The Best of Elvis Costello: The First 10 Years

Elvis Costello Elvis Costello
“The Best of… The First Ten Years”

2 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson

Elvis Costello has perpetrated four heinous acts that have made it very hard for me to like him as a person and made me even more reluctant to listen to his music. Yet, I do, yet I do:

1. He stole the first name of a rock icon’s name to use as his own, and couldn’t be further from that icon’s music or persona if he tried. Maybe that was the irony of his choice, but if Frank Costello was still alive those red shoes Elvis Costello sings about would be made of cement.

2. He used the N-word in an otherwise insignificant song (“Oliver’s Army”).

3. To compound his obsession with the N-word, he once called Ray Charles “A blind, old …” in order to rile singer Bonnie Bramlett. It worked. Bramlett promptly made Costello hit the road, Jack, with his face. Costello was lucky Bramlett’s hot-headed boss, Stephen Stills, had already gone to bed, otherwise it would have been cryin’ time again for the bespeckled wise guy.

4. He sings like the annoying red-haired “Dead End Kid” in the Bugs Bunny cartoon who kept whining “I wanna Easter egg! I wanna Easter Egg!” The man’s voice is the equivalent of licking the third rail – it shoots through every corpuscle in your body, makes your hair stand on edge and melts your fillings.

Henceforth, Elvis Costello shall be known as Dead End Elvis…

As you might imagine “The Best Of…” is a subjective title. Even Dead End’s most devout dead heads (sorry, wrong artist) might quibble with the selections. They shouldn’t complain about the number of cuts (22). If Dead End was getting paid by the syllable he might earn enough to retire and pay more attention wife Diana Krall’s career, and that would be a blessing for everyone – except Diana Krall.

With one whiny line, “Oh I used to be disgusted,” you’re introduced to one of the 80s top curmudgeons. The good thing about a curmudgeon is he never has problems expressing himself, and “The Angels Want To Wear My Red Shoes” is rife with great lines: “Oh I said ‘I’m so happy I could die,’ she said ‘drop dead’ and left with another guy. That’s what you get if you go chasing after vengeance. Ever since you got me punctured this has been my sentence.” The bass gurgles, drummer Mickey Shine is in the pocket, and Dead End’s voice is angry but not annoying. One reason why “Angels” works is because Dead End’s band, “The Attractions” isn’t on this cut, and John McFee handles the guitar work, which is much fuller and covers more of the musical landscape than Dead End’s gnarly fretwork.

“Alison” is arguably the best song Dead End Elvis has ever written; it’s certainly my favorite by a wide margin (then again he doesn’t have much material to compete against). “Alison” is a tender (Dead End Elvis, tender?) ode to the girl who got away and is stuck in a lousy marriage. Keeping his snarly attitude under wraps, Dead End’s straight-ahead delivery smacks of a Stax singer, a little hurt, a little heart, and a little soul. Too bad he seldom displayed any compassion after “Alison.”

“Watching the Detectives” certainly ranks as one of Dead End’s better rockers, mixing a sinister Ska beat with maximum pounding from Steve Goulding on the drums. Andrew Bonar’s bass slithers around Dead End’s Ja Mon riffing. And it’s the first time I can recall a Farfisa organ ever successfully conveying a sense of dread. A nod to espionage and stalking for a living, “Detectives” would make a great song for a Peter Sellers farce (‘cept Pete’s dead).

“I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down” is another top-flight rocker. Dead End didn’t write this one, but it shows he developed an inkling of soul through osmosis. (Must have been the rhythm of Bonnie Bramlett’s punches.) Drummer Peter Thomas is a righteous time keeper, and Dead End may not be David Ruffin or Sam Moore, (more like David Cassidy and Yosemite Sam) but here he feels rather than fights with the music, dropping his pouty lipped punk poser persona. Dead End’s having a good time in the recording studio, something else he seldom seems to do.

