"We here at Stiff think Elvis is King." Now wait a minute. Who's fooling who here? Is somebody trying to push this twerpish-looking fellow caught in an incredibly twisted pose as a certain legendary rock and roll figure?
Well, not exactly. You see, those kindly people at Stiff Records aren't always playing with a full deck. Stiff Records is a small independent British record label masterminded by pop genius Nick Lowe (a founding member of Brinsley Schwartz, if that helps).
Stiff is dedicated to creating good music and having a good time doing so — and, as most people in the recording business will tell, that is no easy task. Of course, it helps to be somewhat demented.
The best thing about Stiff Records is that Nick Lowe refuses to take himself seriously. What can you say about a guy who comes up with SEEZ-2-B as a filing number for the second side of a record or produces a record under the aegis of Keepitasahobby Productions?
By now, it's probably obvious that the opening line of this article refers to none other than England's newest singing sensation, Elvis Costello. Okay, Elvis may not be a household name yet, but give the guy time. Talent will out.
The truth is that among all the madness, Stiff has a real winner in Elvis Costello. His debut album, entitled My Aim is True, shows Elvis to be one of the more offbeat lyricists in recent years.
Offbeat here is not meant in a pejorative sense. It's just that, while he seems to be writing about topics that so many others have covered, like sex, unrequited love, having to work at a job — mundane topics, mind you — the way he says these things reflects some keen observation, a sense of humor, and, most of all, a way with words.
From a strictly musical standpoint, Elvis is a minimalist. Not in the sense of being a punk rocker, but rather in paring down the instrumentation to bare necessities. There are no synthesizers, no 90-piece orchestras, no three lead guitarists. Nonetheless, the man rocks with more authority than any of those Steve Miller/ Geils/ Frampton/ BadCo/ Heart/ Skynyrd aggregations that equate more with better. The difference we're talking about here isn't one of how much to rock, simply how to do it. Elvis knows what he's doing.
"Mystery Dance," song three on side two, is a powerful rocker dealing with the enigma of sex, and it's also the song on the album which most directly evokes the spirit of Elvis' namesake.
A sly sense of humor emerges in the third verse of the song "I was down under the covers in the middle of the night / Trying to discover my left foot from my right / You can see those pictures in a pretty magazine / But what's the use of looking, if you don't know what they mean?" You'll also get off on a superb rockabilly guitar solo, courtesy of Elvis.
It's hard to figure out where Elvis is coming from. He's an unusual talent with very personalized style (a close American equivalent might be Jonathan Richman).
In his first try, Elvis Costello has come up with a good show. It'll be interesting to see what comes from him in the future. Hopefully, he'll be able to land an American distributor (Stiff is only available as an import here). With a little bit of luck, he ought to be able to make a go of things After all, it's hard to keep a good name down.