Trinity University Trinitonian, January 19, 1979

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Costello cures post-holiday blues

Rod Snyder


But as I said, there's a cure. A tested antidote for disappointment. Neatly packed in clear shrink-wrap, contents listed in easy-to-read type, it comes in vinyl or tape and costs about $5 at major record stores. It can be shared among victims (and non-victims!) until the zombie affliction blows over. For quick results, one or two listens at medium to high volume is advised.

It's the new Elvis Costello album, Armed Forces, from Columbia records. (Costello is a Grammy Award nominee for Best New Artists of 1978).

Released a week ago as you read this, Armed Forces hustles in the new year on a thrilling note. It may be the greatest pop-rock record around, but it comes close to being a peerless example of pop-rock as cerebral art. There is hope for rock music, no matter how stagnant and gutless the 1970's have made it, and Armed Forces shows why.

Costello is a 24-year old British singer-songwriter who colors traditional pop-rock themes — spurned love, awkward affection, and establishment figures — with unexpected, striking colors. The unusual situations he invents turn his tunes into engaging puzzles.

His group, the Attractions, blends influence from British Invasion (early-mid 60's) bands such as Manfred Mann, The Byrds, and Herman's Hermits into a sophisticated, keyboard-and-drum-centered power unit.

The sound of Elvis Costello and The Attractions echoes a few harmony and arrangement gimmicks first heard on AM radios 15 years ago. Bouncy rhythms, delectably-stated melody lines, and multi-tracked vocals on the infectious refrains hover throughout the album.

Yet the polish and scientific approach one notices almost instantly could only have come from the late 1970's. Today's most exciting rock music is idea-oriented, no matter how thoroughly emotional its lyrics get; its way of depicting modern man's spiritual and social uncertainties.

Composers in such "New Wave" groups as Blondie, Television, and Talking Heads continually find new music and lyric techniques for stating the familiar issues and answers of the youth culture. Costello and The Attractions fit into this clique of innovators. They want to write and perform music which can function as both food for thought and ammunition for one's passions.

Costello himself shoots from the hip. While other members of the "New Wave" music intellegents occasionally obscure meanings of their songs by injecting too many puns and symbolism devices into lyrics — literary assets can be a hindrance in rock and roll — Elvis can point his finger right at his target. Cerebral he may be, but coy he is not.

Unfortunately, his subject matter can seem limited — a problem Bruce Springsteen also has. Costello spends much of his studio time chastising ex-lovers for their mistakes and shortcomings. This doesn't get boring as long as keeps coming up with various personas — in "Chemistry Class" he's a poisoner, in "Hand in Hand" he was a gangster, in "Lipstick Vogue" a frantic vacationer in Las Vegas. Still Costello needs to demonstrate he can create great rock and roll even when he's not high on rage. That's when we'll know he's a well-rounded writer.

At heart, Elvis is a storyteller. This is partly why he fascinates critics. Common rock lyricists seem content to offer paeans to a sweetheart, lash out against society's institutions, or tell how they'd like to party 24 hours a day. These are only statements of feeling Costello songs feature situational details — clues for the listener to use when figuring out who the characters involved might be. For instance, "Watching the Detectives," one of his best numbers, tells how there's foul play afoot while a woman watches a detective story on TV. But does the murder take place on TV, or in reality in the woman's TV room? That's for the listener to decide. It's another intriguing challenge to appreciate Costello for.

Compared to past Costello LPs, Armed Forces seems the product of a confident band that is full of ideas and just now hitting its stride. The Attractions' debut effort, This Year's Model, (Elvis' second album), an all-out rocker, was less subtle...a bit short on nuance and long on impact. Almost shrill. Armed Forces is quieter, more like a succession of ideas than collection of rock and roll songs. Tasteful and deft. It has layers of sound and meaning that should surprise me over my next several listenings... which I'll get around to in a more relaxed fashion than my first, now that the Emergency! crisis has been dealt with. The sun is coming up, I'm sending this thing to the typesetter at last. Hope I've saved a few folks come Friday. And remember, there is hope for rock and roll and it lies with Elvis Costello.


The Trinitonian, January 19, 1979

Rod Snyder reviews Armed Forces.


1979-01-19 Trinity University Trinitonian page 14 clipping 01.jpg

Page scan.
1979-01-19 Trinity University Trinitonian page 14.jpg


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