As a ska DJ you’d be forgiven for assuming the Two-Tone 7” rarity, I Can’t Stand up from Falling Down, would be my introduction Elvis Costello & The Attractions. Rather embarrassingly, the one-shot liable recording which was given away at his gigs was not, rather the one true comedic genius of Hi-Di-Hi was. Sue Pollard stood flustered but ever-spontaneous with odd shoes behind the stage at Live Aid. Interviewer Mark Ellen asked her if she’d seen Elvis. An expression of shock overcome her, as Ellen expanded with the performers surname. “Oh, I thought you meant Presley, I was gonna say, poor thing, resurrected!”
I found this amusing a kid, as most of her witticisms were. Yet, I didn’t know much about the man in question. Like a DC Thompson artist unable to sign his comic pages, I never knew who did R. White’s Secret Lemonade Drinker Elvis impersonation; Costello’s father, and young Elvis, or then plain ol’ Declan, as backing. Was it this which swayed Stiff Records’ Jake Riviera to suggest he used Elvis as a forename?
However it did come to pass, if his renowned namesake is the king of rock n roll, Costello surpassed him in at least one avenue, diversity. Beginnings as a new wave punk Buddy Holly, Costello stretched beyond pigeonholes and always strived to cross the streams, and country music was a mainstay. Take the derisive warning on his 1981 country covers album Almost Blue; “this album contains country and western music, and may cause offence to narrow minded listeners!”
As new wave as you thought he was, an American country ensemble residing in England, Clover, would attend his backing for the debut album. Members later joined Huey Lewis and the News and the Doobie Brothers. Costello would go onto record many a country cover and use the genre as a blueprint for his own song writing. His obvious love of country is bought to an apex by a new release today, 6th November, from My Darling Clementine, of which Royal College of Music dropout, Steve Nieve joins with familiar husband-wife pairing, Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish to vividly reimagine twelve hidden gems from the Elvis Costello repertoire, in the duet’s definitive, dark country-soul fashion.
But for want of prior knowledge of the songs, note, Steve Nieve dropped out of college in 1977, to join the Attractions as pianist. The man was there when Costello released his first major hit single, “Watching the Detectives.” Why is he called Nieve, pronounced naïve? You’d have to have asked Ian Dury.
While the first single released from Country Darkness, The Crooked Line is taken from the album, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, Costello’s later folksy-era, the adaption is surprisingly electric and upbeat, a tantalising precedent for an album typically leaning more toward country, even if the track being revised is not originally inspired from Costello’s country passion. This intricate then is interesting, while My Clementine has judiciously measured the retrospective repertoire, taken on hidden gems throughout Costello’s career, including tracks from his Imposters and Attractions eras, solo efforts and his collaborations with the likes of Paul McCartney and Emmylou Harris, it doesn’t mean all tracks were selected because of their closeness to country.
While his Heart Shaped Bruise from the Imposters album Delivery Man, for example, is acoustic goodness the country tinge is slight, the Darling Clementine version leans heavier on the genre, is more gothic americana, outlaw folk. Whereas That Day is Done almost rings gospel on the original, there’s something definitively Nashville about this version. In such, you need not be a fan of Elvis Costello to relish the country splendour on offer here, rather a Tammy Wynette devotee.
The album is sublime, without doubt, akin to an artist stripping back to accentuate the attention of song-writing ability, the nimble expertise of narrative which flows through a country legend, like Wynette’s or Parton’s, can be seen, full-colour within Costello’s writing. Yet through the eyes of another, there is even more scope for alternative angles and interpretation.
“Making these recordings took me back to my 19-year-old-self,” Michael Weston King explained, “out buying a copy of ‘Almost Blue’ during my lunch hour. It was Elvis and Steve’s making of that album which set me, and I think many others of my generation, off along a country path to discover more about this form of music previously only viewed with suspicion. For me it became something of a pilgrimage, a vocation, even a ‘career.’ So, this feels like the completing of a musical circle of sorts; to record a selection of some of mine and Lou’s favourite EC country songs with the added thrill of performing them with Steve”.
The award-winning partnership of King and the awe-inspiring vocals of his wife, Lou Dalgleish is prevalent, they’ve scored four albums previously, co- written a stage play/audio book with best-selling crime writer Mark Billingham, played over 800 shows worldwide, and collaborated with a wide variety of major artists including Graham Parker, Kinky Friedman, The Brodsky Quartet, and Jim Lauderdale. Their harmonies reflect the strength of this résumé, making this a win-win for country music fans and Elvis Costello fans alike.
The Country Darkness album compiles all the tracks featured across a set of three EPs, released over the last year, with a bonus track called Powerless, of which I can find no reference to the original. To web-search Elvis Costello Powerless is to find recent articles plugging his latest album, in which he offers “I was trying to make a rock’n’roll sound that wasn’t like anything I’d done before,” and comments how he was “powerless” to prevent his young children viewing the horrors of news broadcasts. Yet they paint the picture of the once new wave, angry performer who rampaged through his youth, sardonically mocking imperialistic politicians, despotic fascists and firing expressive verses at punk fashionistas, as a now suave jazz and country music raconteur. But here with My Darling Clementine, the country side to Costello is bought to a western American mountainy summit.
My Darling Clementine’s Country Darkness will be available on CD and digitally on 6th November 2020, via Fretsore Records. https://mydarlingclementinemusic.co.uk/store/