July 24, 2010

Playlist Week of 7-24-2010

* Arte dei Suonatori: [Telemann], Cieszyn, Poland 1-15-08 (FM CDR)
* J.S. Bach: The Works for Lute (Kirchhoff) (Sony Classical 2CD)
* Sun Ra: South Street Seaport Museum, New York, NY 7-09-72 (AUD CDR)
* Sun Ra: Life is Splendid (Ann Arbor 9-09-72) (Total Energy CD)
* Sun Ra: Rehearsal 12/74 (AUD 2CDR)
* Trevor Dunn’s Trio Convulsant: Hemlock Tavern, San Francisco, CA 10-14-04 (AUD CDR)
* Mary Halvorson’s Crackleknob: The Local 269, New York, NY 6-21-10 (AUD CDR)
* Mary Halvorson’s Crackleknob: Barb├ęs, New York, NY 6-30-10 (AUD CDR)
* Kip Hanrahan: Piazza della Riforma, Lugano, Switzerland 7-03-10 (FM CDR)
* Rolling Stones: Genuine Black Box 1961-1974 (Scorpio/boot 6CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Carousel Ballroom, San Francisco, CA 3-29-68 (SBD CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Fox Theatre, Atlanta, GA 4-11-78 (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Boston Garden, Boston, MA 9-20-91 (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Boston Garden, Boston, MA 9-21-91 (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Boston Garden, Boston, MA 9-22-91 (SBD 3CDR)
* Chicago: VI (Columbia LP)
* Yes: Close to the Edge (Expanded Edition) (Atlantic/Rhino CD)
* Genesis: Duke (Atlantic LP)
* Genesis: Abacab (Atlantic LP)
* Genesis: Genesis (Atlantic LP)
* Elvis Costello & The Attractions: Almost Blue (Columbia LP)
* Elvis Costello & The Attractions: Imperial Bedroom (Columbia LP)
* Elvis Costello & The Attractions: Punch the Clock (Columbia LP)
* Elvis Costello & The Attractions: Goodbye Cruel World (Columbia LP)
* Elvis Costello: King of America (Columbia LP)
* Echo & The Bunnymen: Ocean Rain (Sire/Warner Bros. LP)
* Tears For Fears: Songs from the Big Chair (Mercury LP)
* Wilco: (the album) (Nonesuch CD)
* Robert Pollard: The Crawling Distance (GBV, Inc. CD)
* Robert Pollard: Moses On a Snail (GBV, Inc. CD)
* Tortoise: TNT (Thrill Jockey CD)
* Animal Collective: “Grass” (Fat Cat CDEP+DVD)
* Animal Collective: Strawberry Jam (Domino CD)
* Animal Collective: “Peacebone” (Domino CDEP)
* Animal Collective: “Water Curses” (Domino CDEP)
* Panda Bear: “I’m Not”/”Comfy in Nautica” (Uunited Acoustic CD single)
* Panda Bear: Person Pitch (Paw Tracks CD)


Is Imperial Bedroom the best album Elvis Costello ever made? Is it one of the best albums of all time? Maybe. It is certainly the most deliriously ambitious record Costello had released up to that point and it had a curiously huge impact on me when it debuted in July 1982. I still have the original LP after all these years, as shown in the photograph. I still adore this album.

After five increasingly polished LPs produced by Nick Lowe, Costello was by the early Eighties well established as some sort of New Wave icon; but his rapidly maturing song-craft combined with the natural eclecticism of The Attractions was beginning to belie such easy categorization. 1981’s Almost Blue seemed like an almost deliberate affront to lazy critics and fans alike with its collection of classic country-and-western songs produced by Nashville legend, Billy Sherrill. It’s a pleasant listen, but sounded more restless than self-assured.

For Imperial Bedroom Costello pulled out all the stops, booking a leisurely twelve weeks at London’s AIR Studios with (co)production to be handled by none other than Geoff Emerick, known for his spectacular engineering feats on many of the Beatles most experimental tracks. While not originally conceived as some sort of orchestral pop masterpiece, Imperial Bedroom was to become an un-ironic homage to Sixties pop production styles, from the Beatles and the Beach Boys to the cha-cha, Burt Bacharach and beyond.

After a brief unsuccessful stab at recording Costello’s new songs live in the studio in the usual fashion, each song began to dictate its own perfectly exquisite orchestration, evolving into a fifty-minute sequence of elaborate vignettes that somehow coheres. In the process, the prodigiously talented keyboardist Steve Nieve revealed himself to also be a top-notch arranger, even conducting the 40-piece orchestra assembled for the album’s centerpiece, “…And In Every Home.” Costello described the atmosphere in the studio as one of delightful self-indulgence:

If we needed a harpsichord or Mellotron, we hired one; if we required a 12-string acoustic guitar, marimba, or accordion, we went out and bought one; if we heard strings and trumpet and horns, we booked the musicians and Steve began writing out the parts.


