Category Archives: Elvis Costello

He’s just paying his rent every day with the Wheel of Song.

Today my friend Amanda Mattos has left me the keys to her fine blog Pinna Storm while she is away on vacation. To help fill all that space, I wrote a thing about my man Elvis Costello‘s current, roulette-wheel-driven Revolver Tour, which I will be attending at the DMV’s finest outdoor music venue, Wolf Trap, on Wednesday night. But it’s really the problem of long-lived artists trying to summarize their careers in two hours, give or take, that I’m Rubik’s-cubing here.

This Song Is Not a Rebel Song; This Song Is “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” 14 Years Later

(And now another dozen years beyond that.)

U2, the oldest (well, longest-standing), sacredest of my sacred cows, will release No Line on the Horizon, their 12th studio album, on March 3, and you’ll be able to spend as much money as you want on the thing. (A pay-what-you-will, just-the-music download edition a la Radiohead would be the decent, tasteful thing for U2 to do — they can easily afford it — but it ain’t gonna happen.)

I’ve long believed U2 to be superstitious about the months in which they drop albums, and their long-awaited latest was originally rumored to be a November release — like 1991’s Achtung Baby, 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind (which actually came out on Halloween, as I recall, which is almost November), and 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.

The Joshua Tree, still U2’s most beloved and iconic album despite strong competition from Achtung, was a March release, way back in 1987. But the new record will be U2’s first March record since — gasp! — 1997’s POP.

Am I going to re-open the debate about U2’s most controversial album? Hell, no. (But if you feel like delving into that, you can stop by Carrie Brownstein’s superb Monitor Mix blog, where she recently suggested that POP and the subsequent PopMart Tour — which I saw four times! — might stand as a textbook case of shark-jumpery.) I just hope No Line on the Horizon isn’t an overhyped, undercooked, and yet still ultimately underrated album that we’re all still fighting about in 2021. That seems to have been POP ‘s fate, though it still gets revived and defended in unlikely places by unlikely people. The Imposter, for example. His cover might be the definitive version of “Please.”

That U2 played “Sunday Bloody Sunday” every night on their last two tours after having rendered the 1983 song all but obsolete with “Please” in 1997 is just straight-up pandering, Man. At least play both!

Media Mix XVII: Jenny Lewis with everybody, Thievery Corporation

Jenny Lewis’s sophomore effort is a disappointment, given the talent involved (Elvis & the Imposters, both halves of She and Him), and how good Rabbit Fur Coat was. I probably spun this one six or seven times on my long road trip up to Quebec and back a couple weeks back. Good driving album, but still a letdown.

Thievery Corporation: Yes!

NEXT: Oasis and Rachel Yamagata.

What the World Needs Now

I suppose there’s no point in even trying to deny that I have become the Paper of Record’s go-to guy for geriatric pop. I don’t mind, really. And if you can’t appreciate the composing gifts of an ace like Burt Bacharach, that’s your fault!

My review of Burt’s Strathmore concert appears in today’s Paper of Record; here’s a slightly longer version.

Lovers of avant-garde cinema will doubtless recall that when Austin Powers was released from his three-decade cryogenic freeze in 1997, the personal effects he reclaimed included only one LP: Burt Bacharach Plays His Hits.* Naturally! As he demonstrated in an elegant set at the Music Center at Strathmore Sunday night, whether it’s a 30-year hibernation you’re facing or merely a punishing DC summer heatwave, Burt knows just what’s needed to cool you down, Baby.

Sporting a sharp black suit (but no tie — ties are for squares), the newly octogenarian songwriter got a standing ovation before he’d played a note. Settling at the grand piano from which he would command an ensemble of seven players and three singers, he marshaled a single portentous chorus of his signature song, “What the World Needs Now,” before standing to lay out the agenda: A veneration of him, basically. “The music you’re going to hear was all written by the same person,” he said, beaming. And while an excess of chintzy keyboard washes kept the evening from attaining transcendent status (he’s supposed to be an ace arranger, too, right?) , it was a groovy romp through a peerless pop songbook all the same.

You don’t survive five decades in show business without some humility, and indeed none of Bacharach’s frequent citations of his successes and innovations came off as vain. After Josie James belted out “Anyone Who Had a Heart” (not quite Dusty Springfield, but she’s good), Burt pointed out that the song changes time signatures every bar. “I didn’t know any better,” he chuckled. (Don’t believe it.)

Medleys were the order of the day: It’s the only way he could begin to pack a representative sampling of his career into a planned 90-minute set that swelled to 110, Bacharach said, “because I feel it just so much.” An audience singalong made “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” the most fondly received of his movie themes (from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) but Burt appeared equally delighted to play loopiest of them, “Beware of the Blob” (from, er, The Blob). He mouthed the words, and occasionally rose from his piano bench when playing with particular brio, but left the singing — with a few tentative late-show exceptions — to the two women and one man seated on stools stage-left. The ladies, Donna Taylor and Josie James, were great. The dude, er, seems to have watched a lot of “American Idol.”

