by carl wilson

Bloody Momofuku Asshole

Elvis-Costello.jpg stellahurt.jpgmarthawainwright.jpg

That title's misleading - this post isn't really railing at anybody - but I couldn't resist combining the names of Elvis Costello's latest album and an earlier Martha Wainwright EP, as I have reviews of both their terrific new records today in The Globe and Mail.

Supplemental notes: Momofuku finds Costello (hanging out with Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley as well as his own old mates in the Imposters) in his most incisive mood in a long while, much more of a return to form to my ears than When I Was Cruel or Brutal Youth (though they're both good records) - though much more a return to the form of, say, Spike or Blood and Chocolate than to his first four or five records, a do-no-wrong streak people ought to stop measuring him by. Bob Dylan's made some great records since 1970 but it verges on impossible for him to touch Highway 61 and Blonde on Blonde, because that was all about how Dylan's energy and creativity fit into and altered the spirit of its time. You can't assess stuff like that "purely" as songs and performances, aside from context and pure newness, and the same goes for albums like My Aim Is True and Armed Forces, I'd say.

As a side note, because Elvis is among other things one of the biggest music nerds ever to become a pop star (sorta) himself, there's a fascinating historical background to one of the songs on Momofuku, called "Stella Hurt." (You can stream it, with the rest of the album, on the Lost Highway site.) Rather than simply one of Costello's fictional or composite characters (like "Veronica" in his hit with Paul McCartney), Stella Hurt was a real person, the final married name of a forgotten jazz singer of the 1930s and 1940s once known as Teddy Grace - she's in the centre photo above, and you can read her rather sad tale in this article from The Oxford American by Derek Jenkins (though its real hero is New York jazz/blues-collector David McCain, who tracked down the former singer in a nursing home just months before she died and got her story). I have little doubt that Costello read the OA story and his wordplay-loving mind could not resist the aptness of Stella's fall from Grace to Hurt.

The other review is of Martha Wainwright's new, second (but it might as well be first) album, I Know You're Married, But I've Got Feelings Too, whose title (like that of her Bloody Motherfucking Asshole EP) encapsulates its dominantly rueful mood - but not nearly all of its moods, as this is a beautifully rounded record. My review might be a bit overboard in its enthusiasm, but it's such a pleasure to find a performer I first heard a decade ago singing her collegiate compositions on guitar in little Montreal cafes finally making the record she's long had in her, one with the potential to win thousands, even millions of hearts, that I don't feel the slightest apologetic about shouting it to the skies.

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, June 02 at 10:24 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (12)



I just wanted to jump in and say that Brutal Youth was less a "return to form" than it was finding a form that was comfortable in the time it came out. It's one of the classic records of the early nineties- his attempts at "alternative" elements (heavy research into the Lemonheads is pretty evident) work much better than REM's (many of which seem hopelessly dated now), which is really something for someone so intrinsically linked to the eighties!

Posted by Matt Collins on June 5, 2008 2:35 PM



"Someone once argued that Costello's big coup was to combine Lennon & McCartney in one songwriter."

One of the Gallagher's (Noel, I think) said the same about Cobain. I don't think it's particularly insightful in either case, but as praise, it's as high as it gets, obviously.

Posted by KS on June 4, 2008 9:58 PM



RIP Bo Diddley

Posted by marco on June 4, 2008 4:54 PM



Ok, maybe I should credit Lennon & McCartney on the wordplay level too - you could argue Costello based his whole career on combining pub rock, soul and "Norwegian Wood." Someone once argued that Costello's big coup was to combine Lennon & McCartney in one songwriter.

Posted by zoilus on June 3, 2008 6:31 PM



Jody, my favourite Costello album lyrically (and one of my faves in every way) might be King of America, the only time that he really struck a successful balance between his quickshooter style and the more ornate, literaryish mode. I agree he's really, really inconsistent, and that remains true on Momfuku (but the melodies and energy make up for it).

Still, even when he's clumsy I think he's gutsy, that he goes for uncomfortable emotional zones and contradictions pretty instinctively. And on that early run of on-fire albums, even the off lines didn't matter because the songs were such powerful little machines on all these interacting levels - the momentum of the music was tied to the way he made such dense, intense use of internal rhyme, slant rhyme, alliteration, pun etc on a very Cole Porter kind of level - did rock even have any precedent for that? (Ok, yeah, Chuck Berry. And maybe Paul Simon?)

John, your points are all solid and suggestive but I don't want to exceed appropriate comment-thread levels of annotation.

