Song Of The Day 3: Elvis Costello – Baby Plays Around

My love for Elvis Costello knows no bounds, indeed, as recently reprinted on this very blog, my first review to appear in real print was a page of positive comment about 2003’s ‘North’, his almost jazzy ballads album. It’s very good, by the way, despite what some would have you believe. I’m a big fan of his spikey indie from the early days, I’m hugely taken with his erudite singer-songwriter phase that took him through most of the Eighties and Nineties and I’m really rather fond of his growing-old-not-so-graciously Noughties rock albums also. Last year’s ‘Secret, Profane And Sugarcane’ is still taking its time to win me over but it’ll probably get there soon enough, the vinyl pressing playing its part as always.

One of my absolute favourite Costello tracks is, perhaps, not the most obvious choice. ‘Spike’ is an album which divided critics and continues to be seen either as a wonderful collection of quirky songs or as a slightly self-indulgent attempt at a concept album of sorts. I just like it ‘cos it sounds good. Sorry about that. In particular, the song ‘Baby Plays Around’, which is one of the most charmingly beautiful things he’s ever written. There’s not much going on, but the vocal performance is simply perfect and the structure of the song captures the simplicity of pop done well almost effortlessly. Indeed, time for me to put across one of my bonkers theories. I’ve always though that a power-pop boy band could do an amazing energetic, hi-tempo version of this track and storm the charts. Imagine a Busted-type band, McFly, for example, doing this song in that sort of fashion and tell me you don’t think it would work. See, you can’t! I said can’t.

Anyway, rather than talk about hypothetical cover versions you can’t actually hear, I should just mention that this song also gave rise to a beautiful cover version by A Girl Called Eddy, whose stunning 2004 debut was very nearly one of the all important 40, and as she doesn’t look like releasing anything else anytime soon, we should cherish whatever we can get. Click below to launch this cover in not especially great quality on VerTube. Enjoy both versions, they’re ace.

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Where it all began

The latest dip into my oh-so-very self indulgent archives goes right back to the start. As I was lugging bags of shopping out of the boot, the phone rang and I answered, suitably flustered, with a curt, ‘Hello?’, not recognising the number. I was greeted with, “Hi, it’s Paul Du Noyer at Word magazine.” Being more than a little bit of a music press geek, this was a fairly unbelievable moment. My little piece on some Elvis Costello reissues that I’d emailed off a week or so previous had not only been received and read by Paul Du Noyer, but he actually liked it! And here he was, offering me the chance to do a page review of his new one, with the reissues rolled in for good measure. It’s one of those moments that I’ll always remember and it was an instant shot of euphoria that’s hard to top. Looking back at it now, its not too bad. The bus analogy could be worse and you can tell I used to absorb anything and everything I read  – I still regularly read six titles – but I reckon it’s not a bad debut!

Feel free to tell me otherwise!

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ELVIS COSTELLO

North (and re-issues of Get Happy! Trust and Punch The Clock)

Deutsche Grammophon

The odds of hearing Elvis Costello singing; “I want to kiss you in a rush, and whisper things to make you blush” were never very high. It is not what you would expect of him. Which is probably why he’s gone and done it. One suspects he’s not keen on the idea of being predictable. His last album, released on a hip-hop label was a College Chart Number One in America. Other recent work included providing the music for a ballet production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and recording the old Chaplin tune ‘Smile’ for a Japanese detective show. The man simply, and rather charmingly, cannot be pigeonholed. Speaking in WORD some months back, Costello told how he felt his last release, ‘When I Was Cruel’, “didn’t have a tremendous amount of heart” to it. By contrast his new album wears its heart ever so firmly on its sleeve.

Those of us willing to invest in Costello’s eclecticism have long since given up trying to guess what will be heard after pressing play on each new release. Pooling classical and jazz influences, ‘North’ plots an emotional journey that one would be churlish to pretend does not begin with his split from Cait O’Riordan in the autumn of last year. A sparse sombre tone pervades the initial tracks and you can’t help but wonder if loss and pain will loom like storm clouds over the entire album.

The mood lightens as the album progresses with a certain air of chronological autobiography. On ‘Still’, The Brodsky Quartet are finally reunited with Costello, a decade on from the glorious ‘Juliet Letters’, and their appearance appears to bring about a more engaging performance style that propels the record to its conclusion. ‘Let Me Tell You About Her’ is virtually a “conventional” love song, one of Costello’s first. You can almost picture Costello gliding over the keys in the corner of a smoky jazz bar, while the muted trumpet finale surely begs for a black and white film for it to soundtrack. It’s gorgeous, with the vocal making full use of Costello’s baritone while the lyrics are immensely heartfelt if unexpectedly, but utterly forgivably, a tad clumsy.

‘North’ comes to its close with ‘I’m In The Mood Again’, thus completing our hero’s journey towards his new-found happiness with Diana Krall. The melody reflects the lighter mood that has replaced the foreboding initial textures, and contentment is as prominent as it can be on an album bearing the legend ‘Elvis Costello’. In the sleeve notes of the remastered ‘Punch The Clock’ Costello describes much of his oeuvre as “allergic to the happy ending”, but, ever one to contradict, ‘North’ appears more than willing to buck such a trend.

As well as ‘Punch The Clock’, ‘Get Happy!’ and ‘Trust’ have also just re-emerged as part of the ongoing reissue programme. It’s hard to pick fault with the whole collection let alone these three, which between them contain over seventy bonus tracks; a live version of ‘High Fidelity’ aping the style of Bowie’s ‘Station To Station’ and practically the entire ‘Punch The Clock’ album in its uncluttered demo form amongst the highlights.

Costello’s accompanying essays are almost worth the admission fee alone, with recollections as wide-ranging as mistakenly adding echo to Chet Baker’s trumpet part on ‘Shipbuilding’ and the magical imagery conjured by the phrase “a rather lifeless lesbian discotheque”, which was apparently the only nearby entertainment during the recording of ‘Get Happy!’. The remastered sound is warm and forgiving, even with parts of ‘Punch The Clock’, and the bonus discs are genuine delights in every instance.

It’s hard to imagine ‘North’ selling as well as these earlier albums did, and I can’t imagine Costello is that bothered. This is another of those albums he’s wanted to make, another expression of his desire to try everything and a record that will no doubt incite as much criticism from some as it will praise from others. It’s not a classic, but it’s a lovingly crafted record that you will keep returning to, slowly allowing its subtle charms to seep in.

Speaking to the BBC a few years ago, Elvis said: “if you don’t like this one, maybe you’ll like the next one. They’re not all a series of red buses that are all the same”. Listening to the shift from ‘When I Was Cruel’ to ‘North’, quite what sort of buses the record companies will be repackaging twenty years from now, God only knows.

Originally published in Word Magazine, 2003