Jun 112013

Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!

The common wisdom is that Elvis Costello’s debut My Aim is True was an “angry young man” album, a blast of punk and new wave, and that Costello’s music matured and diversified as he aged. Like much conventional wisdom, it is wrong. To the contrary, the 12 (or 13 — see below) songs on the album are wildly diverse, and in addition to the punkier rockers, the songs foreshadow many of the stylistic experiments that Costello has engaged in over his long and distinguished career.

Start with the fact that the backing band for the album is not the tight, new wave influenced Attractions, with Steve Nieve’s prominent keyboards, but the more laid-back Clover, from California, which included musicians who later were members of the Doobie Brothers and Huey Lewis and the News. If anything, the songs on his debut album owed as much to the other Elvis (whose name he appropriated) and Buddy Holly (whose look he mimicked) as they do to punk rock.

Despite the variety of styles, the album is consistently top-notch, with really no filler. This quality is even more remarkable considering that Costello wrote the songs at night and during his commute to his day job as a data entry clerk, and that it was recorded in six four-hour sessions, at off hours, for about £1,000.

Punks like the Sex Pistols were scary, dangerous-looking, and unsophisticated. While their music and attitude were crucial in banging down the doors, it was music like Costello’s, with its twisted familiarity and subtle brilliance, that was invited inside, paving the way for others who wanted to shake up the music industry, but not destroy it.

The original U.K release had 12 tracks, but a 13th was added to the U.S. release; that track, “Watching the Detectives,” became an album highlight and appeared on later U.K. editions. One of the joys, or frustrations, of being an Elvis Costello fan is that most of his albums have been re-released by different record companies, with voluminous, and differing, bonus tracks. For your enjoyment, below are covers of the 13 “original” songs, and two of the most well-known bonus tracks.

No Fun At All – Welcome to the Working Week (Elvis Costello cover)

A great album opener, “Welcome to the Working Week” welcomes the listener with only Costello’s voice before the band enters, along with some very 1950s-sounding backing vocals. The song picks up steam before turning into an angry, sarcastic rocker, consistent with the “classic” Costello sound – but with “ooh aah” background vocals that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Buddy Holly song. No Fun At All doesn’t really do much to distinguish their cover, although amusing hints of the singer’s Swedish accent emerge occasionally.

Erich Sellheim – Miracle Man (Elvis Costello cover)

Another rocker, “Miracle Man” has a vocal break in the middle that exposes Costello’s debt to his chosen namesake. Few songwriters cram as many words into a song as Costello, and even fewer do so in as interesting a way. Erich Sellheim, a German musician, translated the song into German, and plays most of the instruments in this faithful cover.

Jose Casas y la Pistola de Papá – No Hay Baile (Elvis Costello cover)

Moving from Northern Europe to more Mediterranean climes, here’s another faithful cover of the 1950s sounding “No Dancing,” performed in Spanish, by Sevilla’s Jose Casas y la Pistola de Papá, who have been rocking since the 1980s, and may also perform as a Kinks tribute band, The Village Green Experience, if Google Translate is telling the truth.

David and Ginger Kitchen – Blame it On Cain (Elvis Costello cover)

Elvis Costello emerged from the “pub rock” scene in England, a movement that is little known in the U.S., but its back-to-roots ethos directly influenced punk and new wave. Many other veterans of the pub rock scene, such as Graham Parker, Nick Lowe, and Joe Strummer became stalwarts of the punk and new wave sound. “Blame it on Cain” is very much a pub rocker, but with a distinctively Elvis Costello sneer. This cover, by the suburban Washington D.C. area father/daughter duo David and Ginger Kitchen, turns it into a folk shuffle, similar to the “Honky Tonk Demo” version by Costello released as a bonus track on some of the expanded re-releases.

