Sunday, 22 September 2013

Elvis Costello: 1989-1997

Earlier this year, I looked at Costello’s UK releases from the “early days” - the hit making period when he was signed to the likes of Stiff and Radar. As the eighties came to an end, Elvis signed to Warner Brothers, initially minus The Attractions, and proceeded to continue with a series of really rather excellent albums. The Warner Brothers years can have a tendency to be lost when looking at Costello’s career, as most attempts to have a hit single during this period actually resulted in a flop single instead - Costello managed just two top 40 singles in this period, despite releasing no less than 14 forty-fives.

Whilst the period saw Costello indulge in his soundtrack and orchestral fantasies, the main body of work from the period was five studio efforts, which midway through saw a reunion with The Attractions once again, resulting in 1994’s critically acclaimed “Brutal Youth”. In recent times, as part of their ongoing “Original Album Series” budget boxset releases, Warners have issued a Costello set which includes all five of these records, housed in simple vinyl-style card sleeves. Following the release of 1996’s “All This Useless Beauty”, Costello left the label, bowing out with a 1997 collection covering the period, “Extreme Honey”.

As such, this boxset quite neatly covers the period from start to finish, and is a perfect introduction to this slightly underrated period of the man’s career. In this article, each of the albums are looked at, detailing the various singles that surfaced at the same time, as well as a brief overview of some of the other albums that appeared during the same period.


If Costello’s last studio album before signing to Warners had been just as angry and spiky as his earlier ones (1986‘s “Blood And Chocolate“), then 1989’s “Spike” seemed like an almost deliberate move into a slightly more “pop” territory - but of course, being Costello, it wasn’t quite pop at all. The album, with his former cohorts now gone, thus sounded quite different to anything he had done before. Trying to describe it is difficult, it’s certainly not “new wave”, but a look at the instruments used on the record should give you a clue - fiddles, irish harps, trumpets, different types of saxophone, glockenspiel...this was a record that at times sounded like Costello was mining a bastardised sound of The Pogues (“Stalin Malone”, “Miss Macbeth”), The Stray Cats (“Pads Paws And Claws”) and The Byrds (“Veronica”) - and then some. The opening “This Town” had a crunching sound that harked back to his past, the politicised cry of “Tramp The Dirt Down” showed he had lost none of his bite, whilst “Baby Plays Around” was a beautiful torch song. “Last Boat Leaving” brought the album to a beautiful, harmony filled climax, finishing an album that jumped around genre wise in a way no other Elvis record had quite done before.

“Veronica” was issued as the first single from the LP, with a non album b-side in the form of “You’re No Good”. On the “extended play” formats, another non-album track was included called “The Room Nobody Lives In”, whilst “Coal-Train Robberies” completed the format, which was to be included on the CD edition of the forthcoming album but not the LP or Cassette versions. “Baby Plays Around” was issued as a 4-track EP no matter what format you bought it on, the 7” and 10” versions coming backed entirely with previously released material, but the remaining formats replaced “Poisoned Rose” (from “King Of America”) with the previously unreleased “Point Of No Return”.

In 2002, all of Costello’s Warner Bros albums were reissued as double disc releases (and are all now deleted), and all three of the new b-sides that adorned these single releases were included on the revamped version of the LP, alongside other rarities, most of them previously unreleased. Suffice to say, the version in the box set is the original single disc 15 track CD edition, and the 2002 edition is getting increasingly hard to find.

Veronica/You’re No Good (7”, Warner Bros W 7558)
Veronica/You’re No Good/The Room Nobody Lives In/Coal-Train Robberies (12”, Warner Bros W 7558 T, some with poster [W 7558 TW])
Veronica/You’re No Good/The Room Nobody Lives In/Coal-Train Robberies (CD, Warner Bros W 7558 CD, 3” or 5” editions exist)
Baby Plays Around/Poisoned Rose/Almost Blue/My Funny Valentine (7”, Warner Bros W 2949)
Baby Plays Around/Poisoned Rose/Almost Blue/My Funny Valentine (10”, Warner Bros W 2949 TE)
Baby Plays Around/Point Of No Return/Almost Blue/My Funny Valentine (12”, Warner Bros W 2949 T)
Baby Plays Around/Point Of No Return/Almost Blue/My Funny Valentine (Cassette, Warner Bros W 2949 C)
Baby Plays Around/Point Of No Return/Almost Blue/My Funny Valentine (3” CD, Warner Bros W 2949 CD)

Mighty Like A Rose

Now, it may well be that the power of persuasion got me here - “Q” magazine at the time asked “is this Costello’s greatest ever LP?” - but I absolutely love this record. Generally dismissed as a patchy affair ever since, “Mighty Like A Rose” - to these ears - scowls and sneers in a way “Spike” never quite did.