An example of Dead End’s voice serving rather than scuttling the song is “New Lace Sleeves.” Singing in a lower register like a punk James Darren, Dead End lets his sarcasm carry the day. (Man, somebody must have bullied this guy to no end in school.) You can’t help but focus on Bruce Thomas’ soul-schooled groove, which resembles the bass in Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines.” Dead End may not have gotten better as he got older, but he did get smarter.

There are scores of songs on “Best Of” that serve as perfect reminders why 80s punk music never made it to the 90s. As Dead End himself says in (“I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea” -- “It does not move me” – which serves as an appropriate review of the song. The organ in “Chelsea” is on the money weird, swirling and sizzling in the background and the unrelated Thomas boys, bassist Bruce and drummer Pete, continue to show off their Ska chops, but Dead End’s bratty delivery will run you out of Chelsea, and you really won’t want to go back.

“Pump It Up” is a boarding school cheer for punks about to put on their steel tipped work boots and mercilessly kick an immigrant to death for entertainment: “She’s like a narcotic, you wanna torture her, you wanna talk to her…Pump it up when you don’t really need it. Pump it up until you can feel it.” The organ swirls like puke exiting a rusty toilet and the normally reliable Bruce Thomas imposes a rhythm that jerks more spastically than a man enduring direct current on death row. Another anthemic tune, “Radio Radio” is also included on “Best of.” When Dead End appeared on “Saturday Night Live” in 1977 he was supposed to play “Less than Zero” (one of Dead End’s tunes that should be here, but isn’t). Dead End stopped the performance after a few lines and launched into the callous “Radio Radio” Result? Dead End was banned from the show for 12 years. It wasn’t even an original idea. Dead End stole it from Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix was booked by the BBC to perform “Hey Joe” but did a last minute change to “Sunshine of Your Love.” Result? A historic performance. Whoever told Dead End he was in the same hemisphere as Jimi Hendrix did him and the audience a major disservice.

“Accidents Will Happen” is no accident, just a fair to middling tune. Dead End is a more restrained and the song is better for it -- that faux anger of his can only goes so far. Dead takes a welcome break from Ska, with an actual bridge and some harmony near the end that has all the charm of the choking “aaah” sounds the dentist elicits from you when he sticks his fingers down your throat, but at least it’s different.

“Oliver’s Army” is musical genocide. Dead End Elvis uses the N word and even without it, this is one rag tag army with all the firepower of an empty derringer. By using the N word to refer to someone of the Caucasian persuasion, Dead End manages to offend two races at the same time. For once and for all, you can claim that using the N word is supposed to enlighten people to the evils of racial prejudice all you want, using it in any way shape or form means the guys with the swastikas and the burning crosses win. Dead End should have followed his own advice -- “I would rather be anywhere else than here today.”

“(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love & Understanding” is neither peaceful, loving or worth trying to understand. What’s so funny is Dead End’s vision of Utopia follows a song promoting racial divisiveness (the aforementioned “Oliver’s Army”). Every syllable issuing from Dead End’s mouth is wrapped in a sneer. The Thomas boys continue to breathe life into Costello’s pretentiousness, and (phew), the migraine-inducing Farfisa is a goner here. Nice driving beat, but someone else needs to sing this – how about the guy who wrote it? Listen to Nick Lowe’s version and the lyrics won’t sound so hypocritical.

“Clubland” is a trip back to Dead End’s house of whine. He mixes styles well (cocktail music gives way to elements of Ska and melodic rock), and still wisely uses the drums and bass as the song’s foundation, but at long last, there’s a piano solo from Nieve, who sounds as if he’s taking showboat lessons from Jools Holland. “Clubland” has a highly listenable arrangement, but Dead End either refuses to try and play nice or he truly has no concept of what a human voice should sound like. At one point Dead End may very well be screeching “He clubbed me.” Hard to tell. Nevertheless, you’ll wish someone had.

