The Record, October 1983

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The Record

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Punch in, punch out

Elvis Costello and the Attractions / Punch The Clock

J.D. Considine

This much is certain: Elvis Costello is at a surprisingly awkward stage in his career. After five years of being a critic's pet without managing much in the way of popular success, he's finally come out with a single that should break him once and for all in America, the irresistibly tuneful "Every Day I Write the Book." That ought to make his new album something to cheer about, but instead of being a long-sought vindication, Punch the Clock raises some troubling questions about Costello's artistic weight and musical strengths.

To begin with, there's the problem of Costello's growth as a writer. The best material on Punch the Clock continues the musical development that has been Costello's hallmark from the first. Rather than radically changing style, as he did with each new album from This Year's Model through Imperial Bedroom, Clock takes a sort of scattershot approach, suggesting that Costello is ready to apply the lessons he learned from his genre exercises. There is an occasional echo of earlier work, such as the Armed Forces-style arrangement to "Love Went Mad" or in the way "The Greatest Thing" applies the same Bo Diddley-beat pulse that powered Trust's "Lover's Walk." But the overall effect is one of total command. From the stark piano-and-claptrack treatment of "Pills and Soap" to the rich, supple rhythm arrangement of "Everyday I Write the Book," and from the cool pastels of "Shipbuilding" to the bright colors and harmonies of "King of Thieves," it's clear that Costello is working with a full palette, and working well. Until you get to the heart of the music, that is. For beneath the glossy musical surfaces and stylistic mastery of this album lies appallingly little.

Start with the lyrics. Costello's verbal agility and knife-twisting puns have long been one of his most consistent strengths, from the vicious intensity of "Alison" on. And though he does get off some good ones throughout Punch the Clock, often as not they serve no purpose other than demonstrating Costello's cleverness. "With these vulgar fractions of the treble clef," he sings in "Love Went Mad," "I wish you luck with a capital 'F'." Or then there's "T.K.O.," which applies an elaborate pun on Boxing Day (in Britain, the holiday celebrated the day after Christmas), and closes with the lines, "Now you don't look so glamorous / Whenever I feel so amorous / I can count you out." But too many of these nifties are practically non-sequiturs, leaving several tunes — "Charm School," "The World and his Wife," "T.K.O.," "Love Went Mad" — reading less like songs than a string of one-liners.

Is it just a case of obsessive cleverness? It would be easier to answer no if the music were less obviously aware of its own facility, but here, too, Costello seems to be showing off, with a good bit of help from the Attractions. Steve Nieve's keyboards can be stunningly effective, as on the understated "Pills and Soap," but Nieve is equally adept at hot-dogging, and without a second guitar to fill out the sound (as there was on Trust) or a cushion of orchestration (as through Imperial Bedroom and this album's "King of Thieves"), Nieve consistently overplays. Similarly, bassist Bruce Thomas can hit a complex groove as effectively as James Jamerson in his heyday ("Everyday I Write the Book" is a good example), but just as frequently he is simply too busy a player. Even producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley find it difficult to resist a bit of flash, and apply needless echo to blur part of Chet Baker's wistful trumpet solo in "Shipbuilding."

Enough of Punch the Clock works, however, to suggest that this is just a symptom, not the disease. "King of Thieves," "Every Day I Write the Book" and even the lyrically insipid "T.K.O." are wonderfully-played marvels of musical ingenuity and cooperation. Unfortunately, they're also utterly hollow — brilliant exercises that ultimately express next-to-nothing. Only "Shipbuilding" and "Pills and Soap" manage to rise above mere mechanics to actually leave the listener feeling as if he or she has come into contact with the emotional power that is supposed to lie at the heart of great rock and roll.

And that's what is most worrisome about the Elvis Costello of Punch the Clock — that his immense musical ability and lyrical prowess have become not a means of expression but a sort of camouflage for his emotional limitations. Costello may be eager to move beyond his early reputation as new wave's angry young man, but if this album is any indication, anger remains the only emotion he can adequately express. Perhaps another performer, one with greater depth of feeling and a better-rounded emotional make-up, would be able to do these songs justice. But for Elvis Costello, it's time to stop pushing technical development and get to work on growing emotionally.

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The Record, October 1983


J.D. Considine reviews Punch The Clock.


Stuart Cohn profiles Aztec Camera.

Images

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Page scan.


Going where the muse leads

Aztec Camera embraces the simple and intuitive

Stuart Cohn

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NEW YORK — We're all students of our intuition, but some of us learn better than others. Roddy Frame is a 19-year-old singer-songwriter-guitarist who intends to follow his as far as it takes him. With his band, Aztec Camera, Frame performs a folky, refreshing band of pop that's catching on with fans and peers alike: asked in a recent interview who he considered his primary competition today, Elvis Costello answered "Roddy Frame"—and then took Aztec Camera on the road with him.

"I try to embrace the simple and intuitive," he says, slumped on a couch in a "lived-in" hotel room randomly decorated with empty Heineken and Budweiser bottles. "My music is really very traditional, based on classic singer-songwriters — Lou Reed, Paul Simon, Neil Young. I like wordplay, cliches, Jack Kerouac's speed-raps, childish naivete. I don't want to be too cynical."

That's right. Aztec's sound resonates with the flowered, youthful optimism of gentler '60s psychedelia, more Love than the Doors. The band could loosely fit into a burgeoning neo-folk movement along with new guitar-based groups from both sides of the Atlantic: Big Country, the Go-Betweens, Weekend, Violent Femmes, Dream Syndicate.

For Frame, the folkie obsession began three years ago when he made his first child-prodigy singles for Postcard Records, a willfully obscure label based in his hometown of Glasgow, Scotland. "Postcard was really against the whole British funk thing," Frame recalls. "We were all into the Velvet Underground, Dylan, jangly guitars. Everyone took delight in having the weirdest guitar. If you had a guitar Lou Reed was seen with in a photo from 1969, that was great!"

Frame soon fled the insularity of the Glasgow scene, though, and moved to London where, last year, the band recorded their first album, High Land, Hard Rain (Sire). The album's songs reflect Frame's search for broader horizons. London, he says, has made him tougher, more aware of competition, of the need for writing songs accessible to listeners. "The Bugle Sounds Again," "Pillar to Post," "Back on Board" — three of the album's best tracks — put the first-grope feelings into words and music.

Frame, however, declines to be made a spokesman for young men starting out in life. He doesn't want to give anyone any advice. The songs, he says, are impressions, based on his own experience.

"I think there's more substance in personal songs, love songs—I think they inspire people more. Who wants to sit around unemployed in some awful industrial area like Birmingham and hear about how bad it is on the streets of London?"

Not Roddy Frame, apparently. He's getting ready to abandon those streets for a cottage in the country. Before he does, though, he'll realize a life-long dream and see America, at least through the windows of a tour bus, as Aztec Camera opens up Costello's summer U.S. tour. He'll be on the road, a little bit like Jack Kerouac, following his feelings, going to where intuition leads him.



Photo by Nick Knight.
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Cover and page scan.


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