After 45 carefree minutes, Burt got serious, introducing a pair from his Grammy winning 2005 album, At This Time, his first foray into lyric-writing. The results were surprisingly political for a man caricatured (in this very review, in fact) as such a pillar of easygoing gentility. Singer John Pagano’s performance of “Who Are These People” notably omitted the F-bomb of the recorded version sung by Elvis Costello. Burt was toning it down for the well-heeled Strathmore crowd, right? Wrong. After the tune ended, Burt quipped, “Maybe that’ll become Scott McClellan’s favorite song.” Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Burt Bacharach: provocateur.

*Actually, I’m pretty sure that album in Austin Powers is called Burt Bacharach Sings His Hits, and that we even see a shot of the cover with that title. But as near as I can tell, Burt Bacharach Sings His Hits is not a real album; while Plays His Hits is. Maybe we all just learned something about Mike Myers’s sense of humor. I mean, Burt was never famed for his singing, right? And yet simply as a title, Sings is somehow funnier than Plays.

Media Mix VIII: It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times


A lot of people like to say that objective morality is a fallacy; that we live in a world without good or evil, but only innumerable moral gradations complicated endlessly by circumstance and intention.

Sounds rational. Plausible, even. But all that goes out the window when you end up listening to new albums by Elvis Costello and Clay Aiken in the same week.

Momofuku’d!


So today the postman brought me my long-awaited copy of Momofuku, the late-breaking, just-released-yesterday new album from Elvis Costello and The Imposters. I’ve been badgering Elvis’s People to send me a review copy ever since I head it was coming out, which was not very long ago. Elvis addresses the record’s quick genesis (“The record was made so quickly that I didn’t even tell myself about it for a couple weeks”) and novel release strategy — vinyl yesterday; MP3 as a courtesy to those who bought the vinyl next week; CD on May 6 (which is how I’m justifying reviewing it in the May 4 edition of “Media Mix” in the Paper of Record) — in a post on his refurbished official website:

” . . . The real version [emphasis mine] is pressed on two pieces of black plastic with a hole in the middle. You may prefer other, more portable, less scratchable, editions that will soon become available for your convenience but this is how it sounds the best: with a needle in a groove, the way the Supreme Being intended it to be . . . “

This is maybe not the wisest thing for a semi-professional music writer to confess, but I do not own the requisite equipment to play those two pieces of pierced black plastic. The record player I used to play my complete music library on vinyl circa 1987 (Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the soundtrack album to Oliver Stone’s Oscar-winning Vietnam movie Platoon, and a copy of George Michael’s Faith I got as a radio station giveway — B106, I think it was) might still be resting beneath a shroud of dust in my folks’ basement. I may have to go find out sooner than later, since my review is due Monday, and the Best Buy that just opened up around the corner a couple of weeks ago does not stock turntables.

Weirdly enough, the first phone call I got after first opening Momofuku ‘s gatefold sleeve (so much more inviting than a CD, though that die-cut cut sleeve for the Flight of the Conchords CD is pretty nice) was from Noted Actor Steve Beall, which was propitious and surprising for three reasons:

1) Steve is an unreformed vinyl advocate;

2 ) Steve was actually at that great 9:30 show I reviewed last May where Elvis performed “American Gangster Time,” the only song on this thing that I’ve actually heard; and

3) Steve never calls me. Ever. Today was only the second time.

Since Steve is always going on about “180-gram” vinyl (grams are like horsepower, apparently, or the bit rate of a compressed audio file; more = better), I asked him how I could tell if the 12-inch grooved black plastic disc in my hand was “180 gram.”

“If you hold it in your hand, and you whip it back and forth, you can tell,” said Steve. “If it’s stiff, then it’s probably 180-gram.”

“Okay,” I said. “Whipping.”

“You really have to whip it kind of hard.”

“Don’t worry,” I told him. “No one will ever know we had this conversation.”

At the Warner, Elvis was That Year’s Model

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On February 28, 1978, Elvis Costello was 23 years old and convinced of his own magnificence. His second album — but crucially, his first with the Attractions, the three musicians with whom he’d make his most celebrated records — the furious, paranoid, Aftermath-styled This Year’s Model, would be released the following week, and would top the Village Voice and Rolling Stone critics’ polls at year’s end. At the close of his first U.S. tour, only two months earlier, he’d been thrown out of 30 Rock for aborting his Saturday Night Live performance of “Less than Zero” mid-song to play the broadcast-industry indictment “Radio Radio” instead, a stunt that got him banned from SNL for 11 years. (He was invited back decades later to recreate the moment with the Beastie Boys.)