Linda Ronstadt – Alison (Elvis Costello cover)

From a lo-fi father/daughter recording, we move to a big star, covering a big hit. Mainstream listeners latched on to “Alison” as proof that Costello was not just a punk, but a pop songwriting craftsman – and they were right. It’s a beautiful love song, if atypical with its air of world weariness and disappointment. Only a few years after the original release, Linda Ronstadt, whose career seemed to need a jump-start, decided to cover “Alison.” Critics hated it, but it sold well, and Costello, who denigrated the version, later admitted that he was happy spending the money that flowed into his bank account. (Later, after Ronstadt played Sun City, Costello donated the royalties he received from her version to the African National Congress.) With years of perspective, Ronstadt’s version doesn’t seem all that bad. This recording is from a concert in Japan in 1979, and if you didn’t know that the song was by Costello and therefore wasn’t something that someone like Linda Ronstadt should cover, it is enjoyable. Ronstadt went back to the well on her next album in a big way, recording no fewer than three Costello covers.

Ben Myers – Sneaky Feelings (Elvis Costello cover)

“Sneaky Feelings” is another song that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Buddy Holly album, with its jaunty beat and cheesy background vocals, although Buddy’s lyrics rarely were as dark as Elvis’s. The cover is a solo version by Ben Myers, a multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter from Lawrence, Kansas, whose website reveals him to be “a self-proclaimed Jungian personality type INFJ.” It is a perfectly fine cover, but Myers really doesn’t do much exciting with it. Justin Townes Earle recently put out a version of this as the B-side of his Record Store Day release; our hard-working staff was unable to locate a digital copy anywhere, but we’re willing to bet it’s pretty good.

Hem – (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes (Elvis Costello cover)

One of the best songs on the album, with one of the best opening lines ever, (“The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” is a mid-tempo rocker. On the tribute album Almost You: The Songs Of Elvis Costello, Hem turns it into a stately Americana ballad featuring beautiful vocals from the remarkably underrated Sally Ellyson. The Hem version plays on the wistfulness of the song, and downplays Costello’s aggression.

The Tet Offensive – Less Than Zero (Elvis Costello cover)

This angry song is an attack on Oswald Mosely, a British Fascist, racist and anti-Semite. Costello, whose politics are decidedly left wing, wrote this after seeing an interview with the elderly Mosely, who was trying to whitewash his misdeeds. Costello was having none of that, and “Less Than Zero” is the result. Live versions performed by Costello increased the reggae influences, but The Tet Offensive goes in another direction—string quartets. The band is led by Brian Robinson, a baritone, composer and the Managing Director of the Yale Symphony Orchestra. They kind of rock, too.

Justine Bateman & The Mysteries – Mystery Dance (Elvis Costello cover)

Sometimes a cover is chosen for inclusion because of the story and not because of the quality of the music. “Mystery Dance” was originally an almost-pure rockabilly song, and like the best rockabilly music, it always feels like it is going to fly off the tracks. This version is from the soundtrack to the movie Satisfaction and features the vocal stylings of Justine Bateman, best known as Michael J. Fox’s younger sister in the sitcom Family Ties and as Jason Bateman’s older sister in real life. She and the bland – er, band – turn the song into a synth-driven, stereotypical 1980s “new wave” song. Satisfaction was Bateman’s film debut, as it was for another young actress, Julia Roberts. Liam Neeson plays the too-old love interest; he admits he’s never seen the film, which comes across more as bragging than confessing.

Thee Skiffle Kings – Pay It Back (Elvis Costello cover)

“Pay It Back” was originally performed by Costello’s pre-Elvis band Flip City, and the My Aim version is a loping rocker with typically obscure but fascinating lyrics. What exactly is he going to pay back? This somewhat dull acoustic cover is by Thee Skiffle Kings, a group (person?) notable for: (1) having a large number of similarly uninteresting covers on YouTube, (2) successfully obscuring all other facts about them (him?) from discovery and (3) having really nothing to do at all with “skiffle.”

James Duffer & The Lonely Truckers – I’m Not Angry (Elvis Costello cover)

The angry young man doth protest too much. Although he claims to no longer be angry about the woman’s betrayal, it is clear that his rage continues. This song is one of the hardest rockers on the album. In the cover, Duffer, a Texas based singer/songwriter, and his band thrash away enthusiastically during a gig in Plano that video reveals to be sparsely attended (and that’s putting it charitably).

