Stereo Review, June 1986

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Stereo Review

US music magazines


King Of America

The Costello Show

Steve Simels

Elvis Costello once told an interviewer that he didn't plan to be around to witness his artistic decline, but you couldn't have proved that by his last couple of albums. They were fussy, wildly overproduced, and, in general, too clever by half. His new King of America, while not exactly a return to the transcendent form of This Year's Model, contains the most interesting music he has made in a long time, and the fact that it sounds like hardly anything else on the radio at the moment is merely icing on the cake. King of America is also the first release to reflect Costello's reversion to his original name, Declan Patrick MacManus. Transitionally, the performance is credited to "The Costello Show (Featuring Elvis Costello)," while MacManus is credited for songwriting and co-production.

Lyrically, Costello/MacManus hasn't changed much. He remains obsessed with the detritus of romantic relationships and the ways people manipulate each other — "emotional fascism," he calls it. But other targets are skewered too, and his gift for wordplay remains intact. In the title song, for example, he meets a girl "working for the ABC News" and observes, "It was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use." There is also a bit of social commentary in "Little Palaces," about "the sedated homes of England," and a new emphasis on what can only be described as cabaret/torch songs — "Poisoned Rose," for example, which features jazz bassist Ray Brown, is a literate, urbane, heart-on-sleeve weeper that could be covered without difficulty by Bobby Short on a crying jag.

Musically, the album is stripped down and raw-edged in all the best ways. The backing on several tracks is by the stars of the other Elvis's touring band, including the great James Burton on guitar, and the result is a sort of modernized Sun Records sound that nudges Costello into the most unpredictable and emotive singing of his career.

Add to all this some inspired covers — J. B. Lenoir's "Eisenhower Blues" (not bad for white boys) and the Animals' "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," a perfect choice for a man who's been misunderstood constantly — and a fine guest appearance by his old back-up band, the Attractions, on "Suit of Lights." What you get is, if not the Elvis Costello album of your dreams, certainly one of the most unexpectedly rewarding albums of the last several months. As Harry Golden used to say in an altogether different context, Enjoy!

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Photo by Keith Morris.

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Stereo Review, June 1986

Steve Simels reviews King Of America.

Alanna Nash reviews Ricky Skaggs' Live In London.


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Live In London

Ricky Skaggs

Alanna Nash

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For all his dazzling musicianship and almost singlehanded resurrection of true country music, there are times when Ricky Skaggs appears embarrassingly like the Gomer Pyle of country music — so sincere, so pure of heart, so hillbilly rube. Like when he allows actor Charles Haid (Andy Renko on Hill Street Blues) to introduce him with all the panache of a backwoods carnival barker, then runs through "Cajun Moon" with all the warmth of a teen contestant on Star Search. As if the English didn't already think we were heathens.

Having said that, let me quickly add that this is a pretty terrific album once Ricky cuts the cornpone. He never does learn how to speak to an audience, and he comes up short in tossing off any dialogue you'd want to take home with you. But then talking is not what Skaggs does best. Once he picks up his axe of the moment — assisted by the band of the hour — he moves into your head and starts rearranging the furniture. There are some terrific new songs here, Peter Rowan's "You Make Me Feel Like a Man" and Jim Rushing's "Rockin' the Boat" foremost among them. The old standbys, too, like "Country Boy" and "Heartbroke," have new vigor in the live renditions. But where Skaggs proves he deserved his recent CMA Award is on the concept for "Don't Get Above Your Raising," originally a nice, low-key Flatt and Scruggs country-bluegrass tune. Skaggs has revved up the tempo with a stunning synthesis of rock, r-&-b, jazz, and progressive country. Despite his strong and expressive mountain tenor, picking has always seemed to receive more attention from Skaggs than emotive vocals. On this song he tosses off the vocal in an offhand manner, but he squeezes stuff out of that guitar that most pickers don't even know exists. Certainly Elvis Costello, who joins him here, looks pathetic when he goes to trade off guitar licks. But Elvis wins in the vocal department, infusing his stanzas with urgency, hostility, and underdog desperation. It only makes Skaggs seem all the more like poor Gomer, lost in the big time sha-zammm! of playing jolly old England

Performance: Ricky struts his stuff
Recording: Lovely

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Cover and page scans.


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