Mar 172021

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

armed forces covers

Last year we polled our loyal band of Patreon-izers as to which Elvis Costello album they would like to read a Full Albums post about. The winner was This Year’s Model, and we duly dealt with it here. The runner-up, Armed Forces, has recently had its umpteenth revamp and re-release, making it entirely apt for it to addressed in turn.

1979’s Armed Forces was Costello’s third record all told, his second album with the Attractions, and the first actually bearing the Attractions’ name. It sold well, reaching #2 in the UK album charts and #10 in the US charts, notching platinum sales altogether in the former, gold in the latter. And, as stated, there have been a number of re-packages, notably in 1993 and 2002. 1993 added a few extra tracks, whilst 2002 threw in a whole extra disc, the selections on each chosen by Costello. This year’s release, Complete Armed Forces, goes a step further and is a mammoth box set (vinyl, naturally) with nine records.

But finding a decent set of covers proved elusive. Only now, thanks to a link being made available to one long-lost recording and to the commissioning of a totally new rendition of another, are we able to finally complete the circle.

In 1979, Costello was on a roll. The Attractions, still a fairly new band, had unleashed a tsunami of creativity within the already prolific front man. A year of solid touring had honed their chops, and Costello would later call Armed Forces the closest to a group recording, in terms of input and involvement, of any of his output. Of course, having a couple of his most dynamic singles punching hard early on side one has ensured the legacy of this moment, but that’s also meant the songs appearing further down the tracklist get sometimes forgotten. Which may be why the US version and later re-releases finish with a different song, a cover of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” still the song Costello reserves for his live encore. For the purpose of this piece I will include this song as well as the one, on the UK edition, it initially replaced.

Lou Dalgleish–Accidents Will Happen (Elvis Costello & the Attractions cover)

Those who enjoyed My Darling Clementine’s run of Country Darkness EPs last year will surely recognize Lou Dalgleish’s voice. Always a Costello nut, she developed a stage show, They Called Her Natasha, based upon her live performances of nothing but Costello songs, into a play of the same name, in 2011. Astonishingly, no soundtrack recording remains in widespread existence; this comes to me by way of a direct request, and we can all be grateful for the affirmative response. Just her striking vocal and the masterful piano of, I believe, Gladstone Wilson. It isn’t an easy melody to capture, but she glides it effortlessly. Stunning.

Dog Toy–Senior Service (Elvis Costello & the Attractions cover)

Finding a decent “Senior Service” cover took some deep digging into the bowels of Soundcloud; I think it was worth the search. Yes, the vocals are a tad wild-eyed and more than a little frantic, but the primarily synth-led intro, together with the backing, is quite captivating, if in a distinctly lo-fi way. I can’t tell you much about the performer, Dog Toy, which is a play on his name, Doug Tye, or where he hails from. Heck, I can’t even tell him I have lifted the song and placed it here.

Blur–Oliver’s Army (Elvis Costello & the Attractions cover)

Now that Damon Albarn is so universally feted for his forays into world music tropes, it is sometimes all too easy to forget his Britpop origins in Blur. His hideously mannered vocals actually work quite well here, on this very much more guitar-led version. Blur recorded “Oliver’s Army” for a 1993 curio, Peace Today, produced to promote peace in Northern Ireland; that album is itself worth seeking out for similarly unexpected covers and the involvement of Peter Gabriel, Sinead O’Connor and U2. Back in the day I was more of an Oasis man; nowadays I suspect I would have been better with Blur, their legacy largely lasting better. But, for all my comments of “working quite well,” I still can’t shift the horror of the mangling of “Oli-Ver” in this otherwise credible rendition.

Lia Lio–Big Boys (Elvis Costello & the Attractions cover)

The issue with E.C. and his deeper cuts is the dearth of any cover, let alone decent ones, with my rule about home gurners getting stretched to the limits, and I always try to restrict myself to one in any of these pieces.  This, moreover, is a ukulele cover, something I prefer also to avoid. On the positive, there are worse singers of this song; believe me, I’ve checked. To give some positive, I can find a vague hint of an under-rehearsed Lucy Kaplansky in this rendition, at least as far as I got into it. If you like this, there are nearly 30 other equivalent performances by Lia Lio, all in the same chair and same clothes, although I cannot vouch if they all took place within a single sitting.

Hot Chocolate–Green Shirt (Elvis Costello & the Attractions cover)

Hot Chocolate were huge in the U.K., famously managing a chart hit at least once every year between 1970 and 1984. The shaved bald pate of singer Erroll Brown, then an unusual sight, became a staple on UK TV show Top of the Pops. I had no idea they might have covered as subversive a song as “Green Shirt,” the lyrics scarcely a love song, and they handle it OK–that is, if you like your Hot Chocolate sweet and sickly. But it sets the mind a-ticking, wondering what other treasures hide below the steaming surface. A bit of research reveals they also covered the Police on the same 1980 LP, with a an odd “Walking On the Moon.” “Green Shirt” is better.

Linda Ronstadt–Party Girl (Elvis Costello & the Attractions cover)

It’s fair to say that Ms. Ronstadt, as she emerged from the Laurel Canyonesque typecasting that had described her earlier career, was/is a fan of Costello; “Party Girl” is one of three of his covers on Mad Love, from 1980. And however disparaging Costello himself had been about her earlier take on “Alison,” he has subsequently acknowledged her place in the pantheon with a good deal more grace and humility. The lyrics seem to fit the sort of image many might have had of her, including Elvis; no small irony that she should have used one of his own songs to provide a riposte. The setting is a little more nuanced than the approach of the Attractions, and it fits together arguably a little better than their original.