“Good Year For The Roses” is rock and country married together with the delicacy of a shotgun wedding. Dead End goes Hee-Haw with strings, corn-fed back up singers oohing and aahing, and pedal steel. Repeat after me, Dead End, Barry Gibb, Eric Clapton and all you Brits who think you sound authentic singing about swamps, hush puppies or marrying your sister – sometimes actually having a grass roots connection to the genre you’re imitating helps. Fish swim. Birds sing. Rednecks torture us with country music. Brits should stay the heck away from country. Hell, everybody should.

In “Beyond Belief” Dead End takes his vocal nuance from Ian Dury, riding the arrangement then dropping down low. The only difference is Ian was doing it to be funny, or at the very least, entertaining. Dead End does a lot of experimenting here, with a droning guitar riff, and a synthesized vocal that goes static during the middle eight. It’s nice to that Dead End deviated from his typical slam dance pace, but he needed to focus on a style here for more than twenty seconds.

Dead End goes regal in “Man Out of Time.” He’s true to the title, adopting an early English pop arrangement, stodgy and self-important, very Walker Brothers. The voice wobbles, but the lyrics remain his strong suit. “He’s got a mind like a sewer and a heart like a fridge” – nice line. The end though, is completely left field. After the semi-classy arrangement Dead End goes all jungle on us, screaming to a reckless, primeval beat that wrecks the mood.

Dead End’s frozen vocal in “Almost Blue” means you can add cocktail music to the list of styles he should avoid. Torch songs require a voice with character, not a character with a voice. At least now that he’s married to Diana Crawl (Krall) he might be able to pick up a few pointers.

“Shipbuilding” is a titanic mistake. Dead End struggles to fit his lyrics into the jazzy arrangement. Is that Herb Alpert on trumpet? Nice effect when they echo the horn the second time around, very film noire. But what the heck is a trumpet doing in a song by the supposed King of Punk? Gotta give Dead End credit though for tackling a variety of styles, even if he can’t master a single one. Abandon ship.

Dead End continues to test out and wreck musical genres with “Indoor Fireworks.” Now he’s ripping off Graham Parker. Focus on an acoustic guitar, set the organ in the background and get melancholy. Parker should be proud, Dead End nails his style. With little to shroud his drone, Dead End’s delivery is serviceable, but emotionally empty. Amazing how a lackluster singer can suck the excitement out of even his own composition.

“I Want You” starts out with Dead End on acoustic before backsliding dangerously toward more nasty sentiment. When Dead End says “I want you,” run away or you’ll probably wind up wrapped up in duck tape in his basement. The grade-B horror movie arrangement buoys Dead End’s stalker lyrics. This is six minutes of unhinged obsession. You’ll have to take a shower after this one, although there may not be enough heavy drugs to wipe away its memory. “I Want You” rates one big creepy “YEEECCCHHH.”

Since this compilation only the first ten years of Dead End’s career, another “best of” retrospective looms on the horizon that’s larger than Dead End’s ego. Now that Dead End has married Diana Crawl, maybe they could collaborate in the studio. At least if Diana Crawl sings you’ll be guaranteed a manlier vocal. But enough about the nightmares that could be. Listen to “The Best of Dead End Elvis” for “Alison,” “Watching the Detectives,” and “I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down.” The rest of this fast-paced whine and cheesy fest will make you wonder who compiled this mess. And a pile it is – a lot of the tunes never made it to the “radio radio” and if they did, it was indeed proof that “accidents will happen.” Personally “I can’t stand up for falling down” fast enough to get my shot gun, “pump it up” and turn this CD into “indoor fireworks.” Somewhere Bonnie Bramlett is stomping on Dead End’s plastic glasses and is having the last laugh.

2 Comments

Suck it Annie... Elvis Costello is King. He is one of the most beautiful voices ever and has contributed more to music and particularly lyrics, imo, than that other Elvis.

Don't blame Annie... I made the comment. And you'll never convince me that Declan the nasal nusance can sing, especially after he wretched his way through "Oliver's Army." Writing twenty years worth of wretched lyrics doesn't make you an icon. If that's all it takes, then Madonna is more important than Dead End.



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