It’s not a complete throwback to the spikier early years (that would really occur on “Brutal Youth”), but at times, it sounds quite vicious, Costello later describing it as his “angry record”, inspired in part by his disbelief at the then recent Gulf War. So “Hurry Down Doomsday” stomps around in an itchy and irritated way, and “How To Be Dumb” features the glorious line “and beautiful people stampede to the doorway of the funniest fucker in the world”, which is delivered in such a snarling way, that I always hear it as an aggressive attack on one of his enemies - I could be wrong, but it really does jump out at you.

At other times, the record recalls the genre hopping approach that “Spike” tried - the Beach Boys pastiche of “The Other Side Of Summer”, the miraculous fairground waltz finale that is “Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No.4”, the pure pop of “Georgie And Her Rival”, the twangy croon of “So Like Candy”...I really, really love this album, even if nobody else does.

“Proper” B-sides were in relatively short supply - the only new studio recording to appear on any of the related 45‘s, “The Ugly Things”, actually dated from the “Spike” sessions, and indeed, is on the 2002 bonus disc of that album rather than this one. Ditto the “demo” version of “Veronica” that appeared on the “So Like Candy“ EP. The live recordings that made up the rest of that EP can now also be found on the expanded 2-disc version of the record...“Hurry Down Doomsday” was lifted from Costello’s 1991 “MTV Unplugged” show, and other selections from that gig are included on the bonus disc, along with numerous other odds and sods.

The other single listed here, “Jacksons Monk And Rowe”, was taken from Elvis’s 1993 orchestral collaboration with The Brodsky Quartet, “The Juliet Letters”. Although, being a non-pop outing, this record can therefore be sometimes ignored when looking at Costello’s career, several songs from the album were indeed later added onto career spanning compilation albums (including “Extreme Honey”) and it has also been the subject of an expanded 2-CD reissue as well, this time in 2006.

The Other Side Of Summer/Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No.4 (7”, Warner Bros W 0025)
The Other Side Of Summer/Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No.4 (Cassette, Warner Bros W 0025 C)
The Other Side Of Summer/Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No.4/The Ugly Things (12”, Warner Bros W 0025 T)
The Other Side Of Summer/Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No.4/The Ugly Things (CD, Warner Bros W 0025 CD)
So Like Candy/Veronica (Demo)/Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No.4 (Live)/Hurry Down Doomsday (Live) (7”, Warner Bros W 0068)
So Like Candy/Veronica (Demo)/Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No.4 (Live)/Hurry Down Doomsday (Live) (12”, Warner Bros W 0068 T)
So Like Candy/Veronica (Demo)/Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No.4 (Live)/Hurry Down Doomsday (Live) (Cassette, Warner Bros W 0068 C)
So Like Candy/Veronica (Demo)/Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No.4 (Live)/Hurry Down Doomsday (Live) (CD, Warner Bros W 0068 CD)
Jacksons Monk And Rowe/This Sad Burlesque/Interview (CD, Warner Bros W 0159 CDX)

Brutal Youth

So, the “comeback” album - sort of. Despite being credited as a solo album, and with various Attractions missing at times, 1994’s “Brutal Youth” is nonetheless seen as their reunion record. Indeed, for the tour that followed, Elvis was backed by the group and several singles were actually credited to “Elvis Costello And The Attractions” as well. The cover photo featured an image of Costello as a child, and the album had a fiery roar to it that recalled the energy of “This Years Model” or “Get Happy” - I know they say don’t look back, but by seemingly referencing his past, Costello came up with something completely contemporary and near flawless.

An edited “Sulky Girl” landed him his first proper hit for some five years. Its quiet/loud structure showcased the rest of the record perfectly, as there is a certain amount of light and shade inbetween the new wave rumbles of “13 Steps Lead Down” and “Pony Street”, such as the beautiful piano driven “You Tripped At Every Step”, or the anthemic-pop of “All The Rage” - but my favourite lyric still comes from one of the more punky numbers, 20% Amnesia - “this is all your glorious country thinks of your life” is spat out with such aggression, you could assume that Costello figured he needed the muscular sound of The Attractions to help carry off such words with sufficient anger behind them.

The flipsides of “Sulky Girl” are now on the 2002 expanded edition, but some of the other rarities from the period have gone AWOL. “Do You Know What I’m Saying?”, only issued on the 7” and Cassette editions of “13 Steps”, had originally been written for Wendy James several years before, and her version had been duly recorded for her 1993 album “Now Ain’t The Time For Your Tears”. The 3 b-sides from the CD edition of the same single were also written for the same album, but not one of these songs have appeared anywhere else since in the UK, most of the bonus disc on the expanded LP consisting of alternate versions or demos of songs on the main album. “London‘s Brilliant“, also written for James, is also still only available on the 12“ and Cassette versions of the original “London‘s Brilliant Parade“ single. I think Costello later admitted to being embarrassed by the whole collaboration with James, which may explain why these songs remain buried.

