Melbourne Beat, November 25, 1987

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Elvis Costello


Andrew Watt

It's now just over ten years since Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus first launched his provocative and in retrospect rather chameleon-like music and persona on the unsuspecting musical scene.

Since his initial release, a single "Less Than Zero," Elvis Costello, as he is better known, has proven himself to be one of the most articulate and prolific songwriters and performers in the rock idiom, his twelve albums and various singles marking him as a brilliant tunesmith and a lyricist of rare insight and verbal flair.


It was in 1976, in the midst of the halycon days of the punk revolution that Elvis Costello strode unannounced into the offices of Jake Rivera, the head of the then fledgling independent label Stiff Records.

Armed only with an acoustic guitar and a swag of angst ridden, but intelligently phrased songs, Costello's brash appeal impressed Rivera, and an immediate signing followed.

Rivera, using an uncanny sense of perception that has rarely served him as well, saw in Costello a fervour of expression that simply demanded attention.

Costello, physically small and resembling a cross between Buddy Holly and Woody Allen looked like the prototype punk, but below the surface he shared many of the new waves attitudes.

He was shrewd, arrogant and angry but he used a vocabulary that put many of the punks empty anti-establishment posturing to shame, and showed some of them up to be the sham, they really were.

And where the punks used a musical blitzkrieg to make their assault of the senses, Costello and his bald The Attractions played sparce, biting and melodically arresting music that owed as much to the aforementioned Buddy Holly, as it did to the New York Dolls. Attractions were, and remain, one of the tightest outfits of the New Wave. Drummer Pete Thomas had played with Red Hot Peppers whilst bassist Bruce Thomas came from the Sutherland Brothers and Quiver. The Attractions were the first band that keyboardist Steve Nieve had ever been in; his prior education had been at London's Royal College of Music.

Tracking through the Costello collection one can easily trace the constant expansion of the artist both as a writer and as a performer. This growth has not been without its meanderings off the beaten track.

In 1981 after recording the rather jaded Trust album Costello and the Attractions sensed the time was right for a change. So to Nashville and the unadorned country of Almost Blue. This foray into a new genre received mixed reactions from critics and public alike. Some admired the ease with which the band has mastered the new form, others felt that the mournful, yearning tone of the record unnecessarily blunted Costello's biting edge.

1982 saw Costello return to more familiar ground with the release of Imperial Bedroom and a heavy schedule of touring before recording one of his best albums, Punch The Clock, which spawned the hit, "Everyday I Write The Book," and two other rather significant songs, "Shipbuilding" (which was also recorded by Robert Wyatt) and "Pills and Soap," which bore special relevance to the general election in Britain.

True to his best form Punch The Clock is a Costello album of many moods, intricate subtleties and great authority. It adopts a soul groove and, if anything is more immediately accessible than it's predecessors, whilst utilizing the brash power of the T.K.O. horns.

The next major impact on Costello's career came in the form of a solo acoustic tour where Elvis, sans the Attractions produced some of the most compelling shows of his performing life.

Well-known and rather unorthodox record producer T Bone Burnett joined Costello on some legs of his tour, the collaboration forming the off-shoot entity the Coward Brothers, Henry and Howard.

This tour eventually made it to Australia in 1985, a trek that was only interrupted by Costello producing Rum, Sodomy and the Lash album, for exciting Irish modern-folk band, The Pogues.

The association with Burnett continued into the studio in America where the next album King Of America was recorded. The Attractions formed the core of the backing group but this time they were augmented by players such as James Burton, Mickey Curry and Jerry Scheff. Organ player Mitchell Froom played an important role, and it's history now that Froom has gone on to become one of the world's most sought after producers, his credits including the debut album from Crowded House.

The most recent Elvis Costello album to be released is Blood and Chocolate, recorded virtually live in the studio with The Attractions and long-time associate producer Nick Lowe. And extraordinary as it may seem, given the depth of quality evident in Costello's back catalogue, Blood and Chocolate is being acclaimed as perhaps Costello's best album.

It's certainly got the leanest and hungriest feel that the Attractions have achieved in ages. The album bristles and shimmers from every angle and there's no doubt that Costello's vocal articulation has improved with the passing of the years.

Blood and Chocolate is the album that we may have expected Costello to make several years ago, but for the deviations that his career has taken. Yet you can't help but feel that this record is enriched by the indirect route taken in reaching the zenith.

And after hearing majestic songs like "Home Is Where You Hang Your Head," "I Hope You're Happy Now," "Crimes of Paris," "Poor Napolean" and the stark, aching "I Want You," we can only wonder how many more fine records this archangel of modern pop may have left in him

It's possible that his best has yet to be seen.

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Beat, November 25, 1987


Andrew Watt profiles Elvis Costello ahead of the 1987 Australia Tour.

Images

1987-11-25 Melbourne Beat cover.jpg
Cover photo by Keith Morris.

Page scan.
1987-11-25 Melbourne Beat page 05.jpg

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