Really Blue
May 11, 2014 11:23 AM   Subscribe

In 1981, the South Bank Show followed Elvis Costello to Nashville for the making of his latest album. The result: "The Making Of Almost Blue"

Almost Blue:

Why Don't You Love Me Like You Used To Do? by Hank Williams
Elvis Costello's version
Sweet Dreams by Don Gibson, sung by Patsy Cline
Elvis Costello's version
Success by Johnny Mullins, sung by Loretta Lynn
I'm Your Toy (Hot Burrito #1) by Gram Parsons
Elvis Costello's version
Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down by Merle Haggard
Elvis Costello's version
Brown to Blue by George Jones
Elvis Costello's version
A Good Year for the Roses by Jerry Chestnut (sung by George Jones)
Elvis Costello's version
Sittin and Thinkin by Charlie Rich
Elvis Costello's version
Color of the Blues by Lawton Wiliams, sung by George Jones
Elvis Costello's version
Too Far Gone by Billy Sherrill, sung by Emmylou Harris
Honey Hush by Big Joe Turner
How Much I've Lied by Gram Parsons
Elvis Costello's version

Bonus: Elvis Costello & Chet Baker
posted by chavenet (10 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
It's nice that there's documentary evidence of the point at which Elvis Costello went from being Billy Joel in glasses to being Barry Manilow on quaaludes.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:45 PM on May 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

I like Elvis Costello but this always seemed like a weird project to me. He's a great songwriter but never had a great natural singing voice, and especially not compared to the people he's covering here. I mean, some of his arrangements are nice, but it's almost like the point of the album was just to make a statement about how much he liked country music, or point his fans in the direction of these country classics (did it?) rather than to stand on its own merits.

With my copy there's a bonus CD with him and George Jones singing together on "Stranger in the House" which I think E.C. wrote...? That's my favorite track on the album I think.

Idea for an FP: one-off country songs written by rock artists. "Tougher than the Rest" by Bruce Springsteen, "Blind Love" by Tom Waits, "Hung Up on You" by Fountains of Wayne ...often written in semi-parody mode I suspect, but they usually turn out to be pretty good.
posted by neat graffitist at 1:20 PM on May 11, 2014

neat graffitist: I think I remember reading Elvis actually wrote "Stranger in the House" for George Jones specifically.

I've always had a love/hate relationship with Elvis Costello. His first three albums are some of my favorite albums of all time. Then he put out a couple more that sounded good enough I guess, but they're lacking whatever it was made the first few so great. Then as he continued it became increasingly more hit or miss to the point where I don't even bother with the new stuff anymore.
posted by fishmasta at 1:40 PM on May 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Elvis Costello has ultimately never gotten past his own facility with songwriting to get to whatever might be beyond that facility. He's so good at generating phrases and musical postures that that's all he does. When punk was lighting a rocket in his ass he could generate momentum enough to feel like he was saying something. Once the punk part drained away it was all vitriol and posture and curlicues and dead ends.
posted by argybarg at 2:07 PM on May 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Idea for an FP: one-off country songs written by rock artists. "Tougher than the Rest" by Bruce Springsteen, "Blind Love" by Tom Waits, "Hung Up on You" by Fountains of Wayne ...often written in semi-parody mode I suspect, but they usually turn out to be pretty good.
"Joy" by Harry Nilsson, which RCA released as a country single under the name Buck Earl.
posted by pxe2000 at 2:41 PM on May 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is a beautiful album, one of my favorites. I bought it new, in the cut-out bins, a year or so after it was released. To the "roots rock" crowd of early/mid '80s California and beyond, it was something regularly heard at houses and parties.

In more than a few people who listened, it sent us looking for the original Gram Parsons' records—both long out of print by that point and years away from re-issue.

E.C.'s phrasing and delivery on a lot of these slower countrypolitan ballads is a thing to behold. I've come to consider his versions of "Success," "Good Year For the Roses" and "How Much I Lied" as the definitive versions, and at least in the case of the first two, I knew those songs pretty well growing up in the South with C&W-loving parents.

The stuff that doesn't work for me on this record is the stuff Billy Sherrill tried to punk up. But there are only a couple of tracks like that, and years ago I deleted them from iTunes. Anyway, it wasn't that much of a stretch for Costello, considering he loved this stuff from the beginning and showed early mastery of the heartbroken & bitter country ballad ("Allison," etc.).
posted by kenlayne at 4:01 PM on May 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

I mis-read this as "South Park" followed Elvis and I got unbelievably excited.
posted by kinetic at 3:39 AM on May 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

I remember some interview where EC said he heard Hank Williams would walk over to people and play songs to them "like doing a card trick". And that he thought that was pretty f'ing cool.

Insight into songwriting from Elvis Costello is usually pretty interesting, which is more or less what I've always considered this album to be. In contrast with The Juliet Letters or others that were truer experiments.
posted by petebest at 4:20 AM on May 12, 2014

Thanks. I'll comment before I re-watch later - when I saw this doc first, (having played the grooves off of Get Happy) I thought Costello had lost his mind. I'd been brought up with parents playing C&W constantly and, being of A Certain Age, hated it on principle. I'd been quite happy when Costello (and the Attractions) had drawn from the Motown/R&B well but I figured that in taking on the C&W canon he'd either committed career suicide, sold out, or gone completely bonkers.

The South Bank Show doc seemed unreal to a 19 year old postpunk fan. Was he taking the piss or just desperate? But barely 6 months later, following a bit of romantic disappointment, I embraced this record like a long-lost pet and grew to love it. None of his contemporaries had this kind of emotional range - nowhere near.

Plus, seconding kenlayne and no doubt many others, it started me searching for the roots, a bit of Burritos here, a side of later Byrds there, and straight on to Gram.

It's a lovely album. Get Happy is still my favourite (unpopular opinion I know) but I already knew about the "source material" that had informed it. Almost Blue took the scales off my ears, shut my mouth and opened my mind. That's important. Thanks again.
posted by El Brendano at 12:49 PM on May 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

I've never heard a better version of How Much I Lied than Elvis Costello on Almost Blue. Followed with a lick of salt and bite of lemon-- Telling Me Lies by Linda Thompson.

Truth is over-rated; it's lying that inspires great music.
posted by ohshenandoah at 6:02 PM on May 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

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