Georgetown Hoya, March 2, 1979

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This year's model is here with
Elvis Costello & the Attractions


Don Hubbard

Upon the release of Elvis Costello's first album, most critics were trying to determine whether or not this artist was a new Presley, Dylan, Buddy Holly, or merely a passing figure in the latest musical trend (New Wave). With his second album, This Year's Model, people began to take him seriously as an artist in his own right. His latest effort, Armed Forces, not only marks a continuation of maturity and creativity but insures him the distinction of someday being the touchstone for a future new recording star. What makes this album even better than the first two productions?

The answer lies with the "armed forces" surrounding him: The Attractions (not present on his debut album) are the musicians appearing with him at concerts and on Saturday Night Live consisting of bass, keyboards and drums as Elvis plays guitar.

While the newest record does not contain the frenetic energy of the first nor the inventiveness of the second, Costello's greater association with the band and superb production by power pop star Nick Lowe have more than compensated for these changes. This situation allows him to take some of the stress off his guitar work and concentrate on channeling his emotions and personality to his cutting vocals. As it stands, Armed Forces is his finest work to date.

Side One

Elvis first line on side one (during "Accidents Will Happen") is "I don't know where to begin" — taken by itself an innocuous enough statement until one realizes that this sets out his approach to take a fresh and unplanned start on this new production (avoiding the trap of following a "safe" formula) — and further warns the listener that there are so many people and things to attack out there, he literally does not know where to begin. On "Accidents Will Happen," he cites how people are often mistrusted in their relationships while in the next cut, "Senior Service," he speaks about how disposable the non-young can become.

It isn't until "Oliver's Army" though, that he confronts an issue on territory less familiar to him; here he takes on the out-of-work soldiers of fortune who seek out wars wherever they crop up in the world, irregardless of the cause. In a 50ish vocal arrangement he declares "I would rather be anywhere else than here today" while the rhythm section underscores this sentiment with some brilliant playing. True to his misogynist tradition, Costello levels his hardest hitting salvoes at the fairer sex in "Big Boys" ("worrying about her visible fitness") and "Green Shirt" ("You can please yourself, but someones going to get it"). However, in the last song of this side his tender nature reaches out to "Party Girl" who he takes a special interest in, though there are "thousands others like her."

Side Two

Side two begins with "Goon Squad" which is distinguished by an eerie rhythm arrangement and beat (similar to "Watching the Detectives") which serves to heighten the plight of one of society's misfits. In "Busy Bodies" which follows, Costello tersely sings out how even sex can become as automatic as computer science (Elvis previous career field, by the way).

The semi-human character which distinguishes so much of Devo's work appears here with "Mood for Moderns"; in even more detached language than "Busy Bodies," Elvis blows apart a relationship with the cold refrain of "There's never been a how you do, There's never been end, You belong to someone else, so I will be a stranger just pretend."

The Attractions not only lend their fine instrumental accompaniment, but also spit out the mechanical back-up vocals. Following this we find "Chemistry Class" and "Two Little Hitlers" where love, sex and courtship are approximated to science and deadly manipulating. The first he sings as softly as he can, while in the next case he, fully unleashes on what he considers a destructive situation. The most peculiar song of this collection rests with the closer, "(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding," written by producer Nick Lowe; the sole non-Costello here, it has no real place amongst the other songs which points out exactly what is wrong with peace, love and understanding. In addition, a catchy guitar riff throughout the piece is almost completely buried by a tracking overlay Lowe must have figured would either accentuate the singers voice and disguise his guitar playing.

In the end run though, this is a good tune which Elvis would never have written and should never have recorded. As a special bonus, a limited EP featuring Elvis and the group live at Hollywood High (containing "Alison," "Accidents Will Happen" and "Watching the Detectives") appears here. The first two cuts are very similar to the studio renditions, yet the last is devastating and clearly shows how good this band performs in person.

When one stops to think about how quickly Elvis Costello has been able to assert himself as a major musical force in his own right, the whole phenomenom defies logic; how can a former computer operator rifle off three consecutive high quality and varied albums which consist of almost all self-penned compositions? Nobody before has come up with such an amazing individual effort in such a short time before and probably no one ever will. The question can only be answered by Elvis Costello — but listening to any one of his albums will provide at least a partial understanding of his motivations.

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The Hoya, March 2, 1979


Don Hubbard reviews Armed Forces.

Images

1979-03-02 Georgetown Hoya page 08 clipping 01.jpg
Clipping.

1979-03-02 Georgetown Hoya page 08.jpg
Page scan.

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