Outside the Box – Waiting for the End of the World (Elvis Costello cover)

Another cynical tune by the master misanthrope, “Waiting for the End of the World” uses the difficult train journey as a metaphor for life’s difficulties. Reportedly, it was an attempt by Costello to write a Velvet Underground song which morphed when the boys from Clover turned out to be unfamiliar with the Velvets. This cover is from Outside the Box, a band that is part of the (once?) legendary Asbury Park music scene, where they appear to have an enthusiastic following and a bunch of more famous friends. It was recorded live at one of the shrines of that scene, the Stone Pony, and is well executed and faithful but lacks the menace of the original.

The Henry Girls – Watching the Detectives (Elvis Costello cover)

“Waiting for the End of the World,” was a fitting close for My Aim is True as it was originally released. Thus, the album would have started with a “Welcome” song and closed with the end of the world. Thankfully, the powers that be decided to append “Watching the Detectives,” which had been released as a single and remains one of the best works in Costello’s songbook. Some songs are poems, some are stories, but this one is a film noir, a full-length movie in 3:46. This song does not feature Clover, but instead Andrew Bodnar and Steve Goulding of The Rumour and Steve Nieve, who became the keyboard player for the Attractions, and therefore sounds more like the music on Costello’s next album. The Henry Girls, a trio of Irish sisters whose last name is not Henry, turn it into almost a cabaret number, and if it misses the point, it remains entertaining.

Bonus: Guana Batz – Radio Sweetheart (Elvis Costello cover)

If there was any question that Costello had a secret love for country music from the pedal steel and other Gram Parsonish touches on My Aim (a secret that bloomed on 1981’s Almost Blue), two of his singles that were released during this time made it clear. One was “Radio Sweetheart,” which starts off sounding very much of a piece with the new wavish tunes on My Aim – dark, filled with typically prolix lyrics — but with a hint of pedal steel. Then, the second verse kicks in, John McFee’s pedal steel moves front and center, and we are in Nashville. British psychobilly band Guana Batz rough up the song and turn it into a fun rockabilly romp.

Bonus: Rachel Sweet – Stranger in the House (Elvis Costello cover)

Rachel Sweet, a big voiced country belter from Akron, Ohio, was signed by Stiff records and released her first album for that label, best known for punk and new wave music, in 1978, when she was all of sixteen. Marketed as a bit of a curiosity, and with clear Lolita-ish undertones, Fool Around was a very good album, but its classic country sound was not a good fit for Stiff. Sweet kills on “Stranger in the House,” eclipsing the more traditional version Costello recorded, and under different circumstances, she should have sung this from the stage of the Opry, not in sweaty punk clubs. (That isn’t so far-fetched – Costello later performed a duet of this song on an album by recently deceased country music legend George Jones, and Elvis himself has performed at the Opry.) Sweet’s music career sputtered after one more album, and she graduated from Columbia University, did some acting, and these days is best known as a TV producer and writer, with credits including one of the best TV sitcoms ever, Sports Night (where she wrote one of the finest episodes, “Sally”) as well as Dharma & Greg, George Lopez, and Hot in Cleveland. Who says there are no second acts in American lives?

Bonus Bonus MP3: Elvis Costello & The Metropole Orkest – Watching the Detectives

Although sung by Costello, this version of “Watching the Detectives” is so different, it might as well be a cover. Re-arranged as a jazz song for a full big band and strings, this version takes the film noir feel of the original and turns it into a big budget flick in the James Bond mode.

My Aim is True, in fully loaded versions, is available on Amazon and iTunes.

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  4 Responses to “Full Albums: Elvis Costello’s ‘My Aim Is True’”

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  1. Interesting collection, but you left out my favourite Elvis Costello cover of all – Holly Cole’s version of Alison. It blows Ronstadt’s version out of the water!

  2. I was always disappointed by Elvis’s graceless reaction to Linda Ronstadt’s cover of Alison (“A waste of vinyl,” I believe he said). And to hear her beautiful work now makes me think he was all about bratty posturing. I expect more from him…

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