Another feature of the recording was the use of additional instruments which we attempted to play ourselves. Some were layered in ways that might have been bewildering without Geoff's expertise. On other occasions instruments were adapted in unlikely ways; a twelve-string Martin guitar was "bugged" and run through a Hammond Leslie speaker on "Shabby Doll", while a National Steel Dobro was used for the sitar-like line in the introduction of "Pidgin English" [which also includes a brass and woodwind section arranged by Nieve] while a Danelectro Sitar-Guitar was used like an electric harp on "Human Hands". A beautiful harpsichord was hired in for "You Little Fool", although its effect was subverted in the closing choruses when the part was redubbed using the backwards-tape technique. Most ridiculous was the accordion part on "Long Honeymoon" which it took three of us to play; Steve at the Keyboard (which we lay flat across the table) Bruce to work the bellows and myself to wrestle with the beast and stop it from crawling onto the studio floor.

Costello’s dour and virtuosic wordplay eloquently expresses the heartache and frustration of lost love, making this one of the great break-up albums of all time. Yet the baroque productions elevate them into a kind of pop-art song cycle that feels ultimately uplifting (making this one of the great break-up albums of all time). Moreover, Costello’s fecund melodicism is matched with his most supple vocal styling, fearlessly executing ultra-wide-interval leaps infused with a jazzy harmonic sensibility on nearly every song, even the more overtly rockish numbers like “Beyond Belief”, “Man Out of Time”, and “You Little Fool.” Still it’s the overtly maudlin ballads that make this album so incredibly affecting. Indeed, “Almost Blue” has become a veritable torch-song standard:

It was written in imitation of the Brown/Henderson song “The Thrill Is Gone”. I had become obsessed with the Chet Baker recording of that tune, firstly the trumpet instrumental and, later, the vocal take. It is probably the most faithful likeness to the model of any of my songs of this time. It has become my most covered composition.

Two years later, when Chet Baker came into the studio to play the trumpet solo on our recording of “Shipbuilding”, I gave him a copy of this album and suggested that he might listen to one track in particular. Although we met up again at his subsequent London engagements and even worked together on one occasion, he never mentioned the record again. It wasn’t until several months after his death that I found out that he had been including “Almost Blue” in his later sets and that it would feature in photographer Bruce Weber’s documentary on Baker, Let’s Get Lost. Chet’s performance of the song, before an indifferent film festival crowd, makes for very uncomfortable viewing, but there is a wonderful version, featuring an extended trumpet solo, on a late “live” album from Japan. He finally seemed to get what I hoped he would recognize in the composition.

The album concludes with “Town Cryer,” another self-pitying lament, this time leavened by a slick Philly-soul-style brass & string section (arranged by Nieve). Profound sadness is once again made bearable by the artist's boundlessly exuberant creativity. A perfect ending to a perfect record. Predictably, Imperial Bedroom yielded no hit singles. Even so, it went top-30 and has been in print (in several different CD formats) ever since. For me, this is the one Elvis Costello album I will always return to. Beyond the hyper-luxurious production, it is the songs themselves that are so compelling. This is conslusively demonstrated by this intimate acoustic performance of “Town Cryer” (thanks for the link, Liz!).

1 comment:

Sam said...

Wonderful assessment of "Imperial bedroom," Rodger! It's funny, I never got into it the way I always felt like I should have--I think I still prefer "This Year's Model" and "Armed Forces" for sheer energy. I actually had "IB" in the car for the trip and just didn't get to it, so I'll definitely play it on the way back!

Here's my lists for last week:

Playlist 2010-07-26

*Charlie Christian: Selected Broadcasts and Jam Sessions, disc 4
*John Coltrane Quintet: 1966-07-17 Kobe, Japan (CDR)
*Crackleknob: 2010-06-30 Brooklyn (CDR)
*Miles Davis: 1970-10-15 Fillmore West (CDR)
*Duke Ellington: The Private Collection, vol. 5: The Suites
*Duke Ellington: Ellington Indigos
*Esquivel: Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music
*Mahavishnu Orchestra: 1973-01-27 Buffalo, NY (CDR)
*George Russell Sextet: 1964-07-03 Newport Jazz Festival (streaming)
*Sun Ra & His Solar Myth Arkestra: Life is Splendid
*Cecil Taylor Quartet: 1998-12-04 Yoshi's, Oakland (CDR) discs 1 & 2
*Henry Threadgill Very Very Circus: 1992-01-30 London (CDR)
*Henry Threadgill & Zooid: 2010-02-11 Jazz Gallery, NYC (CDR) disc 1
*Henry Threadgill & Zooid: 2010-02-12 Jazz Gallery, NYC (CDR) disc 1
*Various artists: The Original Jazz Masters (selections)
*Kevin Ayers: The BBC Sessions 1970-1976
*Dr. Dog: Shame, Shame
*Grateful Dead: Hundred Year Hall, disc 2
*Grateful Dead: 1972-08-21 Berkeley Community Theater (CDR)
*Grateful Dead: 1972-08-24 Berkeley Community Theater (CDR)
*Guided By Voices: Human Amusements at Hourly Rates
*High Llamas: Hawaii
*Sean O'Hagan: High Llamas
*Rolling Stones: Hits and Stuff (CDR compilation) vol. 1 & 2
*Various artists: The King R&B Box Set, disc 2
*XTC: Drums and Wires

Reading log 2010-07-19

*Palmer, Robert. Blues and Chaos (finished)
*Morgan, Richard K. Woken Furies (started)
*Theobald, Lewis. Double Falsehood (Arden Shakespeare ed.) (in progress)
*Heatley, David. My Brain is Hanging Upside Down (in progress)
*Larson, Gary. The Complete Far Side (in progress)