Tag Archives: Pop

Classic Albums Revisited: MY AIM IS TRUE

Elvis Costello is one of those guys whose rep has suffered a bit as he’s aged. Kids today only know his as the “dude with the funny glasses.” Many more equate him to Phil Collins or Eric Clapton–a boring “adult-contemporary” singer-songwriter (Clapton’s last decade and a half of output as a bluesman has murdered his rock GOD status…what a shame). But in the beginning, before the duets with Burt Bacharach, Elvis Costello was punk.
Punk!?

His aim is still true.

Not really the word many would us to describe Mr. Costello, but after re-listening to his first three (mega-classic) albums, that’s the word that kept springing into my head. Oh sure, there’s a lot of organ…but the attitude, snide delivery, and sheer velocity of the songs on MY AIM IS TRUE is pretty damn punk.

Prior to MY AIM IS TRUE, Elvis Costello was Declean MacManus. He worked a lame office job (for the cosmetics company Elizabeth Arden no less!) and he dreamed of being a rock star. No one was buying Costello as a rock star. He was this thin, pasty, awkward looking Englishman. His voice was…unusual. But he could write a good tune, so in 1976 Stiff Records hired him as a songwriter. They wanted him to write songs for their prima-donna Dave Edmonds. Edmonds, however, had to be convinced that he needed to record Costello’s songs. So, the label had Costello record his songs, with backing band Clover, in order to give Edmonds an idea of how the songs would sound.

The backing band went onto become The News (of Huey Lewis and The News fame) and Elvis Costello’s career was launched. The songs turned out so well, that the label decided to release them with Elvis as the star.

Recorded over a stretch of 1976, in about twenty-four hours, MY AIM IS TRUE is a breezy, blast of English pop. And I mean “blast”: most of these songs clock in around 2 minutes. That said, even though these songs are short, they’ve all well-constructed. Prime example, the doo-wop backing vocals and sharp hand claps on “Welcome to the Working Week.” The song is literally over in the time it takes for most songs to reach the first chorus. And yet this is a whole, complete thought. Amazing.

Costello, looking dapper (read: like Buddy Holly).

There’s a surprising amount of Biblical references on the record. “Miracle Man,” “Blame it On Cain” (where Costello blames his problems on Cain, even though it’s not really his fault), and “Waiting for the End of the World.” The first time I heard this record my mind just sorta glossed over all these allusions, but they’re there.

Love and it’s opposite emotion, anger also pop up frequently on MY AIM IS TRUE. The chilling “I’m Not Angry” encompasses both. My favorite track, “(The Angels Want to Wear My) Red Shoes,” which is both bleak and strangely comforting (and features some of my favorite Costello lyrics). It’s so snarky, it’s downright magical. This song features one of the most brutally honest/realistic depictions of the relationship between man and woman:

“Oh, I said “I’m so happy, I could die.”
She said “Drop dead”, then 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.”

What guy hasn’t had that happen to him. Who hasn’t been so utterly rejected? Costello distills this experience, and makes it rock ‘n roll. Fucking brilliant.

“Less Than Zero” is another great snarky track, and marks one of the earliest manifestations of Costello’s (understandable) fear of Nazism/Fascism (which pops up again and again in Costello’s early work).

You want punk? Nothing’s more punk than:

“Turn up the TV, no one listening will suspect
Even your mother won’t detect it, so your father won’t know
They think that I’ve got no respect but
Everything is less than zero.”

or how about:

“A pistol was still smoking, a man lay on the floor
Mr. Oswald said he had an understanding with the law
He said he heard about a couple living in the USA
He said they traded in their baby for a Chevrolet”

Of course, not discussion of MY AIM IS TRUE is complete without talking about “Alison.” Next to “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?,” “Alison” is his most famous songs. It’s a quiet, love song (of sorts) about a lost love who’s gotten married to someone else. It’s sad and soulful.

“Alison”
Oh it’s so funny to be seeing you after so long, girl.
And with the way you look I understand
that you were not impressed.
But I heard you let that little friend of mine
take off your party dress.
I’m not going to get too sentimental
like those other sticky valentines,
’cause I don’t know if you are loving some body.
I only know it isn’t mine.

Alison, I know this world is killing you.
Oh, Alison, my aim is true.

Well I see you’ve got a husband now.
Did he leave your pretty fingers lying
in the wedding cake?
You used to hold him right in your hand.
Bet he took all he could take.
Sometimes I wish that I could stop you from talking
when I hear the silly things that you say.
I think somebody better put out the big light,
’cause I can’t stand to see you this way.

Alison, I know this world is killing you.
Oh, Alison, my aim is true.
My aim is true.

This song stands out like a sore thumb on MY AIM IS TRUE. Every time I listen to it, all the way through, it feels too much like a single. I can understand why, even to this day, people love it…but compared to the wit and irony of the rest of the record, “Alison” comes like a splash of cold water to the face. It’s refreshingly different, but also a little startling. This guy sings, kinda ironically–almost like he’s winking at you…then BAM! smack dab in the middle of MY AIM IS TRUE there’s this moment where his defenses lower a bit, and you’re kinda embarrassed–for him, because you know you’re seeing something unguarded, that you’re not supposed to be seeing. So, even though it’s an okay song by itself, “Alison” is one of the greatest songs (in my opinion) in the context of the album as a whole.

Go dust off MY AIM IS TRUE, it’ll surprise you how modern it still sounds.

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REIGN OF TERROR

I really liked Sleigh Bells debut album TREATS because it was the right amount of cute and vicious.  It was precious cheerleading music with a punk edge.  I saw Sleigh Bells, which is not a “band” but guy and girl from New York, and was pretty underwhelmed by their live performance.  Was Sleigh Bells a one-off novelty? Did TREATS represent a tip with no submerged iceberg? I was skeptical when I found out the band was putting out a second record—but it turns out that skepticism was unfounded.

Sleigh Bells gonna get plenty of shoe money with this record.

REIGN OF TERROR picks up right where TREATS left off. The album opens with “True Shred Guitar” a raucous, rowdy track that features a badass guitar-lick with a clap-your-hands/stomp your feet beat.  “Born To Lose,” the second track, features the sweet cheerleader-squad shouts mixed with horribly dark lyrics.  So far everything on REIGN OF TERROR could have been on TREATS without raising any eyebrows.  But then comes “End of the Line” and you see the evolution.  The song is a fantastic bit of pop. Gone is the brash, rowdy rock.  And while REIGN OF TERROR certainly rocks, I’d say that for the most part this is Sleigh Bells pop record. From the hypnotic splendor of the 80’s tinged “You Lost Me” to the bitter-spiraling of “Road to Hell” REIGN OF TERROR adds an extra dimension, sonically, to the band.

Think of it like a 3-D film conversion—this is the same Sleigh Bells but with extra depth.  Sure, it’s still the simple boy-girl-guitar-drum machine/sample loops but there’s a heightened awareness and a finer touch to the proceedings.  Many bands have stumbled on their release, that Sleigh Bells have avoided this is a minor miracle—that the band has topped TREATS on every single level is the real victory. With REIGN OF TERROR, Sleigh Bells has proven to me that they’re not a novelty one-hit wonder, their seriously talented and determined to stick around.

There’s nothing I like better than being surprised by something that’s really good: REIGN OF TERROR is really good.  I know it’s early, but this is already on list of top albums of 2012.

REIGN OF TERROR gets a straight “A.”

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