Boston Phoenix, October 28, 1986

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Blood & Chocolate is Elvis's bleak house

M. Howell

Whither Little Hands of Concrete? Earlier this year, Declan MacManus decided that his longtime nom de show biz, Elvis Costello, had run its course and that the name carried too many negative associations: "Elvis Costello" would never outgrow cult status and break out the way the Police did; "Elvis Costello" would never shake the episode in which he insulted Ray Charles; the deliberate taunt at rock idolatry of calling himself "Elvis" had worn thin. So long, Elvis; welcome Declan MacManus a/k/a Little Hands of Concrete. Except for the protests of his record company, "Elvis Costello" wouldn't have been mentioned on last spring's King of America. When the smoke cleared, the LP was issued as the work of "The Costello Show," songs were by MacManus, "Little Hands of Concrete" handled the guitars, and the haunted, rasping vocals went uncredited. Now, with Blood & Chocolate (Columbia), Elvis Costello and the Attractions are back, but Elvis Costello doesn't appear. His wide-eyed, gaping lookalike, Napoleon Dynamite, handles "Vocaj, Elektra Kaj Akustika Guitaroj" (vocals, electric and acoustic guitar, for those whose Esperanto is rusty); the songs are once again credited almost entirely to MacManus. For three nights (October 16, 17, 18), the "Costello Sings Again" tour sold out the Orpheum, and each night the audience got a different version of the front man.

Costello's career has been a continuing struggle to uncover everyone's emotional truths while hiding his own. How many identities has he concocted since Declan Patrick MacManus started writing songs while working as a computer programmer in London? There's the angry Costello of My Aim Is True, This Year's Model, and Armed Forces: wounded and wounding, spitting out acerbic wordplay. There's the still-punning-but-more-secure Costello of his middle LPs (Get Happy, Trust, Imperial Bedroom). There's the one who announced (before King of America) that the cleverness which made him famous was hindering communication, and that he'd be writing 'em straight and simple from now on. In between, he made appearances as the Imposter ("Pills and Soap" British single) and as half of the Coward Brothers (with T-Bone Burnett). Now he's Napoleon Dynamite. Many popular artists try to recast their work under another identity (Steven King's Richard Bachman or Paul McCartney's Suzy and the Red Stripes), but Costello has created an elaborate Chinese-box puzzle for himself. Having adopted a show-business identity (for understandable promotional reasons), he's found himself trapped in it; nine years into his career, "Elvis Costello" isn't an act of punk defiance, it's a name brand.

Napoleon Dynamite was in town last week. The foul-tempered huckster and inventor of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook battled Elvis Costello for the spotlight during the first "Costello Sings Again" show, on Thursday night. Although it was billed as a solo concert, the Attractions (Bruce Thomas, bass; Pete Thomas, drums; Steve Neive, keyboards) backed Elvis, er, Napoleon on all but a half-dozen songs. The following night Costello played with the Confederates; the final performance was simply "Elvis Costello and the Attractions." Since the earlier show also featured the Attractions, I wondered how much song overlap there would be between the first And third evenings. Not much, as it turned out — a tribute to Costello's prolific songwriting. Each night offered roughly 25 numbers (counting medleys), and only four were repeated (one of which the band has never recorded, Little Willie John's "Leave My Kitten Alone"). Even though the Series was opening, word on the street pegged the Saturday-night Attractions show as the hottest ticket of the three nights. Like the Mets, it came up short.

The difference between the two Costello/Attractions shows was so striking it's hard to believe that they were separated by only one night. More than that, the second was the least satisfying concert I've seen them give — which covers every one of the dozen or so shows they've done in this area. Part of the trouble was Costello himself. He'd lighten up somewhat when he was introducing the band or thanking Aimee Mann and Jules Shear for their participation on Thursday and Friday, but mostly he was tight-jawed and sullen — he didn't appear to he enjoying himself the way he did on previous nights. Early on, he stretched out "Watching the Detectives" — something he's done before, but here he prowled the stage striking dissonant chords while the Attractions pumped dutifully away. His meandering didn't give the song any added tension, and it certainly didn't embellish his reputation as a guitarist; lost in the effort of trying to follow him, the crowd turned from enthusiastic to quizzical. "Lipstick Vogue," traditionally one of the band's hellbent numbers, had a similar problem. The song was slowed down just enough to vitiate it, and its anger was transformed into weariness. The fans had jumped up at the first chords, but instead of dancing they ended up ... observing.

