3 Album Reviews: I Played It At CBGB’s (Elvis Costello, The Feelies)

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Elvis Costello – My Aim is True (1977) – B+

I used to love this album, and when I was heavily into Elvis Costello (at nineteen years old; I was also praising Bret Easton Ellis at the time), I might’ve declared it his best because it had a better quotient of tunes than either This Year’s Model or Armed Forces. Yes, backing band Clover is significantly worse than the Attractions (the Clovers could’ve been anyone, so maybe it’s fitting that they weren’t credited), but back then I used to think that this helped service those tunes and Costello’s lyrics more. Years later, I no longer identify with the sneer, and lyrics that I once thought special have been reduced to merely good: “But what’s the use of looking when you don’t know what they mean”; “…teach him he’s alive before he wishes he was dead”; “She’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake”; the ambiguity of “Alison”’s choruses. (Put it this way: he was smarter than his contemporaries, but he was a fly compared to Dylan even though the comparison has been made a lot for some reason.) And the Attractions really are that much better: the now standard release comes with non-album single “Watching the Detectives” released that same year with the Attractions, and the opening drum-roll is magic that never happens in the proper album, to say nothing of the rest of the song. And half of the tunes have worn out the way tune-based releases often do (see also: The Suburbs); almost all of them just take the title of the song and repeat it a few times. I’m hungrier these days for something like the guitar fills in “Alison” or the nerdy backing vocals of “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” or the riff of “Waiting for the End of the World”; most of the magic of this album are in those songs, plus “Waiting for the Working Week” and “Less Than Zero.” Elsewhere, tracks 2-4 are particularly unmemorable and your least favorite could have easily been swapped out for b-side “Radio Sweetheart” (a better hook, plus some pedal steel guitar!). On the expanded editions, I’m also a fan of the slower, “honky tonk” version of “Mystery Dance” that adds a nice verse that I think the original version might’ve benefitted from (“I’m going to walk right up to heaven dodging lightning and rods / I’m going to have this very personal conversation with God…”). Had this had the Attractions and both “Watching the Detectives” and “Radio Sweetheart” from the get-go, it probably would’ve been his best and easily worthy of an ‘A-‘. At the very least, it’s still a better nerd-rock album than anything Weezer’s done.

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Elvis Costello – Armed Forces (1979) – A-

I used to think this was the weakest of the three big Elvis Costello records (the ones that everyone needs); listening to it now for the first time in years…it’s his second-best record. The things that used to bother me still do bother me; conscious of Costello’s growing audience (and potential to grow further), Elvis Costello and producer Nick Lowe move away from the stripped down approach of the first two records, filling out his sound with brighter colours and layered production. The thing, I’ve always felt “Pump It Up” and “Chelsea” were new wave, but I guess not enough? It’s no Punch the Clock, but by 1979’s standards, it might as well have been; hard to imagine some of these synth tones (ie. the climbing hook of “Senior Service”; the bridge of “Green Shirt”; the merry-go-round of “Moods for Moderns”) were possible just two years back watching Costello and Clover in a local pub. In other words, I think Armed Forces is dating faster than contemporary releases, or even his previous albums, and it doesn’t help that Elvis Costello has slowly fallen out of view with the tastemakers; decades of non-descript releases (even when backed by the Roots) – or worse – will do that. (Imagine if he quit after Imperial Bedroom.) That this one hopefully survives is because of a few great songs, namely in the bookending blocks where the tunes are some of Costello’s best (“Accidents Will Happen”, “Oliver’s Army”, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding”). “Senior Service” (a double entendre) is a bit awkward in the contrast between the pop choruses and the angry verses, but it’s hard to think that the song would’ve been better if they devoted time to smooth that transition. And while “Oliver’s Army” is deservedly an oft-cited highlight (Steve Nieve strikes me as the sort that could’ve been a Piano God if he weren’t always delegated to texture work; just listen to what he cooks up during the “With the boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne” bit), “Two Little Hitlers” has always been my favorite. Some of Costello’s smartest lyrics (“It’s all so calculated / She’s got a calculator” is absurd, and that’s followed up by the clever “typewrite-dictate” immediately after, “She’s my soft touch typewriter / And I’m the great dictator”) over a reggae-influenced instrumental. The songs in between are mostly good (I’m a fan of “Green Shirt”’s militant rhythm), but nowhere near what sandwiches them. Cover evokes some nostalgia too.

The Feelies – CBGB’s 1977 [Live] – B-

Exactly what you expect, but I got more proof that Brian Eno helped predict post-punk a few years before it came to be.

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2 responses to “3 Album Reviews: I Played It At CBGB’s (Elvis Costello, The Feelies)

  1. Nailed on the Costello records. You should read that book about him (link below)… it changes perspective on the records when you know more about the man…

    Love the succinct Feelies write up!

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