Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Elvis Covers Part II: Girls Talk


 Dave Edmunds: Girls Talk

[Purchase]

Elvis Costello gave Dave Edmunds this song in "a moment of drunken bravado" as he put it in the liner notes of  Rhino's reissue of Get Happy!! In 1979 Edmunds scored a UK#4 hit with the hard charging song which he recorded with Nick Lowe ( whom you can hear chanting "girls talk" at the end) and Rockpile. (The same bunch of pub crawlers who recorded Lowe's Jesus Of Cool that year). The result is power pop perfection. Costello was at the very height of his snarky word-playing powers:

There are some things you can't cover up with lipstick and powder
I thought I heard you mention my name, can't you talk any louder?

It was far too late for EC to take back the song by the time he recorded his own version later that year with The Attractions. The two minute version is more herky jerky, sounds a bit like a throw-away, and got stuck to the B-side of the 1980 Get Happy!! single "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down".

Even an alternate version Costello recorded can't match Edmunds's straight ahead approach.

Linda Ronstadt has always known a good song when she heard one. She covered "Girls Talk" and two other Elvis Costello tunes for her new wave album Mad Love. An almost instant million seller, that 1980 album is out of print.

And yet Billy Joel's new wave recording Glass Houses is not. I know I've run off topic but really!! Is this justice? Discuss below.

Elvis Covers II: The Big Light

Johnny Cash: The Big Light

[purchase]

Elvis Costello on Johnny Cash, from the June Carter Keep on the Sunnyside compilation Joe Ross wrote about a few weeks back:

Being pals of their son-in-law, Nick Lowe, seemed to afford us some kind of "friend of the family" status with Johnny and June, and they extended a very generous welcome to a group of pale and trembling young men who had been tearing it up every night of their stay in town.

Before dinner, John took us on a tour of the grounds and property...Struggling to find anything coherent to say, I spied a Sun 45 of "Cry, Cry, Cry" propped up on an old-fashioned display stand. I told Johnny that we had just cut a version of this song of his. He promptly snatched up the disc and signed it -- "To Elvis" at the top of the label and "Your friend, Johnny Cash" just under the title -- and handed it to me...

Needless to say, the minute I got it home, I had the record frame and hung it on the wall. A few months later, June was visiting London again and I happened to drop in at the Carter/Lowe household. During her visits June could sometimes be found "improving" on the housecleaning of this rather rock and roll abode...On this occasion, she stopped her labors to say that she was mad at "Johnny Cash," as she always seemed to call him. Apparently, the Sun 45 had been a gift to June, long before their romance...Naturally I offered to return the memento, but June said I should keep it as it was now dedicated to me.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Elvis Covers Part II: Indoor Fireworks

Nick Lowe: Indoor Fireworks

[purchase (album only)]

In the early days, Elvis Costello covered Nick Lowe ("What's So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding"). Nick Lowe was the bigger name. By the time Lowe's Rose of England came out in 1985, the tables had turned. Lowe recorded his first Costello cover on that album, "Indoor Fireworks."

Lowe and Costello have collaborated for decades, beginning with Lowe serving as producer for Costello's first five albums. Earlier this year, while promoting his latest CD, That Old Magic, Lowe appeared on Marc Maron's "WTF" podcast. He spoke of his relationship with Costello with affection and a dollop of good humor.

Maron: Did you find Elvis Costello?

Lowe: No, not really. He used to come and see our group, Brinsley Schwarz, especially when we played in the northwest toward Liverpool....We always used to notice him at the gigs....[I] thought "Well, he turns up all the time." So I went and said hello to him. A few years later he went into Stiff records...and I was sort of the house producer...

I thought his songs were too complicated, too many words, too many chords. When I was doing [My Aim Is True], I was sort of in charge. He did what I said, I was the producer. It didn't take very long for slowly the scales to tip, until I found myself tugging the forelock and saying, "Um, Mr. Costello what do you got in mind for today, sir?"...

