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A Sound Rotation

Songs we want to see on Elvis Costello’s Spectacular Spinning Songbook

By Steven Rosen · May 11th, 2011 · Music

When Elvis Costello and the Imposters take the Taft Theatre stage Monday night, they’ll be toting — and touting — the Spectacular Spinning Songbook, a carnival-size, Roulette Wheel-like prop listing the titles of 40 of the hundreds of songs Costello has recorded and performed in his 30-plus years in music. Hits, obscurities, covers — anything is game.

Audience members take the stage one at a time, give a spin and the band plays whatever song the wheel randomly selects. Costello last did this type of tour in 1986, so there is a lot of dramatic tension in how the game-show aspect of the concert will work this time.

But we’re not satisfied with the outside chance of being at the Taft and being called up to select one song, by total chance. We’d like to suggest a dozen in advance for Elvis to put up on the big board. We are not above jumping on stage and stopping the wheel mid-spin if any of these songs have a spot on the wheel.

“All This Useless Beauty,” from 1996’s All This Useless Beauty. This torch song was written for (and first recorded by) one of the purest singers alive, British Folk chanteuse June Tabor. It’s a good example of how careful and thoughtful Costello can be when writing for someone he really respects.

“Clowntime Is Over,” from 1980’s Get Happy! Not that we would want a show that’s too political, but it would be great to hear Costello do this and dedicate it to that jackass Donald Trump.

“I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself,” from 1978’s Stiffs Live. When Costello covered this 1960s Bacharach/David tune on a multi-artist release from Stiff (a hip British label), it was a forgotten one. The original version, by Tommy Hunt, was never a hit. But not only did Costello help revive it, he also revealed that he — the Angry Young Man — loved classic, soulful Pop. He later collaborated with Bacharach on one of his best albums, 1998’s Painted from Memory.

“I Want You,” from 1986’s Blood & Chocolate. Maybe Costello’s greatest tour de force, this starts as a deceptively pretty country ballad, then turns into a slowly building, scary stalker’s taunt.

It’s always been one of his showcase live songs, where he emotionally pushes it well past the album track’s limit. It never gets tiresome.

“Man Out of Time,” from 1982’s Imperial Bedroom. This Year’s Model, King of America, Spike, Painted from Memory and When I Was Cruel offer stiff competition, but for our money, Bedroom is Costello’s single greatest work. The endless tunefulness of the songs, plus the clever arrangements and harmonies, heralded him as Britain’s finest musical export since Lennon and McCartney. It’d be great to hear the whole album live, but this stately rocker (with more than a touch of Blonde on Blonde Dylan) will do.

“My Three Sons,” from 2008’s Momofuko. The meaning of Elvis’ songs can be cryptic when he piles on the words and images. But this mid-tempo tune, sung with pride, emotion and eloquence, is about exactly what it says — he’s honored to have two young twins with wife Diana Krall and an older child who’s now a young man.

“Peace In Our Time,” from 1984’s Goodbye Cruel World. The lyrical density occasionally gets the better of this song’s battle with coherence, but the mid-tempo ballad — seemingly inspired by the Falklands War — has the perplexed anguish of Dylan’s “With God On Our Side.”

“Pills and Soap,” from 1983’s Punch the Clock. Supposedly, Costello wrote this dark and foreboding song, with its slightly baroque keyboard arrangement, after watching a documentary on animal slaughter. But it also functions as a plea — a cry against the costs and losses of war. It comes from the same album that featured the great antiwar protest song, “Shipbuilding.”

“Psycho,” from the 1994 reissue of 1981’s Almost Blue, So deep is Costello’s knowledge of Pop music that he resurrected this amazingly bizarre Country oddity by Leon Payne, inspired by Hitchcock’s hit horror movie, and performed it live in the early 1980s.

“Radio, Radio,” from 1978’s This Year’s Model. This song, as primal and immediate as Punk got, still stings. You can’t listen to commercial Rock radio without realizing that the line, “Radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools/Tryin’ to anesthetize the way that you feel” is more true today than ever.

“So Like Candy” from 1991’s Mighty Like a Rose. This track is a good example of Costello’s fruitful late-1980s collaboration with Paul McCartney, which also resulted in songs on the fine McCartney album, Flowers in the Dirt. Here, Costello gives a jagged edge to McCartney’s feel for beautiful melody, with lyrics that are neither trite nor perplexing.

“Tear Off Your Own Head (It’s a Doll Revolution),” from 2002’s When I Was Cruel. After spending a few years on collaborations that explored different forms of music, Costello came roaring back with an exciting, hard-charging album that showed he had command of Rock any time he wanted to exercise it. This song, the single, offered up his trademark anger but also a slight but irresistible 1960s-era BritPop feel.

ELVIS COSTELLO AND THE IMPOSTERS perform at the Taft Theatre Monday. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.



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