Posted by zoilus on June 3, 2008 6:10 PM



No, I know what you mean, Carl, even though I didn't experience '60s Dylan at the time and only experienced the Beatles as a toddler in a room with a radio on (which Dylan wasn't on) -- which, believe it or not, is a real experience! When I bought Beatles records as a teenager, I knew the songs, even ones that I hadn't heard on the radio since I was 3 or 4 years old. It was uncanny.

But can any pop music mean what the Beatles, Elvis Presley, Dylan, the Sex Pistols, James Brown, the Supremes, or Public Enemy meant? It feels that pop music's profile is a lot lower in general today.

It seems to me that criticism and Zeitgeist-speculating are different -- though related -- endeavors. Some of the songs on "Chaos and Creation" mean more to me than just about any of Macca's songs with the Beatles (though not Lennon's), for a variety of reasons, which I could write criticism about. Comparing the general cultural/musical impacts of the different pieces is a different activity, and doesn't necessarily have anything to do with criticism.

What's the cultural/musical impact of Mannheim Steamroller or Celine Dion?

Jody, the Costello/Bacharach collab. illustrated Costello's strengths and weaknesses. Not one lyric was near to being as good as any of Hal David's famous ones. (Lately I'm partial to his lyric for "The Blob.") But Costello's singing was terrific.

Posted by john on June 3, 2008 5:02 PM



I should probably add that there are loads of Costello lyrics I love, from the albums up thru Imperial Bedroom especially. (There are lots of songs on those records that crystallize his failings as a lyricist too.) He really dropped off after that, although "I Want You" is probably his best song - for once he just said it pretty straight in that one. Almost straight, but not quite.

Personally I'd rate My Aim Is True *by far* his best album lyrically - the songs are witty and affecting and ambiguous without being pretentious. Seems to me he got convinced he was a literary genius somewhere along the way. Became incapable of saying anything in a straightforward manner, and started writing lines like "Oh what a tragic waste of brutal youth/Strip and polish this unvarnished truth." And let's not even get into his overwrought protest/social satire songs, and all those vampiric cocktail waitresses and other film noir clichés he's so fond of. Oy.

Posted by Jody on June 3, 2008 4:01 PM



Carl, you've made me want to give Momofuku a chance. I'm-a gonna download it. Costello is probably the musician about whom I have the most complicated feelings. He was my godhead when I was in my teens and early 20s. But I've grown ambivilent about him. I think he's an amazing melodist, and possibly the most overrated lyricist in rock history - a fussy, pretentious cliché-monger. I'd be curious to hear your thoughts EC's lyrics, if you can distill them to a message board soundbite.

Posted by Jody on June 3, 2008 3:39 PM



I agree that this pattern doesn't hold across the arts and across all musical genres, at all. I think it has something to do specifically with the postwar notion of singer-songwriters as channelers of zeitgeist - a perception that people doing it may or may not share, but that shapes the reception. I can't imagine thinking that a recent McCartney solo record was as good as a Beatles album, not because it can't be, but because it can't mean what the Beatles albums meant. Same goes for Blood on the Tracks and Desire - they're fantastic collections of songs but they don't seem like the kinds of inexplicable miracles that Dylan's mid-sixties records kinda do.

Not that I really want to endorse the notion that works of art are inexplicable miracles - but there are factors that can make them feel that way.

Posted by zoilus on June 3, 2008 2:56 PM



Interesting observation comparing mid-'60s Dylan to late-'70s Costello. I'd put the first 5 Talking Heads albums in a similar category.

I don't entirely agree, though, that rockstars can never hit it so solidly again. The best songs on "Blood on the Tracks" and "Desire" are as powerful as anything Dylan did earlier, if not as world-changingly influential. It's a minority opinion, but I'd put my favorite songs on "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard" are up there with the Beatles.

Ellington at 70 was as wild and powerful as he was at his early peak at 28, so people can do it in music. Rilke & Yeats's late poems are tougher and more beautiful than their early, so people can do it in poetry. Irving Berlin had a solid 40-year run, so people can do it in songwriting. Muddy Waters was as powerful a singer in 1975 as he was in 1945, so people can do it as singers. The singer-songwriter combination appears to be harder to pull off for decades; I don't know why.

Posted by john on June 3, 2008 1:33 PM



This link should take you to a Martha Wainwright concert from DC recorded last year. She was playing in support of Neko Case and the banter alone is priceless.

Posted by kevin on June 3, 2008 11:20 AM



FYI, the character in "Veronica" wasn't fictional or composite. The song is about his grandmother who suffered from Alzheimer's. Nice mention about "Stella Hurt" though. I just happened to read the story behind the song yesterday. Then I listened to the song four times in a row.

Posted by dave on June 3, 2008 11:17 AM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson