The new long-awaited album by Elvis Costello, King Of America is collectively credited to The Costello Show — an umbrella title for various line-ups that contribute to what he described to Tracks as a change in approach rather than a change in style.
"I decided to let the songs alone, rather than embellish them with lots of complementary instrumental. The playing is very much in support of the vocals. If it was in an old record shop, it would be filed under 'vocal' rather than 'group,' I think that's the best description."
Despite this move away from a group sound, the roster of musicians employed includes some of the cream of the American session scene — "although they are really excellent musicians, some of them virtuoso musicians, we tended to avoid them showing off and they played more to support the vocal. Fortunately they played with such authority that they could be economical, knowing where to place the emphasis."
In the fulsome praise of the players, Costello was quick to emphasise that this included the Attractions, his own group, who appear on some of the tracks — "no way was the album an attempt to get away from their sound, it was just a way of employing other sounds that were suitable for these songs."
Even the most legendary name on the album, guitarist James Burton, only gets one full-blown solo on the collection — "I didn't want to grandstand the playing on it any more than I wanted to grandstand the feelings. I felt sometimes there was a false note in the songs, so I tended to pull back, even though it could have sounded musically dramatic I felt it sounded insincere. On a song like 'I'll Wear It Proudly' I tried to remind myself what I was singing about, that this is a love song, and it doesn't need to be bellowed ..."
This simpler approach in terms of basic dynamics meant that the numbers were dealt with on a take-by-take basis, much as jazz or country musicians work most of the time. A take is done as 'live,' with the minimum of overdubbing, and if a take doesn't produce the track after three or four takes, it's shelved, tried again later, or even discarded altogether.
"When you were happy with a take, the record was finished, the overdubbing was very limited, all the vocals and backings were done as live, at the same time, which shouldn't be that extraordinary, but it's pretty unusual these days in pop music. Jazz, country, blues sessions don't take three weeks trying to record one song—either they get it down at a session or they don't. So we never really went past four takes. Sometimes we did try a song with a variety of line-ups, often it was the subtle little signatures of the individual players that gave a song the character that it needed...
Among the august names on the album is jazz bass player Ray Brown — "... T Bone Burnett (co-producer with Costello) and I were just like kids making up your ideal football team, saying who would be absolutely the best you could get for this song ... Ray Brown was a choice, so we got him. People imagine these guys to be in some kind of jazz Valhalla, but he's just a working musician ... he's very busy, but we were just lucky to get him that day."
"Everybody came along with a really open mind. I tried to put them at ease, and for their part they didn't seem to hold any prejudice against me. I didn't know what to expect, I thought maybe these session players would be a little cold and impersonal, but in fact they came along and turned out to be very open minded, very open hearted, and the fact that they are good musicians goes beyond their technical ability, it's the fact that they've got personality in their playing, that's what makes them really special."
Central to the various permutations of musicians are the Attractions and the TCB Band — the latter consisting of the aforementioned Burton, who cut his teeth musically in the late fifties with the first sensational Ricky Nelson group, went on to play regularly for Elvis Presley, and featured in the first of Emmylou Harris' Hot Bands. The other two TCB players on the record, Ron Tutt on drums and bass player Jerry Scheff also worked with Burton as Presley's musicians.
"...on occasions they really sound like that, there are two tracks, 'The Big Light' and 'Glitter Gulch' where they play very much in the style they became associated with... the sound was also employed when James (and Ron Tutt in the studio) played with the Hot Band."
There's a big sound to the record that belies the small ensemble employed, a credit to the production as well as performance. "It's a compliment to the recording engineer Larry Hirsch, we made sure we made them sound about as big as they'd ever sounded on a record. Because we were using acoustic bass and a lot of brushes on the drums, we didn't want it to sound weedy ... we wanted to give it appropriate size. You hear a lot of acoustic based records and they sound as if they're only taking up a little bit of the actual speaker, they don't fill it right up, whereas this record does ... it's recorded on a big scale, but without artificially altering the scale of the instruments with electronic devices."
Alongside the heavyweight names on the sleeve notes, acoustic guitar credits appear for "The Little Hands Of Concrete" ... "it's a sarcastic reference to my nimble ability on the acoustic guitar. Nick Lowe christened me the Little Hands of Concrete when we used to make the early records, and he was never able to use my rough guitar track because the louder I was singing the more forcefully I seemed to hit the guitar until it totally distorted, so it became a little joke. I hate those records where you get the artiste credited a million times on the sleeve. You buy the record, his picture's on the front so you know by that who it is, but at the same time I didn't want anyone else blamed for my playing ..."
Elements of the music press have interpreted the eighteen months since the last Costello album Goodbye Cruel World as some kind of drying up of ideas or energy, but Declan MacManus, the real name he's increasingly reverting to these days, points out he's been as active as ever, albeit in a variety of directions. "I spent last year writing these songs, and working in production — I produced the Pogues — so it was far from a year off. I started off to have six months off, but I ended up working most of that time, and then spent the next six months either preparing for this album or actually recording it. It didn't take very long in the studio, probably only about three weeks' worth of studio time in all, but the recordings were spread over about three months."
Again the parallel was drawn with traditional non-rock modes of recording. "We did it more in the old fashioned way where you don't book a studio for weeks or months, but book three record dates and you cut some sides. We tried to approach it as much like that, not because we wanted it to sound like an old fashioned record but because there are certain things about the process of recording that were done then ... including the fact that as we were doing it 'live' we might as well have been cutting it straight on to wax.
"We approached it like that rather than getting bogged down and losing the perspective of the songs, it was easier to record for three days, then if you didn't get a song right there was no panic, there was always another day, whereas if you go in day after day after day you get more and more neurotic about the material, and then you start to change it ... which is sad, when you've already prepared the material, gone in with the songs. I mean you don't go into the studio without any songs, it's like going in with five strings on your guitar ..."
Apart from the single release "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," originally a hit for both Nina Simone and the Animals in the early sixties, and a jamming version of J.B. Lenoir's "Eisenhower Blues," all the songs on King Of America are Costello compositions, as usual, on what is arguably his most accomplished album to date.