Monday, January 5, 2009

EC Guests: Fall Out Boy, "What A Catch, Donnie"

I won't lie; there's something fun and poppy about Fall Out Boy that appeals to me. I won't apologize for it, and I shouldn't have to. Yes, their music is 'teh emo', substitutes
cleverness for true intelligence and is generally an overwrought confessional about just how difficult it is to be Fall Out Boy, but I think that they're just good enough that there's value there.

And so, apparently, does Elvis Costello, because he loans his voice to "What A Catch, Donnie," one of the singles off of the band's new album Folie A Deux. The track features several other guest vocalists, whose names I don't pretend to know, from peer acts like Gym Class Heroes and Panic at the Disco. The gimmick of the song is that the verse are all lyrics from other FOB songs as sung by the guests. Elvis has a line from "Headfirst Slide Into Cooperstown On A Bed Bet," another track on Folie that previously made the Internet rounds as "Does Your Husband Know?" The guest spot is about three lines long:

I will never end up like him
Behind my back, I already am
Keep a calendar, this way you will always know
My initial reaction was that "Donnie" was a bit of an uneven mess, and it's still one of the weaker tracks on the album, but there is a method to its madness that I'm just starting to grok.

Elvis's attempts to cover contemporary pop/indie pop are hit or miss, but I'd like to hear him try all of "Cooperstown." It's not a bad song, and has a hint of Costello's biting snark underlying it.

Check out the song below:

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

"Pump It Up" In Rock Band 2

Being Poisoned Letter's resident gamer geek, it didn't escape my notice that "Pump It Up" is on the track list of Rock Band 2. Which is good news, except that I'm still having trouble getting five stars on the thing on Hard. It frustrates me more than Elvis Costello should. It's the master recording, not a cover, and other than the chord-y bits that vex me, it's fun to play.

I'm hoping that this means we get some more Elvis as downloadable content in the future. The question is what other songs would translate well to video game format? I think "Veronica" is a good choice, and "American Gangster Time," and I want to name "I Want You" in spite of logic because of the smoldering guitar part that ignites in that too-brief solo.

What three songs would you recommend for a DLC Elvis Costello pack?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

EC Covered: Girl Talk swipes "Pump It Up"

I've been a fan of mashups for a couple years now, but no one has taken it to quite the luscious extremes of Girl Talk. His tunes are less mashups than total reimaginings of pop and hip-hop tracks built from the detritus of sound itself. It's like cutting together fifty different scenes from fifty different movies to create a new film, or swiping paragraphs from different novels to craft one whole story. 

On his latest album, Feed the Animals, Girl Talk executes a brilliant swipe of our very own Mr. Costello. Download, listen, enjoy, and give it time--the EC bit's a couple minutes in. 

Girl Talk - "Here's the Thing"

Monday, September 29, 2008

Pony St.

My wife hates baby boomers.

Maybe "hate" is a strong word, but she blames them (and rightly so, in my opinion) for much of what's wrong with our country and culture. She's especially right about their dominance over popular art; they're the reason Mick Jagger and his fellows still have a career in spite of their age and general lack of whatever it was that first made the true spirit of rock 'n' roll ignite lo those many years ago.

But it's a coin with two sides; we of generations beyond the baby boom look back at these relics of an older time and wonder why we still have to cater to these dottering old fools; the boomers probably look down at us from the distance of age and experience and giggle a bit at how everything that was edgy and revolutionary upon its invention just continues to get recycled in new forms--early rock is punk is gangsta rap, and so on. 

"Pony St." leads off Costello's 1994 album Brutal Youth, and it covers both sides of the coin--the child frustrated by how square and antiquated her parents are, and the mother who has been and done everything her kid is trying as a way of staking her own claim on rebellion. It's told mostly from the mother's point of view, but the daughter gets her own say in a verse, and even if it's the daughter speaking through the filter of her mother's frustration, the words still sting:

Oh mother, oh mother, sometimes you are so mortifying
From the hole in your leopard skin tights I can tell you've been spying
But your generation confesses before it transgresses
Those Super-8 movies of Daddy in your disco dresses

Costello is known for his lyrical bite, but that doesn't mean his words don't leave teeth marks; "Pony St." has a few of my all-time favorite Costello lines...

If you're going out tonight
I won't wait up
Reading "Das Capital"
Watching Home Shopping Club

There's an apparent collision of socialism and capitalism in those two last lines; we've essentially seen the idealist philosophies of the love generation twisted and bent into the same get-more-now lifestyle that they seemed to reject in their youth, which is perhaps what made their youth quite so brutal? The failed promise of it, and the desire for change eventually replaced with a stultifying satisfaction with the status quo? 

Or even worse--they think they've changed everything for the better, but nothing's changed at all?

And then later:

If you're going out tonight
How can you be sure
Where you lay your pretty head
Mother may have been before

The "nothing new under the sun" concept taken to its logical, bitter end--you can't escape the past, and sometimes, you lie down beneath it and think of England, whether you realize it or not. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Big Light

On some EC tunes, it's hard to uncover his meanings and motives; on this track, it's hard to miss them.

