Strange album this; right out of the blue they hit you with something like Elvis Costello.
To give you an idea of what it's about, it's been produced at Stiff Records by Nick Lowe for Keepitasahobby Productions and although I know it's not kosher to straight-away go comparing somebody's debut effort with other more established artists' work, if you can imagine the instrumental and vocal feel of Graham Parker, the Hot Rods, Van Morrison, The Stones, the Feelgoods and 63-64 period Beatles (phew) and the pained lyrical honesty of Jackson Browne (sorry) all rolled into one you'd come close to getting an idea of the sound of Elvis Costello. Like much of the more mainstream new wave at the moment, it's definitely a product of the middle seventies pub-rock boom in London and I guess whether you'd like it or not depends on your attitude to the whole idea of Getting Back to the Roots.
The whole thing has such a sixties feel that it's got to be a 1977 album. (Only too true - ed.) The label says it's Totally Stereo, but I think Mono Enhanced Stereo would be more accurate. Nick Lowe has mixed the rhythm section of bass, drums and (occasional) keyboards into a mono backdrop, put the classic R&B growl of E.C.'s voice way up front (though he's given it at times the kind of off-mike echo that Steve Sholes gave the real Elvis on his first RCA sessions), and kept the stereo separation for the guitars.
The songs are self-assured, tight Southern R&B based nuggets understated and subtle but laced with short fiery guitar licks, sparingly coloured by keyboards and vocal harmonies. They're just about all under 3 minutes long, they're self-penned and they have a common theme — the all-time loser misses out again. I mean just look at the cover, E.C. is the all-time loser, the eternal misfit. Apparently he's a computer operator who's lived most of his life in Liverpool and the world has left him with such a chip on his shoulder he keeps a Black Book of all the people that have crossed him — (record execs fill most of the pages). Listen to some of the lines from "Alison" — "You used to hold him in your pretty hand but it took all that he could take" — or "Mystery Dance" — "Remember when the lights went out / Tryin' to make it look like it was never in doubt / Underneath the covers in the middle of the night / Tryin' to find my left foot from my right / You've seen these pictures in a magazine / But what's the use when you don't know what they mean". The songs are little vignettes about bitterness and failure, but the way they swing you get the feeling that through it all E.C. musta just shrugged his shoulders and gone on his way.
Six of these tracks have been released as A or B sides of singles in England (in fact virtually the whole album is potential singles material) and although "Alison" and "Less Than Zero" did get good critical reaction, the great British public — or rather the BBC — didn't agree. Still it's good to see someone else having a go at reviving the almost extinct art of the hit single as self-contained pop masterpiece. Who needs the album of the soundtrack of the film of the laser show of the same name when you've got people like Stiff Records putting out The Damned, Roogalator and Elvis Costello — all of whom had no chance of even getting near the studios before small independents like themselves and Chiswick (and Trafalgar here) reappeared.
The story goes that Elvis Costello took his demo tapes to all the majors but was universally rejected as having low market potential. Well, whatever his personal problems, he's put together a collection of instantly memorable tracks that's currently riding at Number 15 in the English charts and deserves a far wider exposure than it's gonna get here.