“You Tripped At Every Step” came backed with covers, including a pair of Lennon And McCartney numbers, and had been recorded for a BBC TV show - all are now on the expanded “Kojak Variety” 2CD. “London’s Brilliant Parade” was issued on multiple formats with variant tracklistings - two CD singles were issued with oldies as B-sides, with the first CD coming in an elaborate digipack sleeve, designed to hold the second disc from CD2. I seem to recall that the reason for including these oldies was to tie in with the ongoing reissue campaign of Costello’s pre-Warners albums that were in the process of being re-released in expanded form whilst the “Brutal Youth” promo campaign continued. A 12” consisting of brand new B-sides was also issued (but none of this helped get the single into the top 40), and the covers of “My Resistance Is Low” and “Congratulations” that appeared on this version of the single are again now also on the expanded “Kojak Variety”.

Sulky Girl (Single Version)/A Drunken Man’s Praise Of Sobriety (7”, Warner Bros W 0234)
Sulky Girl (Single Version)/A Drunken Man’s Praise Of Sobriety (Cassette, Warner Bros W 0234 C)
Sulky Girl (Single Version)/Idiophone/A Drunken Man’s Praise Of Sobriety/Sulky Girl (CD, Warner Bros W 0234 CD)
13 Steps Lead Down/Do You Know What I’m Saying? (7”, Warner Bros W 0245)
13 Steps Lead Down/Do You Know What I’m Saying? (Cassette, Warner Bros W 0245 C)
13 Steps Lead Down/Puppet Girl/Basement Kiss/We Despise You (CD, Warner Bros W 0245 CD)
You Tripped At Every Step/You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away (7”, Warner Bros W 0251)
You Tripped At Every Step/You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away (Cassette, Warner Bros W 0251 C)
You Tripped At Every Step/Step Inside Love/You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away/Sticks And Stones (CD, Warner Bros W 0251 CD)
London’s Brilliant Parade/Sweet Dreams/The Loved Ones/From Head To Toe (CD1, numbered blue sleeve, Warner Bros W 0270 CD1)
London’s Brilliant Parade/New Amsterdam/Beyond Belief/Shipbuilding (CD2, Warner Bros W 0270 CD2)
London’s Brilliant Parade/London’s Brilliant (Cassette, Warner Bros W 0270 C)
London’s Brilliant Parade/My Resistance Is Low/Congratulations/London’s Brilliant (12”, Warner Bros W 0270 T)

Kojak Variety

The odd one out in the boxset, “Kojak Variety” was a covers album, seemingly put together from numerous studio sessions from 1989/1990 up until 1995. The album closer, a cover of The Kinks’ “Days”, had appeared on a soundtrack album in 1991, whilst the likes of “Running Out Of Fools” had previously been recorded, in alternate form, for “Blood And Chocolate” but not used.

I haven’t listened to this one in years, but I have always thought that the idea of Costello doing a covers album seemed pointless. Given that he is such a gifted songwriter, surely covering songs by - sometimes - inferior artists is simply going to result in an album that sounds, well, inferior to his own?

My main memory of this record, was that Elvis decided to showcase it during a special radio broadcast gig at the Shepherds Bush Empire in London on 17th May 1995 - three days after it’s release. In order to get the recording levels right, the first three songs were not to be broadcast, and Elvis rattled through his cover of “Girls Talk” and a couple of unreleased new songs (“Complicated Shadows” and “God Give Me Strength”) solo. With the green light for the radio broadcast now on, Elvis promptly played more or less the whole of the new record and little else, the combination of covers and new material slowly starting to cause disgruntlement in the crowd - well, at least where I was. By the time he finally got round to playing “Alison”, eliciting huge cheers (of relief), it was too late. A quick “Pump It Up” later, and it was all over. I had seen Elvis play an incendiary show here the year before, but this one, by contrast, felt awkward and flat.

The album was reissued in expanded form in 2004, with the second disc also consisting entirely of covers. Aside from the aforementioned B-sides, this disc also includes a cover of Springsteen’s “Brilliant Disguise”, the b-side of 1996’s “It’s Time” single, lifted from our next album...