And Costello's decision to perform nearly every song from Blood & Chocolate (he skipped only "Next Time Round") resulted in a show that couldn't maintain its momentum. Elvis is undeniably one of the finest pop songwriters of his generation, but not even he has turned out albums so strong they cry to be performed whole. Interspersed amid his other, more judiciously chosen material ("New Lace Sleeves," "Shabby Doll," and "Kid About It" represented his romantic side; "No Action," "You Belong to Me," and "Pump It Up" gave us service with a sneer), many of the new songs weren't up to snuff. This was never clearer than when he segued from a touching, melancholy version of "Alison" into "Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head." "Alison" is sung in the first person, and from the opening lines ("Oh, it's funny to be seeing you after so long, girl") it draws you into its story. Whereas in "Home Is Anywhere," you can't even tell whether Mr. Misery is the singer. Worse, Blood & Chocolate's compositions aren't concerned with hooks. Simple as it is, the tune of the chorus couplet of "Alison," "I know this world is killing you / My aim is true," sticks in your mind; the melody of "Home Is Anywhere" is just a plodding cart to carry the lyrics. In pairing these two, Costello wanted to draw a line from his oldest song to one of his newest; but "Alison" was a hit with both fans and other performers, and I can't foresee anyone's doing a cover version of "Home."

Blood & Chocolate reunites the Elvis/Attractions/ Nick Lowe performers-production team for the first time in six years. It is not, however, a return to the social grappling and wide-ranging musical attack of Armed Forces or Trust but rather a continuation of the stark theme that Costello has pursued since Imperial Bedroom: bitter tears before bedtime. Those who thought that his new happiness with the Pogues' Cait O'Riordan — captured in "Lovable," their cowritten composition on King of America — meant that Costello would turn his back on turmoil had better think again. Blood & Chocolate is strewn with the desperate, the self-pitying, and the emotionally lame, with old maids, battered old birds, and psychotic jilted suitors. It's the bleakest, angriest record about relationships he's ever crafted.

The cornerstone of this LP is "I Want You," a harrowing six-and-a-half-minute journey through obsession. Costello's narrator is so fixated on this woman that even as he recounts her infidelities and his humiliations, he cannot help returning to "I want you." "I want you so it scares me to death," he sings, knowing, as all great horror directors do, that the heart of terror is in the stillness before violence erupts. The final chill of "I Want You" is his failure to break out, to get any release. "I know I'm going to feel this way until you kill it," he concludes, sending a shudder through you. As with most of the LP, this song is stripped down to an extremely bare arrangement. Although the Attractions provide their usual tensile back-up work (particularly drummer Pete Thomas), they seem grafted onto the album, an after-the-fact bit of fleshing out of a solo acoustic work.

The exception is the single, "Tokyo Storm Warning," which he wrote with O'Riordan. Taking off from the "doo-doo" organ chords and headlong storytelling style of Dylan's "From a Buick 6," the song is a cyclone of crazed images: monster movies, dead Italian tourists, Japanese God-Jesus robots, Argentinian waitresses. Costello's whirlwind whisks us from Korea to South America to Japan to France, with a few other stops along the way. Strafing the idea that things are better elsewhere, our guide gets the locals in his sights, and "for all we know and all we care, they might as well be Martians." Costello may have used Esperanto, the failed international language, on his liner notes, but his true idea of "one world" is that everyone's trapped in the same demented funhouse. More than any other of his songs, this is Elvis's nod to rock-and-roll Dylan: songwriting that sweeps us up and along in the offhand fun, with a motherlode of flashy references for the college English majors who want to grow up to be rock critics.


Boston Phoenix, October 28, 1986

M. Howell reviews Blood & Chocolate and reports on the third Boston show, Saturday, October 18.

Milo Miles reviews Elvis Costello & The Attractions, Thursday, October 16, 1986, Orpheum Theatre, Boston, MA.

Mark Moses reviews EC with The Confederates, Friday, October 17.


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Photo by Keith Morris.

Name those tunes

Milo Miles

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The chilly sidewalks outside the Orpheum were crowded on October 16 before the first of the three Elvis Costello (Declan who?) shows — all of them sold out for weeks. But diligent politicos were arduously hawking the Revolutionary Worker, hoping to snare lumpen fans of one of the few rockers with both an articulate political turn and a sizable audience. This turned out to be an odd bit of ancillary merchandise, because Costello was mounting quite an unconventional idea of subversion that night. The stage set resembled a combination low-rent circus and no-cover nightclub: you had the Sensational Spinning Songbook — a multicolored pinwheel with the titles of vintage and recent Costello songs and one or two covers stenciled on the segments — with a go-go cage for dancers off to one side and a mock cocktail lounge complete with little black-and-white TV and Gatorade on the portable bar stand. After an irritating hour delay, Costello waded through the standing front rows toward the stage; he was already in full flight as Napoleon Dynamite, the unctuous but impassioned master of ceremonies gasping that, with the help of the Attractions, gyrater "Trixie Lafayette of Atlantic City," and sleazy assistant Xavier Valentine, he was about to orchestrate a singular bit of audience participation. Plucked from the mob up front, you spun the wheel, you got a song, you danced in the cage, you reclined at the bar and sipped glucose juice.

