Wednesday, July 29, 2009

July 29: Elvis Costello, "This Year's Model"

Artist: Elvis Costello
Album: This Year's Model
Year: 1978
Label: Columbia

One would be hard pressed to find two more polarizing musical genres than punk and new wave. From the sound, to the vibe, to the fanbase, they are nearly completely on opposite ends of the spectrum. During the late 1970's and early 1980's, clashes between the fans were commonplace, with many such incidents leaving many people hospitalized. Somehow finding a way to bridge these two sounds together, Elvis Costello had been one of the most unique and influential songs over the past thirty years. With his new wave, retro sound, and more urgency and energy than most punk bands, Elvis Costello remains in a class all his own. With more than thirty albums to his name, he continues to make music like nobody else, and remains a majority influence to this day. Though his first dozen albums are all absolutely brilliant, it is his second "formal" studio recording, 1978's This Year's Model, that stands above the rest and remains his finest album, as well as one of the greatest records ever.

Many people who see the album are under the impression that the cover has been misprinted. On the U.K. release (pictured above), the cover appears to be off-center, with the "E" in Elvis cut off, and the printers' color bar appearing on the right side. However, this, along with the printed statement: "Special pressing No. 003. Ring 434 32 32. Ask for Moira for your prize" were intentional, and became the trademark of artist Barney Bubbles. The U.S. version of the release has a different photograph from the same session, and on the inside, it reads "Costello Records" instead of "Columbia Records." This Year's Model gets all of the "punk cred" that it needs in the form of producer Nick Lowe. Having worked with everyone from The Damned to The Ramones to Johnny Cash, few producers can claim as much influence on the punk sound as Lowe. This Year's Model represents the second in a string of five straight Costello albums that Lowe would produce; and the albums without Lowe have a far different sound.

Perhaps the most famous song from This Year's Model is the hit single, "Radio Radio." Though it does not appear on the original U.K. release, it became the albums' thirteenth song when the record was released in the U.S. By the time This Year's Model was released in the U.S., the single had already made waves due to Costello's notorious performance on Saturday Night Live in December of 1977. Serving as a last minute replacement for the Sex Pistols, Columbia Records insisted that Costello play "Less Than Zero" in an effort to promote the release of his first two records in the U.S. For many reasons, including the fact that "Less Than Zero" is, in fact, a song written in response to fascist British politician Oswald Mosley, Costello felt the song was out of place, and wanted to play "Radio Radio." Columbia Records kept the pressure on, and Costello agreed to play "Less Than Zero." A few bars into the live performance, Costello stopped the song, and after saying, "I'm sorry, ladies and gentlemen, there's no reason to do this song here..." the band launched into a blistering version of "Radio Radio." The event lives in the lore of the show, and on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the event, Costello "interrupted" a performance by the Beastie Boys on SNL, and they all launched into "Radio Radio."

After disbanding his original backing band, Clover, Elvis Costello put together a new backing group, and called them The Attractions. This Year's Model represents the first studio recording of the "new" group. The music, all written by Costello, walks a strange line between the intensity and simplicity of punk, yet contains the heavy keyboards and "retro" feel of the new wave scene. At times almost sounding (and of course, looking) like a more modern Buddy Holly, Costello's music finds a way to appeal to nearly every audience. Steve Nieve gives the music much of its character, with his piano and keyboard work bringing the music a perfect sonic juxtaposition between retro and modern. Nieve's fantastic ability is highlighted on, "Living In Paradise," as he mixes quirky progressions with enchanting chords and perfectly, strange fills throughout. Drummer Pete Thomas brings a swinging, jazzy style to the band, yet his speed is equal to that of any other punk-rooted drummer. Bringing with him one of the most innovative and speedy bass playing styles ever, Bruce Thomas (no relation to Pete) still stands as one of the best bassists in history. His ability to convey the songs' emotion, with amazing, melodic precision, as well as fly all over the fret board is no more clear than his phenomenal work on the song, "Lipstick Vogue." Helping to turn the compositions of Elvis Costello into legendary musical masterpieces, there have been few backing bands with the talent level and diversity of The Attractions, and they are one of the key aspects that makes This Year's Model Costello's finest album.

With his unrelenting attitude, amazing voice, and fantastically clever lyrics, there are truly few artists who can share a stage with Elvis Costello. His voice is simply perfect, a stunning combination of vocal range and a snearing attitude that is unmistakably anti-everything. Again, it is Costello's ability to find the "middle ground" between punk chaos and beautiful musicality that makes his music so extraordinarily unique. This Year's Model features some of Costello's harshest, most unrelenting lyrics, and they often border on outright "mean." It is again the polarity between his lyrical content and his amazing voice and retro music that makes him such an amazing talent. Truth be told, Elvis Costello has an unrivaled talent when it comes to disguising his words of rebellion and sexual commentary. Much of this is due to the fact that, when it comes down to it, Costello's music and singing are irresistibly catchy, and they don't "sound" as "dangerous" as a majority of punk bands of the era. Yet the fact remains that songs like "(I Don't Want to Go To) Chelsea" and "Lipstick Vogue" are filled with sexually sinister themes, and the fact that they come across largely undetected is a testament to Costello's brilliance.

Though he didn't look the part, and his music was a far cry from the stereotypical sound, there can be little argument that the music of Elvis Costello isn't punk rock. Taking the retro style that would define "new wave" music and having a visual appearance strikingly similar to Buddy Holly, the brilliance of Elvis Costello lies within the juxtapositions that fill his music. Finding himself with a band that is truly "rock and roll," the music moves wildly at a breathtaking pace, and This Year's Model often feels as if it is moving so fast that it might fall apart at any moment. This sense of urgency is a key aspect in making the record so phenomenal, and even on the albums' slower songs, the mood never ltes up. With his trademark singing style, and even more viscous lyrics than on his debut album, Elvis Costello uses this record to cement his place as one of the most important figures in the history of music. Simply put, nobody has ever made music like you'll find on the album, and it is an album that can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of musical preference. Elvis Costello's sophomore effort, 1978's This Year's Model, finds him at the peak of his talent, and having found the perfect band in The Attractions, the album is nothing short of musical perfection.

Standout tracks: "No Action," "Lip Service" and "Radio Radio."

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