This is a song about being seriously fucking hung over. The album cut from King of America boasts fiery guitar work from James Burton, a legendary studio hand and part of Elvis Presley's infamous TCB backing band. In fact, the entire TCB combo, including bassist Jerry Scheff and drummer Ronnie Tutt, joins EC on the track--hot shit. When you're looking to deliver a galloping rockabilly number about the evils of drink, there's no better men in the history of the planet to play on it.

The inspiration for examining "Big Light" was twofold--first, I heard the searing live version of it this morning on my drive, the one from the bonus live EP included with the Ryko reissue of King of America (and a more nerdy sentence you will not read on the internet, my friend).

Second and more importantly, hearing it reminded me that I have an EC-related anecdote that involves an incredible live performance by Costello, a slightly messy break up, and my own horrifying hangover.


I have seen EC in concert 7 times. The last was 2004; the first was 1996. One of them was on October 15, 1999, at Chicago's Arie Crown Theater.

He didn't actually play "The Big Light" at this show; for the purposes of this rambling, navel-gazing, confessional piece, it's more important who attended the show with me than anything that happened at the show.

My company that evening were my two friends, Steve and Steve, both EC fans; and my recently ex-girlfriend, Nelly.

So Nelly had dumped me several weeks before, for reasons that thankfully escape me; I am glad to know that I remember few details of being dumped nearly ten years ago. I think that's healthy.

I remember our last real goodbye, a particularly nasty spat as I dropped her off at a train station and made her take the El home because I think I was too tired to drive her up to the far north side where she lived. And I remember the EC show, and a Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band concert from late September, because in spite of the fact that I had fully been ditched by this precocious little lady, she decided to keep and use these two concert tickets I had recently given her as gifts.

That's how I ended up with my ex sitting next to me for concerts by two of my favorite artists of all time, within weeks of each other, and at significant cost to myself. Because I am weak, and stupid, and didn't have the gumption to force her to give me the goddamned tickets back, or at least fork over some cash for the privilege of seeing two legends in their latter-day primes.

Anyway. That was Friday night--a Costello/Nieve show, with the Steves, and Nelly.


Saturday night was one of the seminal events of my early twenties: Diversey Homecoming.

My roommates and I decided it would be fun to hold a mock Homecoming dance in our apartment and invite everyone we knew. I think something like 100 people showed up; it was the kind of party where you make friends you've never met before and the production guy from your office pukes on the back porch and no one blinks cause they're too busy having fun.

At this party was Nelly, and at this party was a large bowl of punch featuring chambord, which I am told now is a "French black raspberry liqueur." Mixed with other boozes and some kind of fruit punch, it was the worst possible alcoholic beverage for a young, emotionally distraught, bitter male coming off a bad breakup and an Elvis Costello concert--it tasted good and was WAY stronger than its taste suggested.

I got so fucking wasted, dude.

Huge swaths of the evening are lost forever to me, thanks to the passing of time and the destructive mental effects of binge drinking. I remember there was shouting, on my part, directed at Nelly; I think she may have left crying.

Here's what I will never forget: The next morning, when I woke up in a rented tuxedo and a puddle of my own piss.

I had consumed so much liquor that I wet the bed. I emptied my bladder as I lay unconscious in the same place I'd nuzzled with Nelly just a few months before.

I think the stain was on that mattress till I got rid of it several years later.


Okay, so there wasn't an actual "big light" involved in my personal "Big Light" story; it'd probably be more appropriate if the song were called "The Big Damp Urine Stain." But that's my story, and I'm sticking to it--ex-girlfriends, Elvis Costello, and chambord don't mix. Ever.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Honky Tonk Demo

Like Roddy Doyle's Barrytown musicians at the end of The Commitments, maybe Elvis Costello's real calling was country music.

Elvis has had some notable performances with country luminaries like Emmylou Harris and George Jones, released his own country album with Almost Blue and wrote a whole mess of songs - like Complicated Shadows - that he wanted Johnny Cash to sing.

That may not sound like the seething post-punk Elvis Costello that you know and love, but it makes a ton of sense when you consider that punk and old-school country are close cousins, both full of angry outlaw songs about human ruin, blood and alcohol.

Costello's early Honky Tonk demo is a five song love letter to this sort of country music, an unpolished collection of songs about bitter drinking and domestic violence. Starting with Cheap Reward, the maudlin miniature rebellion of a drunk stuck in a failing relationship, continuing through the ugly singsong of Wave A White Flag ("Meet me in the kitchen and I'll beat you in the hall") and ending with the very Cash-sounding Poison Moon, the demo tears through four tracks, some of them a mishmash of the clever lyrics that made their way to My Aim Is True (Cheap Reward lends much of its hook to Lip Service, for instance). The fourth song, Jump Up, is possessed of the same bitter class consciousness that seeps out of Blame It On Cain.

The demo appears in both the Rykodisc and Rhino bonus material, but is sadly missing from the new "Deluxe" edition of Aim. If you have access to it and haven't heard it, give it a listen. Most of EC's demos are a great peek into his creative process, but the total regenrefication that occurs in Honky Tonk is an entertaining introspection into Costello's influences.

EDIT: As Matt pedantically points out, the demo includes early versions of Blame It On Cain and Mystery Dance (and the Mystery Dance demo has a fun little guitar riff that serves as a bumper between the verse and chorus). For the sake of completeness, they're part of the demo, but I really wanted to talk about the original tunes it contained.