Elvis's stuff was always very sophisticated. As I said, it was chord-y. But if you corralled it, it was fantastic. He's written some sensational songs....I can't really remember what I did [as Elvis's producer]. He kept on asking me back, and I would always turn up and say, "Oh yeah, very nice."

Maron: ...Would you put him in the same arena as Bob Dylan?

Lowe: Well...he certainly puts himself in the same arena as Bob Dylan. Don't get me wrong. I'm very fond of him. We get along great. I always feel with him, as I describe it, as rather like a slightly disapproving elder brother. He works so hard, and whenever I see him, he always comes up come up to me and says something like..."Oh yeah, well Bobby DeNiro and I went out with so and so." And, I find myself saying, "Well, Robert DeNiro. He hasn't really made a good film for quite a long time, now has he?" I find myself slagging off whatever he says. But I really am ever so fond of him. He's a great fellow.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Elvis Covers Part II: Oliver's Army





A number of years back, I located a copy of Almost Beating, a Bill Janovitz piece he played with Crown Victoria, one of several groups he has been involved in. It's a song that I have moved from one music playing device to another - just love the drive of the guitar and vocals. Although this song isnt the subject of this post, here's a link to a streamed version of the song which I first found on the now-changed music.download.com website many years back

Being physically distant from places where I might have the chance to see him play live, I periodically go searching online for more Janovitz. I hadn't previously noticed Janovitz's own blog, "Part Time Manof Rock", but in digging for Elvis Costello covers, I was elated to see that not only has Janovitz covered Costello, but he also writes specifically about it in his blog about the covers he has done.

About Oliver's Army, Janovitz says what I myself felt about his work: the lyrics are important, but "the music always has to hit me first." Costello is well known for his lyrics-writing abilities: Stephen Thomas Erlewine of Allmusic notes both Costello's writing skills as well as his ability "to re-invent the past in his own image" - the Buddy Holly appearance brought to the 80s.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Elvis Covers Part II: Watching the Detectives

The Henry Girls: Watching the Detectives

[purchase]

“Watching the Detectives,” Elvis Costello’s 1977 first hit single in the U.K. (reaching #15), was also his first single to credit his backing band, The Attractions. The song appeared at #354 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. I’ve always liked hearing it as the theme song when I tune into the show called “History Detectives” on PBS. But it’s actually a cynical statement about a girlfriend who is investing more in her relationship with the television. As the chorus declares:

She is watching the detectives,
"Ooh, he's so cute,"
She is watching the detectives,
When they shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot.
They beat him up until the teardrops start,
But he can't be wounded 'cause he's got no heart.

“Watching the Detectives” is Costello’s favorite song from the first five years of his career. He once said that he’d written the song after staying up for 36 hours, and then listening all night to The Clash’s first album.

For a cover of the song, I’ve chosen one from The Henry Girls’ new album called “December Moon.” From County Donegal, The Henry Girls (Karen, Lorna and Joleen McLaughlin) personalize their music with crystalline vocals, lilting melodies and eclectic influences. Karen plays fiddle, viola, guitar, banjo and even some ukulele. Joleen is a harper, but she also adds a little mandolin and piano to the mix. Lorna’s instrumental contributions are more understated, with some piano, accordion and chimes on a few tracks. All three women have music degrees, teach regularly, and have toured for years.

This cover of Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives” is a good choice for these musicians who appreciate the English singer-songwriter’s literate lyrics and eclecticism. The girls have Celtic roots so they downplay any punk rock style in favor of a more relaxed, albeit sophisticated, acoustic folk arrangement. Besides their own originals, this cover by The Henry Girls is a good selection for airplay. The Henry Girls are touring the U.S. this summer of 2012. Here are some of their planned stops:

August 10, Live on the Levee, West Virginia
August 15, Chicago Old Town School of Folk Music
August 16 – 19, Milwaukee Irish Fest

I wonder if they like old detective shows and if they're anything like Costello’s lead-off lyrics: “Nice girls, not one with a defect. Cellophane shrink-wrapped, so correct …”?

