don't want to take anythign away from the big reveal, but the name of the post is a line from WIWC#2...

2003 North- Michael Caine is famously quoted as saying he picks movies to do “One for the Art, and One for the Money”. As a result, Caine has a prolific, varied, and extremely entertaining body of work. I’m not sure which ones Elvis does for Art or Money, but the contrast between WIWC and North is definitely varied and entertaining. While Cruel attacks you from the first chord with the sharp edge of Rock and Roll, North is like a glass of scotch on a rainy Sunday. It’s numbing and comfortable. It warms you up while still reminding you how cold you can be. A collection of Sinatra style torch songs designed to transport the listener back to the days where the voice was an instrument, not simply a weapon. Like Elvis did for Country tunes with 1981's Almost Blue, and with pop vocals during the Bacharach sessions of 1998s Painted from Memory, he has now done for jazz vocals with North. From a collector’s point of view, it’s frustrating as hell, because you cannot genre sort Elvis Costello. Oh well, I guess the awesome range of music is some small consolation. North is billed as a solo album, but includes The Imposters on most tracks with the exception of the title track, and Fallen. Top tunes: ‘Someone Took the Words Away’, ‘Still’, ‘I’m in the Mood Again’

2004 The Delivery Man- If one was to put Almost Blue, When I Was Cruel, and North in a blender, and dash it with a bit of Oscar magic, one would end up with a packaged product called The Delivery Man. A mix of rock, country, jazz vocals, old-American folk, and a star studded cast really put a shine on this perfect example of everything Elvis is in the new millennium. Working with The Imposters and artists Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, and T-Bone Burnett among others, this album is a perfect celebration of Elvis’ 2003 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. If you wonder why he got in, he delivers the goods on this one. During the same year, Costello co-wrote the songs on wife Diana Krall’s The Girl in the Other Room, and performed his nominated track "The Scarlet Tide" at the Academy Awards. Top tunes: Button My Lip, There’s a Story in your Voice, The Delivery Man, The Judgment, The Scarlet Tide.

2008 Momofuku- Elvis took a hiatus from mainstream rock albums after Delivery Man, if by ‘Hiatus’ you mean released a classical suite, a jazz piano album, and a vocal duet collection with Allen Toussaint all while scheduling, shooting, and selling the first season of Spectacle for UK, Canadian, and US television. At any rate, there were no more rock records for about four years, but when Elvis got back on the horse, he brought a throwback style reticent of early 80’s Attractions records Get Happy!! and Trust. As with Delivery, and darn near everything Elvis as done in the last 10+ years, he didn’t do it alone. Momofuku, so named for Momofuku Ando, the Japanese inventor of instant ramen noodles (a tongue in cheek reference to how quickly the album was put together) included backing vocals from Rilo Kiley front woman Jenny Lewis, a favor Elvis would return by dueting on the track “Carpetbaggers” from Lewis’ absolutely flawless Acid Tongue album later in the year. Momofuku also marked a new distribution style for Elvis as it was the first album he offered initially as a digital download. The trend would continue on future releases. Top tunes: This is another one that’s great all the way through, but you can hear some different Elvis styles on American Gangster Time, Harry Worth, Flutter and Wow, Mr. Feathers, and My Three Sons

2009 Secret, Profane & Sugarcane- Expanding upon the Americana of previous album King of America, and his Oscar nod The Scarlet Tide Elvis opted for an acoustic band, recorded with produced T Bone Burnett, and knocked out the record in a three day recording session in Nashville, Tennessee. One of the biggest selling points of the record is that it was blasted in a review by Pitchfork Media. Any album that upsets those poser douchebags automatically gets 2 thumbs up from me. In defense of the hipster trash site, Secret doesn’t resonate with me quite as much as the albums before it, but it does hit the chords Elvis was going for with additional collaborations with Country artists Emmylou Harris, Stuart Duncan, Jerry Douglas and featuring a track co-written by Loretta Lynn. Pitchfork dismissively referred to the album as “yet another entry in Costello's string of gestural albums”, which says much more about the assholes at Pitchfork than it does about the quality of the recording. Sorry not every album released in the new millennium is over-produced-fuzz-pop-noise, Pitchfork. Down another PBR and have a debate about who’s more intentionally ironic while gunning to catch Ashton Kutcher’s prolific Twitter following. Dicks. Wow… Geez… I mean, Top tracks include: The acoustic send up of a Costello classic Complicated Shadows, My All Time Doll, I Dreamed of My Old Lover, and Sulphur to Sugarcane.

