Saturday, May 28, 2011

Elvis Costello's 15 Greatest Cover Songs

Elvis Costello has covered songs since the beginning of his career, and has held forth on stage, to interviewers, on numerous tribute albums, and in liner notes on his favorite artists and their work with respect and enthusiasm (but for an unfortunate drunken night in Columbus, Ohio in 1979).  From early interviews to his numerous collaborations in the 1990s' and 2000's to Spectacle, his recent, short-lived quasi talk show on Sundance, Costello has championed other musicians' careers, and has worked with many songwriters, in many arrangements both live and in the studio, over the decades.  As a great songwriter, Costello naturally filters others' work through his style and gifts when he composes originals; I thought I'd take a look at his many cover songs, and try and judge his greatest fifteen.

As in my choices for his 15 greatest original songs, certain principles governed the process:

1) I ignored decades' worth of bootleg studio and live tracks, instead focusing on Costello's official cannon (including, happily, his many CD reissues which have generously gathered stray tracks.  A quick search online reveals tons of covers recorded over the decades yet to see Costello's "canonical blessing"; I hope that he eventually releases, among others, his version of "Penny Lane," performed last year at the White House in front of Paul McCartney);

2)  for the sake of my own sanity, and because of the size of my admittedly thin collection, I ignored cover songs that appear only on live videos and DVDs; I also ignored unauthorized live clips on YouTube;

3) I ignored Costello's unfortunate tendency toward "medley covers";

4) I was especially interested in how in others' songs Costello balances his sometimes-fatal love for wordplay with someone else's lyrics, and how he navigates another's melody, especially if the melody stretches Costello's conventional style and range.

I wonder, how does someone else's song become Costello's.


The list, in order of recording date:

1) I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself (Live Stiffs, 1978)

2) (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding? (Armed Forces, 1979)

3) My Funny Valentine (b-side, 1979)

4) So Young (unreleased/Out Of Our Idiot, 1987)

5) Psycho (b-side, 1981)

6) Withered And Died (b-side, 1984 [The Imposter])

7) Walking On Thin Ice (Every Man Has A Woman, 1984)

8) What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend (unreleased/Goodbye Cruel World, reissue 2004)

9) Get Yourself Another Fool (12" b-side, 1986)

10) God Only Knows (The Juliet Letters, reissue 2006)

11) Step Inside Love (CD single, 1994)

12) Pouring Water on a Drowning Man (Kojak Variety, 1995)

13) Brilliant Disguise (CD single, 1996)

14) Changing Partners (Secret, Profane and Sugarcane, 2009)

15) Femme Fatale (Secret, Profane and Sugarcane, 2009)


I trusted my gut in selecting, and strove to discern quality over uniqueness or novelty of song selection.  I learned that Costello's greatest cover songs are not necessarily his greatest songs; from this list, only the storming "Peace, Love, and Understanding" and psycho "Psycho" (for which commentary is superfluous) would have competed for my selection of his greatest songs.

But these are all great performances nonetheless, Costello getting inside songs not his own and discovering that he lives among them, too.  He's having fun, also, with the ska groove on "So Young," nudging and winking his way through Jerry Dammers' funny "What I Love Most About You Is Your Girlfriend," and carefully navigating McCartney's "Step Inside Love," a challenging melody for him to sing.  It's revealing to hear a very young Attractions assist Costello in his early love for Burt Bacharach and Hal David on Live Stiffs, just as it is to hear Costello alone in the studio a year later tackle, and own, Rodgers' and Hart's "My Funny Valentine."  It's nice to hear Costello approach Bing Crosby's arrangement of "Changing Partners" and Lou Reed's "Femme Fatale" on the same album with the same bluegrass musicians, from the ridiculous to the sublime; his singing on the former benefits from the lower timbre accompanying his aging, as he sings with a weariness and melancholy that I don't think he could've pulled off twenty years ago.  The other great melody that Costello sings here is Brian Wilson's "God Only Knows" with the Brodsky Quartet; I might get some blowback for this choice and, truth be told, I hesitated, as overall it's a bit mannered, but Costello's soaring vocal clinched it for me, further proof not only of his maturing vocal strengths but of his fearlessness in attempting a difficult — and in this case, iconic — melody.  Yoko One's "Walking On Thin Ice" is very cool, the Attractions nailing a funky New Orleans vibe while Costello offers an odd but effective vocal alternating between the top and bottom of his register.  Drew Baker's and Danny McCormick's "Pouring Water On A Drowning Man," Richard Thompson's "Withered and Died," and Bruce Springsteen's "Brilliant Disguise" are fantastic: sparse and powerful, simple arrangements that discourage vocal fussiness; "Brilliant Disguise" is one of my favorite Costello performances of recent years, a bone-simple acoustic reading with Costello singing in a plain style.

Speaking of favorites, "Get Yourself Another Fool" is, I disclose, close to me for personal reasons: it was the song playing over and over on my Walkman in the summer of 1988 as I staggered through London's bookstore district after a girl who may or may not have existed.  Foolish, indeed.  Costello's performance voices something private and personal, but I'm convinced that it's pretty great on its own without my melodrama.


Of course, I reserve the right to change the list next week, or tomorrow.  Close calls: Pomus and Shuman's "The World Of Broken Hearts" (b-side, 1982), John Hiatt's "The Room Nobody Lives In" (b-side, 1989), Allen Toussaint's "Who's Gonna Help Brother Get Further?" from The River In Reverse (2006), and "Ring Of Fire" from 2007's Anchored In Love: A Tribute To June Carter Cash.  Others...?


JP McD said...

It will take a while to digest, but over all, I'm happy with your list (except "Psycho"). I was so afraid you'd include "Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" which is not only a bad Elvis track, it's my least favorite cover of any song by anybody. It was the first of EC tracks that I actively disliked.

Joe Bonomo said...

Pat, I felt, and feel, the same way you do about Misunderstood. Awful. Why no love for Psycho?

fjb said...

I'd take "I Stand Accused" and the non-LP single of Smokey's "From Head to Toe" over a couple of those, but I'm not sure which.

Chalkie Davies said...

I was at Psycho, recorded in Aberdeen in front of a bunch of Oil Rig Workers, it remains my favorite...