Stepping onstage at the Warner Theatre for his first Washington, DC gig, aired on the radio radio by WHFS, the once-and-future Declan Patrick MacManus was full of ambition, swagger, impatience, and, probably, amphetamines. Opening with the apocalyptic stomp of “Pump It Up” and winding things down with the simmering “Chemistry Class” an hour later, the feral, compressed, too-clever-to-be punk rock he conjured up that night solidified his fan base in Our Nation’s Capitol, even though he’d soon start doing everything he could to sabotage his growing popularity and acclaim.

You can hear the 1978 Warner Theatre show in its breathless 62-minute entirety on the new 30th anniversary edition of This Year’s Model, which Hip-O Records is releasing today. Elvis’s first 11 albums, originally issued here in the States on Columbia Records, has been repackaged more times than the Smiths’ greatest hits, each time with a new(ish) side dish of bonus material. This year’s, um, version of This Year’s Model includes most of the same B-sides, demos, and outtakes featured on the 2002 Rhino Records edition; “Big Tears,” featuring The Clash’s Mick Jones on guitar, and a great, live cover of The Damned’s “Neat Neat Neat” from 1977 remain highlights. And yet its inclusion on a second disc of the previously unreleased Warner Theatre gig makes this an essential purchase for any Elvis geek, not just obsessive completists. This re-re-reissue loses points, however, for omitting the candid, often hilarious liner notes Elvis penned for the prior edition. (We need hardly tell you that on the merits of the 12 songs that comprised the original release, This Year’s Model is a must-own in any version.) 2008_0304_Elvis_dollar_bill_front_big.jpg

The sound mix of the Warner concert is stellar, proving once again that while Elvis and the Attractions radiated as much kinetic force onstage as any punk outfit, they simply played too skillfully to embody the form’s DIY ethos. Each Attraction has equal presence — bassist Bruce Thomas is the only member who doesn’t still play with Elvis in the Imposters, and to hear his bouncy, fluid anchor lines here is too miss him — but the crowd is a crucial character in the scene, too. Despite Elvis’s typically combative orders to them to get out of their seats (“You in the beard. What’s the matter with you? Stop trying to be unimpressed; I don’t believe ya “), they’re plenty involved, from the guy who can be heard near the end of the show shouting “You’re fucking brilliant!” again and again to the dude who implores Elvis during the hushed bridge of “(I Don’t Want to Go To) Chelsea” to “Play some fucking rock and roll!” (How did WHFS handle these improptu contributions to their radio show, I wonder.)
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Hearing the show also invites you to consider the legacy of the Warner Theatre, one of the oldest and most storied performance venues in the region. Opened in 1924 (as the Earle Theatre) and operating almost continuously since (it was closed for repairs from 1989 to 1992) — as a vaudeville club, cinema, concert venue, and even, briefly, as a porno theatre — the Warner was around for decades before Blues Alley or The Bayou, which closed in 1998. Two concert venues on U Street, the Lincoln Theatre and Bohemian Caverns, both opened around the same time as the Warner, though the Warner wouldn’t be used primarily for concerts until much later.

The Warner is home to the District’s modest Walk of Fame, featuring the signatures of luminaries who’ve played there since its 1992 reopening, from Frank Sinatra to Chris Rock. These days it’s part of the Live Nation megalith. Though Live Nation is supposedly getting out of the theatre business to focus on the concert trade,the industry juggernaut chose to hold onto the Warner even as it sold off many of its mixed-use venues in January. This would seem to reflect the Warner’s continuing renown as a concert venue, a rep bolstered by the fact that 1,800-seat Warner has occasionally been a venue-of-choice for “secret” shows by artists who easily fill much larger rooms: The Rolling Stones played a gig there in 1978 on their tour for Some Girls, their last great album; two days later they played Philadelphia’s massive, now-demolished John F. Kennedy Stadium. The Artist Formerly and Now, Thankfully, Once Again Known as Prince performed there on several occasions between 1983 and 2002.

The Warner’s slate for the coming months is a typically mixed bag of musicals, plays, stand-up comedy, awards shows, and of course, rock and roll. In that regard, it’s well, the DC performance venue most like Elvis Costello.

Now in his mid-fifties, Elvis remains a workaholic of near-freakishly eclectic interests who’s just as likely to turn up crooning ballads in front of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra as he is to play a rowdy 2.5-hour rock and roll show at the 9:30 Club. His recorded output in the latter half of his career has been even harder to categorize, encompassing ballet commissions, jazz, and collaborations with everyone from pop masters like Allen Toussaint, Burt Bacharach, and Paul McCartney to avant-garde musicians like Anne Sofie von Otter or the Brodsky Quartet.
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Elvis and the Imposters — essentially the Attractions, with Davey Farragher replacing Bruce Thomas on bass — are opening for their contemporariesThe Police on the latter band’s supposedly-final tour this summer. The Police couldn’t pretend they were punks for very long, either. Compared to the seething jealousy dripping from every note of This Year’s Model, “Every Breath You Take” sounds like the sweet little love ballad that many always believed it was.