All This Useless Beauty

A sort of companion album, this magnificent 1996 outing started life as an album of songs Costello had written for other artists, some of whom recorded them, some of whom didn’t. As such, there is a lot of variety on here, as Costello tried to design songs that “sounded” like the performers he had in mind. So “You Bowed Down”, written for Roger McGuinn, sounded more like The Byrds than The Byrds did, “Complicated Shadows” was a country twang designed for Johnny Cash, and “The Other End Of The Telescope”, a co-write with Aimee Mann, was a beautiful piece of adult pop. The rest of the album recalled the genre hopping of “Mighty Like A Rose” and “Spike” - “It’s Time” seemed to be driven by a hip hop beat, “Why Can’t A Man Stand Alone” was Elvis in full crooner mode, and “I Want To Vanish” featured the Brodsky Quartet, bringing a classy baroque end to a varied, thrilling, and often beautiful sounding record. In my opinion, ignoring for a moment the covers records and “not proper” LP's, Costello had recorded four solid gold classics on the trot (six if you go back and include pre-Warners albums “King Of America” and “Blood And Chocolate”).

“Life Shrinks”, the b-side of “It’s Time”, had been recorded some years earlier, and thus now appears on the expanded “Brutal Youth”.

What was especially noticeable about this album, and the accompanying tour, was that Elvis then indulged in some fascinating promo style antics. He played at the Shepherds Bush Empire on four consecutive Fridays in July 1996, playing a fifth show in the capital at the Roundhouse the day after the final Empire gig on 27th July. He also released four singles, one per week, the same month - billed as a 4-part CD single set, each including the same “new” b-side (“Almost Ideal Eyes”), along with a strange mish mash of bonus tracks. “Little Atoms” included mono remixes of two live tracks that had appeared on the brilliant US only 5xEP CD Set “Costello & Nieve”. “The Other End Of The Telescope” featured a live version of the b-side “Basement Kiss” (never released again since) and a slightly edited version of “Complicated Shadows” - it was supposed to play a previously unheard demo mix, but all copies were mispressed, although later pressings made specifically for the German market (but with the same catalogue number) played the demo mix as planned. The superb "Elvis Costello Wiki" site goes into greater detail as to how to spot which one is which.

Then-current Britpop acts Lush and Sleeper recorded covers of two of the songs from the LP, issued as b-sides on “Distorted Angel” and “All This Useless Beauty” respectively (Costello’s own version of Sleeper’s “What Do I Do Now” was released on the “Volume 17” compilation), whilst remixes of “Little Atoms” and “Distorted Angel” padded out the third and fourth single releases. Only 5000 copies of each of the four singles were pressed, although a further 3000 of each were made for the German market at a later date. Despite this promo frenzy, none of the singles dented the top 40.

The expanded double disc version of the album includes “Almost Ideal Eyes”, along with the new songs that appeared on the “Extreme Honey” set (“The Bridge I Burned” and “My Dark Life”), and although the remix of “Distorted Angel” closes the set, the remixes of “Little Atoms” are missing, as are all the live recordings.

It’s Time (Single Version)/Life Shrinks (Cassette, Warner Bros W 0348 C)
It’s Time (Single Version)/Life Shrinks/Brilliant Disguise (CD, Warner Bros W 0348 CD)
Little Atoms/Almost Ideal Eyes/Just About Glad (Live)/Why Can’t A Man Stand Alone? (Live) (CD, Warner Bros W 0364 CD)
The Other End Of The Telescope/Almost Ideal Eyes/Basement Kiss (Live)/Complicated Shadows (Edit) (CD, Warner Bros W 0365 CD)
Distorted Angel/Almost Ideal Eyes/All This Useless Beauty (Performed by Lush)/Little Atoms (DJ Food Rinse)/(Polished Glass Mix) (CD, Warner Bros W 0366 CD)
All This Useless Beauty/Almost Ideal Eyes/The Other End Of The Telescope (Performed by Sleeper)/Distorted Angel (Tricky Remix) (CD, Warner Bros W 0367 CD)

Other Stuff

Whilst these five albums constitute the “standard” album output by Costello during his time on the label, there were a number of other UK albums (or mini albums) released aside from “The Juliet Letters”. There were two soundtrack album collaborations with Richard Harvey, 1991’s “GBH” and 1995’s “Jake’s Progress”, both issued on Demon Records. 1995 also saw the release, on Nonesuch, of the live mini album “Deep Dead Blue”, with Bill Frisell, taped at the (Costello curated) Meltdown Festival earlier that same year. There was, of course, the usual barrage of stuff in relation to the ongoing reissue campaign, including a pre-Warners best of in 1994 (mentioned in my last blog). Costello would sign with Mercury in 1998, not releasing his next “proper” pop album until 2002 (the near-perfect “When I Was Cruel”). I shall cover the later years in a future blog.

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