The King Syndicate–Goon Squad (Elvis Costello & the Attractions cover)

This “Goon Squad” cover reminds me so much of Joe Jackson at the start of his career, all of a similar snarl and venom to Costello, when each were staking a claim in the market of angry young men in ties. It is, however, the King Syndicate, featuring one Owen Hodgson, who even has a look of Jackson about him. It seems he is a stalwart of a Facebook group called Theme Music, who take their passion of cover versions beyond mere critique and into hi-tech and hi-res productions, sound and vision, of favorite songs. He also has a YouTube channel, under the name Thinking Aloud, which runs amok with covers of all shades, generally pretty faithful, if all through his own lens.

Fastball–Busy Bodies (Elvis Costello & the Attractions cover)

There’s a surprisingly slim library of tribute albums dedicated to E.C; this “Busy Bodies” cover comes from one of them, 2004’s Almost You: the Songs of Elvis Costello. Fastball, a platinum selling band from Austin I have never heard of, is one of many contributors to the record whom I also don’t recognize. I was loving the jangly power pop of the opening, hoping that would last at the forefront, disappointed as the organ swooped in and occupied the pole position. Apart from the guitar, this version adds little and is largely just a faithful copy, but it’s OK. I note the parent album did not feature in our recent list of the best.

The House Band–Sunday’s Best (Elvis Costello & the Attractions cover)

At last, something beyond the world of rock and pop, from an erstwhile supergroup of British folk. The House Band features Ged Foley’s warm tones and guitar framed by, predominantly, the melodeon of Chris Parkinson. Even as they utilize an angular arrangement similar to the original “Sunday Best,” it is the organic nature of the whole that transforms. Active between the mid-80s and 2001, an evolving line-up centered around this duo, and a mix of quirky covers are scattered across their output, with songs by as varied as Abdullah Ibrahim (“Dollar Brand”) and Eddy Grant, acting as contrast and ballast against the largely traditional based material.

Jonathan Roberts–Moods For Moderns (Elvis Costello & the Attractions cover)

A Cover Me debut from this artist, prepared upon my request as a challenge, and risen to with aplomb. Under the radar to most, Jonathan Roberts has been plowing his long-term semi-pro addiction to the guitar for longer than he’d want you to know. His cover of “Moods for Moderns” aims to rediscover the rock and roll within the new wave sheen of Costello’s version. I think it succeeds and then some. To my ears it carries the flavor of Nick Lowe’s work with Brinsley Schwarz or Rockpile, which, given Lowe produced Armed Forces, seems somehow apt. In truth, it casts a whole new light on the song, one of the weaker songs on the album. The harmonica is a masterstroke and begs the question whether we should expect an album’s worth. (I promised him a link, btw, which is fair enough.)

Erich Sellheim–Chemistry Class (Elvis Costello & the Attractions cover)

Well, this is different. Here we have “Chemistry Class” translated into German, “Chemieunterricht,” and sung with much felt enthusiasm and passion–actually, shhh, somewhat more exciting than the slight sterility of the original. Sellheim is clearly a fan of the man, and we have actually featured him here previously, twice, in fact, in each of the earlier Full Albums of Costello’s output. (Here’s a link to My Aim Is True for proof.) But he is not content to stick just to Costello, with a YouTube presence of well over 200 videos, wherein he translates the works of XTC as well. Most of them also include the faithful Hanno Janssen on drums, Sellheim singing and playing all else. Wunderbar.

Todd Rundgren–Two Little Hitlers (Elvis Costello & the Attractions cover)

Todd isn’t the first person you would expect to find covering Costello, but here’s his all-over-the-place take on “Two Little Hitlers.” You’ll hear a hint of reggae in the organ, accentuated by flickers of brass gradually infiltrating the mix. The parent album, 1989’s Nearly Human, was Rundgren’s first for a while, recorded live in the studio with a band rather than the usual schtick of him overdubbing the lot himself. Which is odd, as that is how it sounds, with too much kitchen sink in my opinion. Strangely, it was not included in the vinyl version, just the CD (remember bonus tracks?).

Lucy Kaplansky–(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding?” (Brinsley Schwarz cover)

Final track and the first being spoilt with choice. Written by producer Nick Lowe, it initially sneaked out, in the U.K., as the b-side of Lowe’s 1978 single, “American Squirm,” and, rather than Costello, was credited to Nick Lowe and his Sound. No doubt as to who it was singing, though, and it was hurriedly tacked on to the U.S. release of Armed Forces. Covered by everyone and their dog, the song has walked through this wicked world and met up here with Lucy Kaplansky. (This is the same Lucy Kaplansky I mentioned above, lest there be any unfamiliarity with her work.) It’s a brave attempt to give the song a bluegrass/hillbilly jazz sheen; whether it succeeds or not will depend on your tastes. Kaplansky has a fine body of work, both solo and in the trio Cry Cry Cry, with Dar Williams and Richard Shindell. She can write her own stuff, and does it well, but most of her records have covers, like this, that cause you to rethink the original.

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