Elvis Covers Part II: Veronica

Dust Poets: Veronica

[purchase]

Why this, when there's so much broken beauty in the songs of Elvis Costello?

Because my own personal journey through the work of this incredible artist began with the 1989 release of Spike, which included it - a co-write with Paul McCartney that's awfully upbeat for a song about the inner life of the aging invalid.

Because Entertainment Weekly voted it as one of Costello's top ten greatest tunes. Really.

And because it's awesome. I mean, how often do you find an "eclectic chamber folk ensemble" that can transform an already underrated sociopolitical poke into an exceptional acoustic polka?

If The Dust Poets don't tour as much as they could, it's because their members are spread out across the various provinces of Canada; they even went on hiatus for most of last year, though they seem to be gearing up for a few north of the border tour dates, and a few September showcases in the NY / New England region. But see 'em if you can, because seeing them together is a revelation. The rest of their work - which includes songs nominally about cows and magicians, but actually about fairness and just desserts - is equally irreverent, and equally recommended.

Elvis Covers Part II: Shipbuilding



Robert Wyatt: Shipbuilding
[purchase]

When I heard that this week’s theme would be covers of Elvis Costello songs, two ideas jumped into my head. The first was a song that I have listened to many, many times, which I heard on the radio, played on the radio, saw on MTV and which is fun and rocks. The other was a song that I rarely listened to, never hear on the radio, probably never played on the radio, and is a slow, kind of depressing ballad. Of course, I chose the second song to write about.

“Shipbuilding” is a brilliant anti-war song written about the Falklands War of 1982. The one between the UK and Argentina over a few small islands in the South Atlantic which lasted 74 days and caused all sorts of patriotic fervor to rise up in both countries. Ending with the UK regaining control over the islands (in other words, nothing changed), it led to the death of 649 Argentine military personnel, 255 British military personnel and three Falkland Islanders. As dumb as most wars are, this was amongst the dumber ones, certainly of the modern era.

The tune was written not by Costello, but by Clive Langer, best known as a producer, but he couldn’t come up with good lyrics. He played it for Costello, at a party hosted by Nick Lowe, and Elvis came up with a set of lyrics that he once described as the best he’d ever written. Which, considering the body of his work, is pretty impressive. Although clearly anti-war, the song does recognize a contradiction—the war helped to bring back prosperity to depressed shipyards and provide jobs to their workers. Thus, the first line—“Is it worth it?”

The song was written for Robert Wyatt, a musician who is lionized in the UK, pretty much unknown here, and who was politically to the left of the left-wing Costello. Wyatt was best known as a drummer and major force in the Canterbury scene (which I have previously written about in my Gong post). He was probably most famous as a member of Soft Machine, but after leaving that band in 1971, he released solo albums and formed a band called Matching Mole (which is a pun based on the French translation of “Soft Machine”). Unfortunately, in 1973 Wyatt got drunk at a party, fell out of a fourth floor window and became a paraplegic. To give you a sense of his place in the British music scene at the time, Pink Floyd played two benefit concerts to raise money for his care, supported by Soft Machine.

Wyatt’s injury didn’t end his musical career, and he continued to drum, obviously without using his feet, sing and play other instruments on solo records and with others. Some of his collaborators include Mike Oldfield, David Gilmour and Nick Mason of Pink Floyd, Brian Eno, Phil Manzanera of Roxy Music, and, on “Shipbuilding,” Elvis Costello. The musicians on this version of the song include Steve Nieve, of The Attractions, and Mark Bedford, of Madness. The spareness and simplicity of the arrangement, and Wyatt’s reedy but empathetic vocals give the song a power that continues to haunt.

Costello’s version, released after Wyatt’s on the “Punch the Clock” album, produced by Langer and his producing partner Alan Winstanley, is also quite good, if maybe a bit over produced, and features a beautiful trumpet solo by Chet Baker, but I agree with the consensus that Wyatt’s version is the better one.

Coincidently, the other song that I was considering writing about is one where I like the cover better than the Costello version (and Nick Lowe plays on it). And if no one else posts it, I will try to do so before the end of the week.