Albany Student Press, February 29, 1980

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Elvis gets happy

Fear and loathing

Cliff Sloan

There were days when a skeptical American public snickered at a homely data processor who borrowed the name of our rock 'n' roll god and proclaimed himself king: days when vengeful, love-torn outcasts somehow didn't fit into the scheme of rock 'n' roll stardom: days when initials E.C. stood for a certain six string virtuoso who played lead guitar with Derek and the Dominos and Cream. But a pigeon-toed processor named Costello has changed all that, patented the initials E.C., and released a string of LPs too dynamic, powerful, and influential to be ignored by anyone.

Beginning with a 50s twang and venomous lyrics, the initial sound of My Aim Is True was made crisper and more streamlined. Record by record the lyrics blossomed with cynical wit, cutting their way through a well balanced garden of power-chord rock, calypso based beats, and softer ballads of loved-starved frustration, One could call Costello the seed and producer Nick Lowe the sun. They complimented each other almost flawlessly and by E.C.'s third effort, Armed Forces (1978), the product was first class, all purpose rock, polished and accessible.

Welcome then, Get Happy, E.C. patent number four in a line of progressive, ear-gripping rock music. This LP is intriguing and so adventurous that you'll feel like crawling inside the cover and exploring the vinyl. Each listen will reveal a new catchy tune or another scrap of biting lyricism. Get Happy is not a first listen album, it's a one hundred and first listen album. And although I sit about to inject my views and opinions on E.C.'s newest release, somehow, someway, I don't think I'll feel the same tomorrow, the next day, or the day after that, I'm simply not done exploring yet and I don't know (as I sit in the midst of my 5ifth listen) when I will be. Part of the reason for this is that Get Happy has twenty tracks (ten per side), and upon first listen I felt barraged as a blur of new, streamlined Costello sped by me, too quickly to grasp. I haven't yet captured the full impact of Get Happy. I haven't completed my excavation. And so my reader, on this venture I can guide you only as far as 5ive listens will allow me to. Consider me then another explorer, merely 5ive steps ahead of yourself. Do not hold me to my opinions or rehash this article in a few weeks only to refute what I am about to say. This LP is to be studied over and over again, interpreted and reinterpreted, learned and relearned, as is any piece of art. One thing this writer will promise, however, is that Get Happy will not bore you. It will remain on your turntable for days, if not weeks at a time, drawing you with confident certainty as a magnet draws steel. So sit back and glance over my journal, take a tour of listen number 5ive of Costello number four — draw from it, learn from it (if you can), but don't bet on it. I still have 96 listens left to go.

Entry No. 1, E.C. 4, Listen No. 5ive — "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down" — Captain Costello immediately bellows the painful confessions of love-lorn frustration, "I'm a man whose been hurt a little too much, I've tasted the bitterness of my own tears, sadness...," and so the story always seems to go with Costellonian characters. It's a sturdy, if safe and conservative opener, that keeps The Attractions (who've only gone so far as to identify themselves as Steve, Bruce, and Pete on any American released album) right up front with Elvis throughout the number. The first revelation offered here is that although twenty cuts Is a multitude of songs for any one LP, the music doesn't suffer, This tune fills its space nonchalantly, not sounding rushed or condensed. This should come as little surprise, however, since Costello's s.p.a. (songs per album) rate has never dipped below a dozen. Coupled with Nick Lowe's personal guarantee for phonic quality, my first fear of Get Happy is dissolved. Yes, it seems possible to get twenty worthwhile songs on a single LP.

Entry No. 2, E.C. 4, Listen No. 5ive — "Black and White World" — Captain Costello has stepped out in front of Steve, Bruce, and Pete, seemingly more in command. The democratic air of Entry No. 1 is gone although the band works more effectively this way. The Attractions still follow their leader attentively, increasing his effectiveness, accentuating the still complaining Captain whose tone has grown more direct and stern, "There'll never be days like that again, when I was a boy and then a man." His bickering tone sounds as good as ever and I want to hear more, but my desire is in vain. The Captain has already, perhaps too soon, turned his attention towards Entry No. 3. Nonetheless, I am happy, impressed, and also eager to move on to Entry No. 3.

Entry No. 3, E.C. 4, Listen No. 5ive — "5ive Gears in Reverse" — "If you don't know by now, nobody'll tell you. If you don't know by now, she'll probably kill you," proclaims E.C. His cutting edge is as sharp as ever, and I have to listen closely to grasp the Captain's exact words, although his attitude is clear. He is cynical, short-sighted, and vengeful, the way I've always liked him. The band strikes hard, choppy chords, lending adequate support to Elvis' switchblade lyricism. Still only E.C. is irreplaceable. There is little, if any, potent musicianship on Get Happy, but nevertheless something clicks, and clicks well. I feel full, satisfied, and quenched as the Captain leads me on.

Entry No. 4, E.C. 4, Listen No. 5ive — "B Movie" — Undoubtedly, this entry is the apex of my exploration with E.C. thus far. A brilliant piece of work by producer Nick Lowe and a calypso bass line leaves the Captain's whining, more subtle voice in the foreground. The beat makes me want to dance, not jerk up and down, but simply do a little skant or reggae shuffle. E.C.'s voice glides gracefully over timely rhythmic changes, although his words still preach blunt reality. "Everyone's on the make, It's not your heart I wanna take," Costello boasts, his voice flowing with a melodic quality reminiscent of "Party Girl." It is sweet cynicism, prime E.C., the Captain in his finest form. This is becoming one of the most pleasurable expeditions my ears have ever taken.

Entry No. 5, E.C. 4, Listen No. 5ive — "Motel Matches" — E.C. takes this leg of the journey solo. "Motel Matches," in the tradition of "Alison," is the Captain at the helm, another apex, another side of Costello. He grows more subdued and everything about him seems romantic, barring of course, the twisted metaphors. "Falling for you without a second look, falling out of your open pocketbook, giving you away like Motel Matches," E.C. mutters. So far, my piece de resistance thanks to more slick production by Nick Lowe. The Captain is growing in diversity, wit, and craftsmanship through every leg of my journey.

Entry No. 6, E.C. 4, Listen No. 5ive — "Human Touch" — A circus type organ be-bops The Attractions back into the spotlight with this upbeat number. It is a lighter tune than its two predecessors, whose closest melodic relative is "Oliver's Army" (a product of Armed Forces). I interpret it as comic relief to the usually intense air of Costello. The Captain, however, had his usual sentiments, "I don't wanna know about much, I just need that human touch."

Entry No. 7, E.C. 4, Listen No. 5ive — "Beaten to the Punch" — Just "Pump It Up!"

Entry No. 8, E.C. 4, Listen No. 5ive — "Temptation" — "He drinks in self-defense, give me temptation," the twisted Captain sings. He is Cupid's enemy, a preacher of anger and vengeance. "Temptation" is another scrap of the biting lyricism of which I previously spoke. The Attractions revert to a supportive role as Elvis reduces the volume, but not the venom. It is venom that churns in the stomach of the depraved, the bereft of love, and the cynical. Yet I listen and somehow really enjoy it. It is meshed together with a catchy, driving formula. In fact, if I didn't listen closely to E.C.'s words, I'd think him a romantic. He asks not for my acceptance or sympathy, but spits on my values and romantic ideals. Still, I enjoy and respect. Twisted or not, he is dynamic and refreshing, a pleasure to spend an hour with.

Entry No. 9, E.C. 4, Listen No, 5ive — "I Stand Accused" — E.C. reaches for the volume switch again. The Attractions jump to the signal and blast out "I Stand Accused." It Is superb, the best power chord rocker I've heard the Captain produce thus far. I am at a loss to understand Elvis' reversal of feelings as he barks, "Girl, I love you so much I think I'm going insane." Rarely have I seen his wound this wide open, not covered by cynical vengeance. Still his versatility behooves me to continue, keeping my ears close to the speaker.

Entry No. 10, E.C. 4. Listen No. 5ive — "Riot Act" — The Captain is up front on this song, returning to his good old vicious self, "When the weather gets so tropical, and the talk gels so topical, Riot Act." I like him like this, somewhat subdued with a whining, twisting voice reminiscent of "Little Triggers." I sit now at the half way point of this musical journey, in the midst of lyrical switchblades and musical tightness. The Captain calls me on like a siren and I feel compelled to obey, to flip over the vinyl and inject another powerful dose of Get Happy.

Entry No. 11, E.C. 4, Listen No. 5ive — "Love For Tender" — The lyrical wit of E.C. still proves to be the driving force, the power which gives energy and effectiveness to Get Happy. As anyone familiar with Costello might expect, the "tender" here is legal tender. The lady, however, rejects E.C.'s offer, "You won't take, my love for tender ... I could be a big spender," he growls. The cut is short, mean, straightforward, and to the point. E.C. moves on toward "Opportunity."

Entry No. 12, E.C. 4, Listen No. 5ive — "Opportunity" — "I'm looking for a little girl, big money for families having more than one," the Captain announces, telling us how he was born during the "second big baby boom." Again we see another cynical incision of the lyrical blade, "I'd like to be a hero but I can't stand the stench... I'd like to be his funeral director." It seems he is now in the trenches of Viet Nam, bitter yet holding his ground at stage center, preventing band democracy.

Entry No. 13, E.C. 4, Listen No. 5ive — "The Imposter" This is E.C.'s tale of bar room deception, "I don't know why you can't see, he's not the man you think he'll be, He's only the imposter." A powerful carnival organ returns me to the days of This Years Model. The Attractions move into stage center with Costello and the result is short, belligerent, power beats that keep the song jumping (E.C. hit the volume switch again). Still, it doesn't capture the grace and vigor of "I Stand Accused." It is solid E.C., safe and secure (see entry one) that is enjoyable, but not a highlight. I hope that the Captain doesn't plan on gilding home through the next seven cuts. Yet I have confidence, Elvis has earned it.

Entry No. 14, E.C. 4, Listen No. 5ive — "Secondary Modern" — "Is it out of the question between you and me?" asks the agonized Captain, still unable to get his girl. Yet I'm glad. I'd hate for him to soften up and change his views. They're what keep him unique, keep him angry, keep him Captain. This tune is quieter with a more effective and serious tone.

Entry No. 15, E.C. 4, Listen No. 5ive — "King Horse" — The Captain moves on, full steam ahead. "King Horse" has mixed melodies — boisterous, subdued, then boisterous again. There is Elvis, a bass line, then a quick role of the drums announces the introduction of a snakey organ that completes the transition of a back and forth duel between a bawling Costello and the accentuating Attractions. I am merely content, not overwhelmed.

Entry No. 16, E.C. 4, Listen No. 5ive — "Possession" — Here is a refreshing yet too short rendition of a mid-sixties rock beat seasoned with the unfailing lyrical switthblade of the Captain. "If there's anything that you want, if there's anything that you need...," E.C. asserts, knowing full well that all these gifts and support can only lead to "Possession." I felt elated. The song had given me new vigor, more cause to carry on, but Elvis cut me off too soon. Still the earmarks of an E.C. classic haunt the song. I am feeling too comfortable with the Captain, as if I know what to expect. I don't like him this way. I want to be surprised and taken back, so I must travel on.

Entry No. 17, E.C. 4, Listen No 5ive — "Man Called Uncle" — A light-hearted keyboard sound commands this rather easy moving tune. Only the Captain's voice holds venom while the band seems happy and dainty. E.C. restores new faith, warding off disinterest, leaving absolutely no room for boredom. Needless to say at this point, the Captain had some words of romance. "When I say I love you. I must be delirious..."

Entry No. 18, E.C. 4, Listen No. 5ive — "Clowntime is Over" — "Clowntime is over, it's lime to take over, while others just talk," E.C. barks in an "Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes" tone. A circus organ appropriately fills in the background but by track 18 I've heard similar numbers. I want new adventure!

Entry No. 19, E.C. 4, Listen No. 5ive — "New Amsterdam" — This is precisely the new adventure I was looking for — fresh, razor sharp E.C. with the Captain at the helm. "I step on the brake to get out of her clutches." he explains. The lyrical play on words is both amusing and intriguing and I find myself giving 100 percent of my attention to the Captain's words. The Attractions stand politely in the background, as they're supposed to. "New Amsterdam" is the quiet high point of side 2, marked again by an authoritative tone of voice and a clever use of the language.

Entry No, 20, E.C. 4, Listen No. 5ive — "High Fidelity" — The Captain has proven himself a strong finisher. "High Fidelity" is the best rocker on side 2 and coupled with "New Amsterdam," the finale of Get Happy is Class A Costello at his spiteful best.

On the whole, I am more impressed with side 1. Perhaps though, I am simply tiring. The album is indeed a Long Player and one thing is for certain; when you're done with Get Happy, you won't reach for another Elvis album. There is enough on this record to satisfy anyone's hunger for Costellonian music. There are noticeable traces of the Captain's past three efforts (My Aim Is True, This Years Model, and Armed Forces) woven through E.C. 4. Yet is unlike any of its predecessors. It is powerful, dynamic, and different, exactly what Costello has always brought to his audience. So as I close my journal on Listen No. 5ive, I ask you again not to consider my word absolute. It is an educated opinion but nonetheless, it is an opinion, subject to change every day of my life. Get Happy offers a taste of every kind of Costello at a level of Achievement which has grown with every record he's made. There's little doubt that numbers like "B Movie," "I Stand Accused," and "Motel Matches" will prove to be vintage Elvis. So heed my Journal — see what you can grasp, what you can learn, and what you can draw from it. In the long run, however, it'll only cost you about $5ive dollars to Get Happy, perhaps the best investment you'll make this year.

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Albany Student Press, February 29, 1980


Cliff Sloan reviews Get Happy!!.

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