2010 National Ransom- Ransom picked up where Secret left off, expanding Costello’s foray into Americana to include the Best Coast as well as Country and Blues roots. Recorded both in Nashville and Los Angeles, Elvis and his Imposters, nee Sugarcanes, trade in the acoustic setup of Secret for a stripped down, plugged in throwback to garage rock. Think Creedence with a killer fiddle player adding harmony, and the trademark Attractions organ. Costello adds another layer of depth by not just plugging in, but beefing up lyrics to tackle the American debt, religious debate, and gun control along with the regular recurring themes of lost and found love that seem to transcend genre through Costello’s catalog. An incredibly interesting contrast is the track Jimmie Standing in the Rain, lyrics depicting a working class Brit forgotten and dismissed by his nation behind a civil war era ultra-American tune. Makes sense coming from the mind of a British born son of Irish immigrants tapping into the roots of Americana. This album was released about 5 months before this writing, and admittedly I’m still digesting it. Consider that caveat when I divulge the ever-important rankings… Top tracks include: The first half of the album National Ransom, Jimmie Standing in the Rain, Stations of the Cross, A Slow Drag with Josephine, Five Small Words, Church Underground, You Hung the Moon, Bullets for the New-Born King. Perhaps others as well, I haven’t digested the 2nd half of the album as fully as the first.

With that, only one task of tremendous import remains. The Internet would be nothing more than a series of tubes were it not for the arbitrary rankings of sycophant bloggers, expressing their opinion as though it were written in stone. Far be it from me to undermine the value or the entire World Wide Web, so without further adieu, from six to one…

#6 Secret, Profane & Sugarcane: Coming in last in this contest is kind of like being the last person across the finish line at the Indy 500. You just got to drive a super tuned open wheel racer for 500 miles at over 200 MPH, and you didn’t crash. First or last, you still beat out a good number of the folks who showed up to race.

#5 North: A beautifully crafted love letter to his new wife, Elvis tackled vocal jazz with aplomb. As a fan of Costello classics like My Aim Is True, Armed Forces and Blood & Chocolate, this album had no chance of ranking any higher. That being said, it would still fit on my top 10 list of albums released in 2003.

#4 National Ransom: Remember the all important caveat. Six months from now this record could fall anywhere in the top 4. Based on the first 8 tracks it’s going to best Secret and North, and would fall very close to the top of my 2010 albums of the year, in what was in my opinion, a pretty good year for new music.

#3 The Delivery Man: In a week this might be #2. In two weeks, it might be #4. Right at this minute, it is #3 based more on the strength of the #2 album than on its content. Picks up major points for There’s a Story in your Voice, loses a few for The Scarlet Tide, just because I don’t need to hear that song anymore for a while. I’ve listened to it a lot.

#2 Momofuku: For an album Costello compared to the simplicity of instant ramen, I think it’s fucking brilliant. That could say as much about me as it does about the album. Of the six, this is the album that tries the least to hit a theme. It is eclectic, dirty, wild, and packaged without much thought given to flow. For those very reasons, and for the organ backing on American Gangster Time, #2 belongs to Fuku

#1 When I Was Cruel: I spilled the beans halfway through. I would totally not blame you if you stopped reading above the fold; after all, I know you were only here to see what #1 was. In my defense, it’s kind of a no brainer. Drive through the desert, throw on this album crank the speakers to eleven, and allow the bass, vocals, and ennui drenched in the emotions of a man transitioning from one marriage to another, one career to another, one life to another to seep into every pore. This album turned me from a simple Convert into a Missionary. Let me teach you, one Spooky Girlfriend at a time.


Michael Doss said...

I get exhausted just scrolling through to see how long your blog posts are. If you posted any more often, I'd accuse you of not having any work to do at work...

Back to the point, I heard this Elvis guy was pretty good.

OCKerouac said...

IIRC this post was 5 Hour Energy related... Just imagine if I'd done a write up on all 29 albums!