The Napoleon Dynamite Show was the perfect pop/antipop vehicle: the former furious young punk (now battered King of America) and his band became both seers and spectacles, resourceful virtuosos and human jukeboxes, wry iconoclasts and music-hall cornballs. Costello hammed his way though his role with such needling wit and relish that if Let's Make a Deal ever spins off a rock version, we have the ideal host already in rehearsal — announcing, "Now we're going to do 'The Angels Want To Wear My Red Sox!'," leading the audience in an impromptu rendition of "Happy Birthday" for a fan in the balcony, starting a pass at Ms. Lafayette's posterior but reconsidering with a demented flinch.

The nonstop between-song theatrics, the affectionate demolition of show biz, and a ripping, good-hearted guest spin by Bill Walton were about all the first half of the show had going for it. A few numbers ("Lip Service," for example) worked up bumptious vigor, but more often the devices of the Napoleon Dynamite Show were Outshining the deliveries. Costello dispensed with shadow-playing during the "commercial break," in which he played solo guitar and took requests. Some of these were apt (eliciting a particularly anguished "The Only Flame in Town"), but the MC did even better when he turned off the request light and chose his own: "Little Palaces" (wish a caustic tale about a town made entirely of Cadbury chocolate), "The Deportee Bar," and "American Without Tears." His stark guitar runs and his harsh, unwavering declamations turned the selections into Childe Ballads for the electronic Dark Age.

The performance amperage was so increased by the time the Attractions returned (accompanied by Aimee Mann and Jules Shear disguised as Louisiana-showboat-hustler stage assistants) that the game-show format declined into more of a retarding annoyance than a carnival of metaphors. One kicker came with a rendition of Gerry and the Pacemakers' "Ferry Across the Mersey" that in Costello's "Tiny Steps" and a snippet of Them's "Gloria." Eventually, the assembled went on a long tear that started with "Peace, Love, and Understanding" and ran through the encore numbers: Little Willie John's "Leave My Kitten Alone," "Radio, Radio," and "Pump It Up." This last was such a wringer that Costello's sweat-streaked face fell into the fevered grimace of his earliest days. You were startled when he showed sufficient control to wrap up the evening with a roll call of thanks and incorporate a bit of "Twist and Shout" as a tribute to the go-goers. He fumbled for a while, but finally Costello/MacManus/Dynamite helped everybody go home a winner.

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Photo by Keith Morris.

The Confederate state

Mark Moses

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If his earlier and later nights with the Attractions proved that working with his regular band brings out the rocker instinct in Elvis Costello (not to mention his spleen), the expansive show on October 17 with the Confederates made it clear why working within the Attractions' strictures doesn't satisfy his broader moods or his knowledge of pop that predates garage rock. Splitting his time between two solo segments and two sets with a band headed by ex-Presley guitarist James Burton and bassist Jerry Scheff, Costello gave us performances rather than the labored renderings that this most literate of rockers has often settled for. Literacy and, yes, supremely singable melodies have always come easy to Costello, perhaps too easy; it's only recently, in his frequent solo performances and the patient King of America, that his singing has been able to support the ambitious songs to which he has aspired since Trust. One of the delights of this second evening, the richest and most complex of any performance I've seen Costello give and probably the show of the year, was hearing him reclaim songs that had been lost to fussy arrangements on record. The solo version of "The Deportees Club" opened you up to the cruel deception of its deceived immigrants; and when he closed out "Shipbuilding" by plunking a solitary string and softly repeating the phrase "Diving for pearls," he imbued the song with a terror it never possessed in the fluffed jazz setting of Punch the Clock. Even Costello couldn't save the wounded-water-buffalo harmonies of Aimee Mann and Jules Shear as the trio tried to make emotional sense out of her "What About Love" — but then, he never claimed to be a miracle man.

The long show manifested an underlying melancholy — King of America, after all, is a record about crushed hopes — broken up by shards of warped humor from Costello, by the nimble grace of Burton's picking, and by the beleaguered, time-honored blues catharsis that remained the show's touchstone. Costello seemed to be scavenging pop history for antecedents to his dejected romantic scenarios and slangy putdowns, as if he needed to link himself to a tradition that stretches far into the past — surely that's one reason he's working with the Confederates. A solo "Alison" was capped by the addition of some advice stolen from Joe Tex: "The love you save may be your own." Percy Sledge's "It Tears Me Up" and James Carr's "Pouring Water on a Drowning Man" (which is becoming a Costello standard live) are complaints — the first pathetic, the second clownish — from a romantic loser whom Costello has emulated in his originals; both became churning workouts that brought out his most pointed, soulful vocalizing as he shied away from the hammy histrionics that have done him in on earlier live versions of R&B material. Out of any number of stunning moments, one sticks in the mind: on "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," a song that can stand as a manifesto for this phase of his career, Costello coaxed the crowd to sing along to its signature riff. The audience wasn't sure what he was asking for as he gestured, but the sound of its humming slowly rose, as if it had known what it wanted to sing and only needed him to draw it out, to share the gift of speaking clearly that he had displayed all night.

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