Trouser Press, May 1980

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Trouser Press
TP Collectors' Magazine

US rock magazines

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Get Less Anxious

Elvis Costello And The Attractions / Get Happy!!

Ira Robbins

The first draft of this review, written on the basis of an American pressing, had to be discarded when an English copy arrived. Sound quality on the US version is so thoroughly inferior that the music is largely obscured, making fair appraisal impossible. Comparing the two versions, the domestic release sounds as if it were mastered from a cassette of the import by someone with distorted hearing. A loss of bass and accentuation of the high end makes the US album not only different, but somewhat unpleasant listening. Also, the sound level is lower than the British pressing, making it necessary to boost amplification — which causes lower quality reproduction.

I don't know what caused this problem. A spokesperson for Columbia maintains that their version is satisfactory to the company; the implication is that the record was made to sound this way by intent, not error. The important fact to ponder is that the sound of a record can drastically alter the way in which the music is perceived, by critic and fan alike.

The one factor that most strongly separates Elvis Costello from 99 per cent of the other artists that find their way onto this country's airwaves is his intensity. Some rockers wail convincingly; others write songs of depth and passion; a few play with real fire. But nobody (repeat: nobody) puts it all together with as much concerted power as Elvis and band. His second and third albums (the first suffers too much from imperfect execution) are ticking time bombs of flat-out fury. Even when he's not tapping his seemingly bottomless well-spring of venom, Costello delivers the goods with convulsive tension. No one else could charge even a love song with so much convincing anxiety.

This album is different. Disregarding the title (Costello wouldn't dare use such an obvious ploy), the most noticeable change on Get Happy!! is the tempered sense of aggression. Some of the tunes work up a proper head of steam (and that doesn't refer specifically to volume, speed or angst), but the songs' overall effect is palpable inertia. Maybe Costello has worked all the vitriol out of his pained system; more plausibly, he has simply decided to try something different. Costello has taken a jaunty tack — with a decided slant towards '60s Motown — and plastered it all over 20 numbers that vary from ace to awful.

'There is no pervasive theme as some have suggested; in no way is this Costello's "up" album. In fact, nothing about Get Happy!! seems thought out enough to indicate preconception or careful preparation towards a specific theme. Sequencing is totally chaotic (and further confused by an intentional mislabeling of sides). The recording sounds rushed; simple production values contrast sharply with the care and intricacy of Armed Forces. Haste, not forethought, is the strongest force here.

It's not a drastic change in musical direction that makes Get Happy!! difficult to accept; the overwhelming effect of so many songs, none of them sounding fully developed, defies comprehension (let alone absorption). This could almost be a collection of unfinished demos — not a bad idea in itself, but not one that makes enjoyment easy. Get Happy!! takes some work.

If there had been only a dozen songs instead of 20, Get Happy!! could have been an incredible record. As it is, bad items detract from good ones. The album also suffers from a stupefying maze of verses, choruses and refrains. There are virtually no musical breaks; Costello sings for almost all of the LP's 47½ minutes. Some melodies seem to pop up more than once.Take out eight songs and Get Happy!! zips along in much more exciting fashion. Less is definitely more.

Which are the lucky dozen? "Love for Tender," a boppy number that could have descended from "You Can't Hurry Love," features the Attractions in fine form, vocally as well as instrumentally. The moody/funky "Opportunity" has a Talking Heads feel courtesy of a familiar organ fill; "The Imposter" pummels ahead at high speed, and features Steve Thomas's best drum work on the LP. (Unlike the preceding pair, the album's emphasis is clearly away from extraordinary rhythm maneuvers.)

"King Horse" perfectly mixes an ominous verse with a rouser of a chorus; it must be a great live number. Only too-clever lyrics sully the piano-laden "Man Called Uncle" (no, not U.N.C.L.E.). Undoubtedly written during Get Happy!!'s recording in Holland, "New Amsterdam" shows Costello's folky side. It's a singsongy bit one might expect to hear in a London underground tunnel; amazing vocals, cloying lyrics.

"High Fidelity" is a dynamic song (with a bit of Four Tops sound) delivered with convincing grit and wit, and stands as one of the LP's high spots. Sam and Dave's obscure "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down" (Get Happy!!'s single) works, but not too amazingly; nor does the dopey calypso of "Human Touch." Another high point, "Beaten to the Punch," has Costello uncharacteristically shrieking the refrain by the fade.

The best is saved for last: "I Stand Accused," the only other non-original, was first recorded by the Merseybeats back in '65. It's one of those great songs that has everything; Costello adds barrels more. 'Nuff said.

Yeah, that's only 11 and I said 12. Pick your own final cut and enjoy. But don't bother to get happy; I'm sure Costello wouldn't.

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Trouser Press, No. 50, May 1980


Ira Robbins reviews Get Happy!!.

Images

1980-05-00 Trouser Press page 34.jpg
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Photo by Ebet Roberts.
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